Atmosphere

Citizen Diplomacy

Local organizations work to connect cultures across mountains and oceans.

September 2009

Shannon Galpin zips through the crowded streets of Kabul, Afghanistan, on her motorbike. The city markets of Kabul are a long way from her hometown of Breckenridge, and she travels alone, without security—an act almost unheard of for a blond, female foreigner in the land of the Taliban. Women here, as a cultural norm, are typically uneducated and mistreated, she says. To that end, Galpin is on a mission of empowerment, and three years ago she founded the nonprofit Mountain to Mountain as a way for Coloradans to identify with, and support, Afghanis. Through fund-raisers such as mountain sports races, the Breck-based Mountain to Mountain generates awareness and money to build schools and implement educational programs for oppressed women and children in Kabul and in the mountainous Panjshir Province. "We're celebrating diversity and highlighting the mountain culture of Afghanistan, in a way that breaks stereotypes of what Afghanistan is," she says. "The mountain culture is the connection between these communities."

On a likeminded quest to raise cultural awareness, the Boulder-based nonprofit Educate! has established a two-year leadership curriculum for Ugandan high school students to encourage social responsibility and entrepreneurship. The group will lead a "Climb for Uganda" event this month at Boulder's Flagstaff Mountain to generate support for the program; students in Uganda will simultaneously climb Buziga Hill in Kampala in a gesture of solidarity.

Other Colorado organizations embrace similar missions in far-flung regions. Denver Sister Cities International, for example, works to bridge cultural gaps with cities across the globe. "You hear frequently that the world is becoming a much smaller place," says Sister Cities co-president Gayle Stallings. "Americans, as a group, tend to be very unaware of the rest of the world." Formed in the aftermath of World War II, the volunteer-run nonprofit encourages "citizen diplomacy"—including exchange programs, cultural festivals, and service projects—with Denver's 10 designated sister cities, such as Cuernavaca, Mexico; Chennai, India; and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Says Stallings: "The hope was that by building relationships with people around the world—if we better understood other cultures—we'd be able to not have the wars that had plagued the 20th century."