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.
Question: What do you do?
Julia Bolz: I am a voice of the voiceless. I am a voice for about 90 million kids who live in the developing world and they have no voice for themselves. They don’t have a vote in the American system. Yet they are very much affected by the corporate policies we have and our foreign aid policy.
I receive a great deal of joy actually in serving others, and seeing other individuals who are empowered, who have the ability then to move on without any assistance and help their own communities and serve other people.
In most of the places where I work, the girls or the women have no voice. And so it is coming alongside of those individuals to be able to help them in a way that allows them to serve their own communities. And oftentimes I’m working in countries where they don’t want the girls to go to school. They don’t want the girls and women to own property. They want to keep the women in the home. If I were to just look at Afghanistan during the time of the Taliban, girls were not allowed to go to school. They couldn’t work. They couldn’t leave their house without a male relative. Windows were blackened so that women couldn’t look out and men couldn’t look in. So I’m coming into a place and I’m a change agent. So right off the bat, there’s a number of challenges that I face.
Well I tend to work with those individuals within the community who are interested in being the change agents themselves. So it’s not me, the white Western woman, who needs to come in and make those changes. It’s supporting those individuals already doing those things within the community and helping them in whatever way I can. If I can use the analogy, I don’t want to teach the people or give someone a fish. I want to teach them how to fish.
Question: What has changed for girls in Afghanistan?
Well when the girls first started, there was no literacy. Literacy actually was six percent in the area where I worked. So literacy, math, everything was actually at ground zero. I think one of the biggest things that we have seen, though, is confidence. When the girls first came to school, you have to remember they had not been out of the house, most of them. They hadn’t worked. They didn’t have any support unit. There was more suicide and depression in Afghanistan than almost any country in the world. So one of the big changes that we’ve seen is that the girls all feel lifted up now. They feel like that depression has literally lifted off of their shoulders. And they are new individuals. And what that self-confidence has given them the ability to do is to go out and vote, and to encourage other women to run for Parliament. We’re seeing more teachers in the school system as well. So the whole community has changed.