Two Terms of Hope and Change Comes to an End

Exactly eight years ago today, November 9th, I arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan.  It was the first day of my first trip to a country where I have worked as an activist and ‘humanitarian’ ever since.  Exactly eight years today.  I flew to Afghanistan the day of the elections in 2008, and  I watched anxiously as some of the early results came in during my layover in Dubai.  I arrived in Kabul, bleary eyed and jet lagged, to hear the words, “Hello, Shannon. Welcome to Kabul.  Barack Obama is your new President.”

I nearly hugged the slight, bespectacled, Afghan man who spoke those words.  Najibullah was holding a sign that read “Shanon Galpin” in the meeting area of the old Kabul terminal.  A hug, of course, would have been the worst possible thing I could have done in a crowd of Afghan men for Najibullah’s reputation, and my own.  I restrained myself, instead looked over at my friend and photographer, Tony Di Zinno, and grinned.  I couldn’t hug him in public either.  He grinned back and said something about ‘auspicious signs’.   This was everything.  I had arrived in Afghanistan to start my work at the same time that Americans historically voted for our first black President.  A man whose campaign was based on ‘Hope and Change’.  A man, who over the next eight years would exemplify the best of humanity in the highest political office. But for now, in this moment, I simply agreed with Tony’s assessment of an auspicious omen in which to begin my journey down a path that was also firmly rooted in the belief that hope leads to change,  if backed up with a boatload of grit and determination.

Now let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  I am NOT comparing myself to President Obama.  I am simply reflecting that the time period that bookends his two terms of office is now also bookending my own work in Afghanistan.  Because after eight years, multiple humanitarian projects and collaboration, soul-crushing fundraising and outreach, a groundbreaking street art installation, two books, a shit ton of corruption, two recent brain injuries, and a historic series of mountain bike rides, I am ready to ‘leave office’.  I cannot envision a third term, even though I am free to take one and desperately wish Obama could too.

I have been struggling with this for the past year.  I was admitted to the ICU in 2015 with a blood clot in my brain.  I worked through recovery, supported my ongoing work with the Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team from my home in Colorado until I was allowed to go back there in May.  Yet while I was there, everything I had been working towards for the past three and a half years with the team was crumbling.  Corruption, dysfunction, and increased security risks were overwhelming and disheartening.  Amidst several suicide bombings in the capital, increased control by the Taliban, and the emergence of ISIS in two provinces, I saw a country reeling with an exodus of NGO’s, media, aid workers, and Afghan citizens and a dysfunction stemming from the power sharing agreement that has led to effectively two heads of state; Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah.  This has rippled down the food chain in bizarre but not unexpected ways.  I met colleagues that talked about meeting with two governors in a province, two Ministers for the same office.  There were two official Afghan Olympic Committees operating (not legal by IOC standards).  There were also two Afghan Cycling Federations (also not legal by UCI standards).  There was corruption so blatant and vile that I spoke openly about it with the New York Times for a piece about the women’s sports federations and corruption.  This increased the risk against me personally, calling people out for illegal and corrupt behavior rarely wins you friends.  All this while I was emerging from eight months of brain recovery.  I came home and wanted nothing more than a lobotomy.

Six days later, my mother passed away.  Two months later and I was back in the ICU with a second brain injury.

I am now nine weeks out of the ICU and freshly back from unplanned trips to Denver and NYC to organize two Pussy Grabs Back Protests in the wake of Trump’s continued brush aside of rape culture in our public discourse.  I wrote blogs about rape culture and locker room talk, and engaged on a soulless social media experiment on trolling. I’m tired. I don’t have a third term in me.  I have reflected on what I have accomplished in eight years ‘of office’.  I see what Obama has accomplished in his. He wins. No question.

But eight years is an unusual timeframe to reflect upon my work in Afghanistan and what’s ahead. Because after eight hard, dangerous, corruption filled years in Afghanistan, I still believe hope and change are possible.  I’ve seen it.  I’ve seen it over shared meals with female members of Parliament discussing their role in the future of their country.  I’ve seen it on the streets when women marched against street harassment and gender violence, despite the rocks that were thrown at them.  I’ve seen it with the emergence of Afghanistan’s street art scene, giving voice to the youth that believe their have a voice.  I’ve witnessed it when the first girls to ever ride bikes in Afghanistan conquered the last taboo and inspired other girls to grab their freedom.

