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.