Julia Bolz is a women’s rights activist providing social guidance to countries in the Middle East, Africa, Central America, and Central Asia. She founded the Journey with an Afghan School program after 9/11 to help bridge the cultural divide between the U.S. and Afghanistan particularly by increasing the educational opportunities afforded to young women. Before joining the grassroots movement for gender equality, she worked at one of Seattle’s most prestigious law firms, Ryan, Swanson & Cleveland. She received Seattle’s Tom C. Wales Citizenship Award for her combined humanitarian efforts. Bolz graduated from Smith College.
Julia Bolz: We have become a great role model. Not simply in Afghanistan, but also in the United States. And if I could use Afghanistan as an example, I’d love to tell you a little story about one of the girls in our communities. She’s about nine years old. I’m going to call her Purvhana. And after the Taliban, for the first time the girls could go to school; but Purvhana’s father wouldn’t allow her to go. And day after day, Purvhana would watch her friends go into school but she had to stay home. One day Purvhana shows up at school. And I remember one of the teachers approached her. They were very concerned because if Purvhana’s father had learned about this, she might have been killed. And despite the fact that she could have been killed, or the risks involved, she continued to come to school. One day she doesn’t show up, and everyone at the school was just sick about this because they were worried what would happen to this little girl. Well the story is this. She was with a family that had never gone to school before. They were all illiterate. Her father had received a letter from a relative in Pakistan. The father couldn’t read it. Well this little nine year old girl steps up to the father and says, “Dad, I can read that letter.” And instead of killing her, he embraced her. And that story just had a ripple effect throughout our entire community. We went from having 420 girls to over 1,000. We went from having eight teachers to over 20. And then we went from having that one little school to multiple girl schools all over the region. And so for me, I’m just utterly convinced that it’s not the U.S. military that’s gonna make changes in these countries. It’s these nine year old little girls who are so convicted about the importance of education that they’re literally willing to risk their lives in order to make this work.
Well right now we have . . . We support 20,000 kids in Afghanistan. My hope is that this will cause a ripple effect not only through Afghanistan, but throughout that entire part of the nation. One of the interesting things about the area where I’m working is that it is a melting pot of multiple ethnic groups, religious practices. And so our feeling is that if we can make a difference in this part of the country, it will reverberate in other parts. But the other legacy that I am very excited about is what’s happened here in the United States. My hope wasn’t simply to build structures; it’s to build relationships . . . to build relationships between our countries. And so what I’ve been seeing is that when we first went in, they didn’t know who we were, what our interests were. But today if you go into the classes, there is a real interest in getting to know America. They like Americans. In fact I think many of them would like to come here. But what I’ve also seen is that many of the kids here in America are learning about another culture. After 9/11, I was very much affected by protests that were held around the world. I remember one in particular. There was a sign held by a Pakistani protester, and it said: “Americans think. Why are you hated all over the world?” Well that was something that really struck me. And having lived extensively in the developing world, I wasn’t necessarily surprised by what happened at 9/11. But I wanted to go into the communities and to teach people about poverty; what was causing terrorism; why would people be willing to become a martyr and do this? So I started this project in the United States to build schools for kids; but instead of going out to foundations and just getting large sums of money, I went to school kids and I asked them to raise $0.50 a week for 10 weeks and to contribute it to the schools in Afghanistan. And what I found was that these kids became empowered. And they might have raised $5.00, but then many of them went out and they raked leaves, and they mowed lawns, and they sold cupcakes, and they did just about everything you can imagine to help kids on the other side of the world. And today the legacy is that many of these kids are continuing their work, albeit in the Congo or Bolivia, to help other kids. And even a couple of months ago I went to Washington, D.C., and I had a neighbor with me who was a high schooler. And she has gone to Congress with me to meet with members of Congress and to talk about the importance of educating kids in the developing world. So to me, I’ve . . . My hope is that these communities, these kids now have the bigger understanding of the world, and that they are willing to participate more fully.