Here in the US, I’ve witnessed it with President Obama supporting gay marriage and repealing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ putting LGBT rights front and center with our nation’s idea of equality. His stimulus plan prevented a second great depression and turned our economy around. He signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Passed universal health care reform. He ended the war in Iraq and drew down in Afghanistan. He expanded wilderness protection, and supported the Paris Agreements on climate change.  I could go on, but you can google his long list of progressive accomplishments.  He did this despite an intransigent and obstructionist GOP and amidst constant attacks on his legitimacy as President, most of it coming from our now President Elect Trump.

More than that what he accomplished… he inspired our country.  He showed that this country is indeed open for all who dare to dream, that America was no longer a country solely controlled by white men.  He showed that while racism still exists, a black man with a Muslim sounding name could become President.  That he could weather the continuous onslaught of racial slurs and birther conspiracies with dignity.  He and Michelle have brought grace, humor, joy, and some killer dance moves into the office.

He did all this with hope and change.  Not because hoping for something gets shit down, but because if you dare to believe that hope is stronger than fear, that equality and justice is possible, and then you fight for it with your actions, change will occur.  The fight is worth fighting and that fight doesn’t happen without hope.  Hope that we can address the wrongs of those that came before us. Hope that the future can be remade in the image of our diversity.  Hope that equality and social justice will prevail and build a foundation for future generations over a history of racism and sexism.   I believe in hope, and I believe in Obama.

Today I woke to the news that the nightmare we all watched unfold last night was indeed our new reality; Donald Trump is our new President Elect.  Eight years of progressive policy and a scandal free Presidency by our first black President ends with our country electing a racist, sexist, bigot with no governing or military experience?  How the fuck did this happen?

I listened to Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, and then Obama’s speech 30 minutes later on NPR as I drove to the airport this morning. Both were dignified, respectful, and called on us all to take the high ground and peacefully begin the transition of power to the democratically elected President Elect.  Yet there is a subtle call to action underneath the peacemaking; justice and equality must not be pushed aside, no matter who is the leader of our country.  We must unite in keen opposition, activism, and protest to ensure that the fight for  e quality and justice does not get sidelined.  That women’s rights, LGBT rights, civil rights, indigenous rights, and environmental rights do not get trampled or ignored.  This is still a fight worth fighting, we cannot abandon hope.

For the past eight years, I’ve fought for women’s rights and girls’ empowerment in a war zone.  I’ve fought to build awareness of gender violence at home and abroad.  The more I work in Afghanistan, the more I see the work we need to do back home.  We are more similar than we care to admit.  Our country was founded on the words of equality and justice.  Many of us would argue that words do not make it so.  Women, particularly women of color, black men, native americans, hispanics, and specifically targeted in this election cycle as our latest ‘demon’, Muslims, are all too aware that equality and justice are not evenly dispensed, despite what the words on our Bill of Rights may state as our founding ideals.  My work was in a country repeatedly ranked the worst country in the world to be a woman.  What does it say about our country when I realize that I need to work here more than ‘over there’.

White men, and far too many white women, voted for white supremacy, sexual assault, ignorance, and racism yesterday.  I heard family members talk about a return to the ‘way things were’ when they were growing up.  Yes, for many white middle class American men and women, the 1950’s were probably idyllic.  You were born in a period of prosperity and white privilege.  Congratulations white men in America, you won the human lottery.  White men wrote the rules that this country was founded on, they oppressed and subjugated other men to build this country while maintaining a status quo that kept women and people of color as second class citizens, and they have proven that they won’t give that power up easily.  Not to a black man, no matter how good a leader he proves himself to be.  Not to a woman, no matter how qualified she is.  Instead…we elect a man whose best known for beauty pageants, dodgy real estate deals, bankruptcies, and a reality tv show.  But he’s white, and he’ll protect you from the bogeyman that he, himself, along with the media circus, created.

Two terms. Eight years.  I’m exhausted.  I’m sure everyone is.  The progress made in Afghanistan is at risk of a corrupt government and increased violence.  The progress made here in the United States is at risk under a Trump presidency and Republican led Senate.  He has campaigned on the platform of rolling back much of Obama’s key legislation. He is a serial liar. He has threatened to jail his opponent.  The future of the Supreme Court is on the line.  The future of my daughter is on the line.  My 11-year-old went to bed truly fearful of a Trump win.  She has watched the debates.  She understands at age eleven that debate is about respect and discourse; interrupting is rude and bullying is wrong.  She has heard him in his own words talk about grabbing women by the pussy, and she understands that the principals of consent are key to women’s rights and to her safety.   She went to bed after she wrote a list of all the uncounted states left and their electoral votes, believing there was still a chance of a Clinton win.  I dreaded waking her up this morning for school. As I climbed into bed with her to give her a cuddle, she immediately asked me sleepily, “who won?”  To which I replied, “Trump did, but it’s going to be okay.”  Because I want to believe it will be.  Over breakfast we talked about democratic process and the words we use going forward.  We can be disappointed, sad, and even angry, but we must follow Obama’s lead and take the high road.  We talked about bullying, sexism, and racism.  But how do you explain to a sixth grader that a bully, a man that demeans women, that calls Mexicans rapists (she goes to a bi-lingual school with 50% hispanics) can be elected to lead our country?  You can’t.  You just have to hug it out and continue to talk through it, openly and honestly.

Many of us have said publicly that no matter who wins we have exposed the sexism and racism fault lines that exist in this country.  We knew they were there, but they are deeper than many of us realized.  So no matter who won, we knew that today, November 9th, we had to continue to work for social justice.  Women’s rights, civil rights, LGBT rights, and indigenous rights.  The work is right here in our backyard.

So today, as I sit on the airplane, insulated from my twitter feed and the media’s breakdown of this election result, I allow myself to be sad. I allow myself to feel depressed.  I need the quiet and the dark.  I need to be cut off from my phone.  I need to mourn the fact that the country I thought I had a voice in, the country that sets itself up as the standard bearer for equality, is much further behind than I thought.  Eight years of an Obama presidency made me believe that we were on the right path, occasionally stumbling, but generally headed forward in the right direction as a nation.  It was something we could continue to build on.

Now I feel different.  Racial inequity, sexism, misogyny, gender violence, rampant homophobia, and religious intolerance are our country’s reality.  Unless we all get back to work, building coalitions, and fighting the good fight together, arm in arm.  So let’s hug it out.  Let’s take a moment, or two, or maybe even three, to hibernate and grieve the state of our nation.  Then let’s dig deep, and unite together to continue the fight.  Because sexism and racism are not measured by election cycles.  We have work to do.  We have to protect Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood, and women’s right to choose.  We have to fight DAPL.  We have to make sure the Paris Agreement on climate change isn’t ignored.  We have to continue the civil rights movement that didn’t end with Martin Luther King Jr. or with Barack Obama, and so we must support Black Lives Matter.  We must protest.  We must organize.  We must believe in hope and work for change.  Our voices need to be louder than ever before, because our voices need to drown out the dying gasp of white male privilege.

So yeah, fuck these guys.  Let’s get back to work.  See you on the front line.  Midterms are in two years.  Let’s make some noise.



An Open Letter to My Father and Other Republican Family Members

So, here we are.  As we all know from experience, family and politics never mix.  Many a family dinner or special occasion has been ruined over political discussions that pit uncles against nieces, fathers against daughters, and brothers against sisters.  While I’ve never actually thrown my Thanksgiving dinner across the table and screamed, “What the hell is wrong with you people?” It’s only because I love turkey and cherry pie too much to waste it on an family argument.  And because I love them.

I grew up with my favorite aunt and uncle trying to indoctrinate me into the so called intelligence and viewpoints of Rush Limbaugh.  When I was 30 and pregnant with my daughter, another aunt quipped, “Well, when you’re young we’re all liberal, but when you mature you’ll become a Republican.”

Silence is Complicity.

My father is also a Republican.  Albeit it one that I view curiously from the perspective in the book What’s the Matter with Kansas?  He’s Republican based on the idea of what being a Republican is, not where the Republican party is now.  He gets his news from mainstream network news and is unbending in his political bias.  When politics is brought up between us, it’s a firestorm in under 5 minutes.  So we have learned to avoid the topic as much as possible when we see each other and try to stick to ‘safe’ subjects.  He knows I’m a women’s rights activist, he supports me and my sister’s dreams and believes we deserve the same as any son he could have had.

Another family member commented on a recent Facebook post I had made that she had voted Democrat in every election previously but this would be her first voting Republican.  Wait a minute, you voted for Obama? Twice? But now you’re vote for Trump?  Where are you getting your information from that you would change your vote to a misogynistic, racist, lying, blowhard whose never served in public office?  A man who proudly flaunts not paying the taxes he owes, a man who debases and insults women repeatedly, double downs on his flagrant lies, and who has done next to zero for real charity and service towards others.  A man who is frighteningly ignorant of the Constitution and the Declaration Independence and the moral compass that this country is founded on.

You don’t like HRC? I get it.  You don’t have to like her. That’s not the issue. Is she flawed? Yes. So am I, and so are you.  Has she made mistakes? Yes.  So have I and so have you.  Is she qualified?  More than any other candidate in recent history I can name. You still don’t have to like her, but you should respect her.

Over the years I’ve watched as we slide further apart on the politic spectrum; my father, aunts and uncles, and some cousins into the red and me firmly, proudly liberal in shades of blue.  We don’t talk about it too much, or at least we don’t engage each other in fierce debate, because we are family and feelings get hurt, and rifts arise.  Yet if we can’t debate our family, the people that love us best and unconditionally, about what is best for our country, what does that say about the bonds between us?  Discourse, debate, and differences of opinion shouldn’t be limited to a debate stage or protests.  Debating is about hashing out the truth, taking a stand, and engaging in intelligent discourse about what our core values are and what we want for our family, our community, our country, and the world at large?  Why are we too scared to debate the ones we love?

My core values?  Simply: I believe in equality for EVERYONE, not just people that look like me.  I believe in justice for EVERYONE no matter their nationality.  Skin color, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, culture, language, or economic standing are not acceptable reasons to discriminate.  Whatever rights you have as a white man in this country, which is still where the power of this country rests, are the rights that every man, woman, and child deserve – no qualifications.  Everything else comes underneath and we can debate the ‘how, when, and where’ but we cannot debate the ‘what’.

Silence is complicity.

The fact of the matter is, if you vote for Trump you do not have the same values I do.  And by values, I don’t mean menu list of specifics of gay marriage, single payer health care, taxes, abortions, etc.  I simply mean the core values that I strive to instill in my daughter; respect, justice, compassion, and equality.

I see a lot of talk about making American great again.  What isn’t great about this country is that I, as a woman, still have to fight for my rights in society.  Equal pay, family planning, birth control are all issues men control in order to ‘protect’ us, while at the same gender violence is at an all time high, and women are shamed, blamed, and ignored when we are victimized.  And I’m a lucky one because I’m white.  If I were a black woman or hispanic, or an immigrant?  My rights drastically diminish even further.  America has racism, sexism, poverty, violence, and economic gap that is now so wide between the 1% and the rest of us that the middle ground is disappearing.  We need a leader that champions equality for all, not one who fat shames women, believes in stop and frisk, and peddles fear for votes.  He is the lowest of the low, a liar and a fraud, and we must keep the high ground.

So here’s my voice.  If you vote for Trump, you are promoting a future country based on racism, sexism, ignorance, bullying, and profit uber alles.  A man who promotes anger and finger pointing instead of solutions and collaboration.  I don’t need to embed links to all the articles that back this up as fact.  You don’t need them, and you wouldn’t believe them if I did.  Just listen to him, he proudly spews all of that on a daily basis without a filter.  Today it’s former Miss Universe putting on too much weight and Twitter rants about a sex tape. Yesterday

I don’t care about your politics. You have a right as an American to align conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, Green or Libertarian, and to mix and match based on what candidates you feel represent your values.  But if your values in any way restrict the rights of others based on their skin color, religion, gender, or sexuality – than you don’t want to ‘make American great’ again.  You want to make America YOU.  White. Christian. Male. You are not America. America is all of us.  Believing that diversity makes us stronger, that equality is a human right for all, and that justice is blind.

This election is now beyond politics. This election is about humanity, intelligence, tolerance, and diplomacy. The Presidency of the United States needs to be held by a person that holds up the best of our country as an example for the world to see, that swallows ego and pride in the face of justice and diplomacy.  If you are voting for Trump, you are voting for misogny, racism, ignorance and intolerance. Many of you are simply voting against a candidate which is very different than voting for the future of our country. There has never been a time that I would say, if you vote for a Republican then we can’t be friends, or that our family relationships are at risk… because its never been a choice between a extremely qualified, intelligent, dedicated, yet flawed candidate that has made mistakes, and an ignorant, sexist, bullying blowhard that couldn’t give two shits about poverty, racism, equality, justice, and diplomacy before.

We can not be silent about this. Politics IS personal, but THIS is about a much more than politics and we cannot sit by and watch this like a reality tv show.  We must debate, talk, and be open about this if we are to get the leader we deserve. This is not entertainment, this is our future.  


Waiting for Change in Dubai…

Dubai Airport Terminal 3

Dubai Airport Terminal 3

Flying to Dubai on United Emirites reminds me of my first flight overseas nearly 15 years ago… Less cattle drive than the transit experience of US travel, and more comfort, with the added improvement of UAE technology. Touch screen televisions hold over 40 movies to choose from, and playback at will. Think Tivo at 35,000 feet. Its a good airline that makes British Airways and Lufthansa look average. Dinner included to my delight spicy lamb curry, with REAL silverware, not a plastic spork in sight. Of course what they spend on silverware and truly delicious food they save by not serving free alcohol. That in itself sets this flight apart from my inaugural (and fairly tipsy) one fifteen years prior.

Bloodshot eyes try to focus after sacrificing one of my contacts to 16 hours of dry cabin air and no sleep. Even without the alcohol, I’m feeling more than a little wrecked, as I enter Dubai’s airport for the first time, but awed by the no-expense-spared approach to the airport’s Terminal 3. Brightly colored lights flash across the walls, vaulted ceilings are supported by glowing columns, with lines of palm trees throughout the walk to the baggage claim.  It has the feel of the Vegas strip, minus the strippers and alcohol.

Sheik-clad officials, customs, bags, and we’re ready to check our bags in for the early morning flight to Kabul in 9 hours. But where is our airline counter? Emerites counters abound, but our connecting flight is on Kam Air and there were no signs to other terminals or other airlines. After asking several seemingly helpful agents with large “ASK ME” stickers on their lapels, as well as a couple customer service reps behind counters, we had several false starts. The trick it seems is not finding someone to ask, but someone who will admit they do not, in fact, know the answer to your question. So we did a mini tour of Terminal 3 (where we arrived), took the shuttle and explored Terminal 1, and finally found two people with the SAME answer that sent us to the taxi stand to find Terminal 2, a full twenty minutes drive away from the other two. Third terminal’s a charm and we had a winner!

The unfortunate discovery came in the form of an empty hall with two televisions, a few tables and chairs, and not much else. Not the ideal place to kill 9 hours. It seems they hook you with Terminal 3’s grandeur and light, give you a free shuttle to Terminal 1 where the hustle and bustle and multi-ethnicity make up for its lack of style, and then make you pay to get schlepped to Terminal 2.

The saving grace is the intermittent wi-fi and the BBC World News on the television…it is after all election day back home and this one is a biggie!  So on pins and needles, we watch the progress, knowing our friends and colleagues back home are doing the same.

November 4th, 2008|Categories: politics, travel, Uncategorized|Tags: , , , |1 Comment
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