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Cultural Communicator

February 21, 2011

Greg Mortenson

Recently I had the opportunity to hear Greg Mortenson speak in the gymnasium of a community college in Washington state, after which I jotted the following observations about this incredible man and communicator:

Greg Mortenson is truly a cultural broker. He communicates a message that resonates with teachers, librarians, military leaders, Afghan village chiefs, elementary students, university students, nonreligious people, religious people, liberals, and conservatives. He can present a case that endorses many Americans’ values–and many global inhabitants’ values–yet simultaneously tells Americans how we could learn some things from Afghans. Lessons such as fostering an environment that allows children to play outdoors more rather than pushing for the internet and computers in classrooms.

Greg began his presentation by reporting how everywhere he travels in the US, he asks school children how many of them have spent at least 10 hours listening to grandparents tell stories from the past. He said it doesn’t matter what part of the country he’s in or whether the setting is rural or urban, only about 5% of children raise their hands. We in the US do not transmit our history by inter-generational dialogue like other cultures do. Greg said if you asked that question in Africa or Afghanistan, 90 to 100% of children would raise their hands.

By opening with a value most American adults share but recognize is missing from our society, Greg highlighted an aspect of Afghanistan culture  as a model we could learn from. He was then able to ease into the core of his message–that Afghan women need schools–without maintaining an aurora of superiority.

Mortenson with Afghan Elders

Mortenson with Afghan Elders

The schools Greg has helped build have not been bombed by the Taliban because they have been owned and created by their communities under the initiation of the village chiefs. He recorded these experiences in Stones into Schools, sequel to Greg’s most well-known title Three Cups of Tea.

Greg has an amazing ability to recall a large number of facts and statistics. After hearing him rattle off several dozen of them with no apparent notes, I whispered to my friend I had accompanied, “How does he remember all this?” Additionally, Greg connects with the community where he is presenting by incorporating facts and statistics from their local area.

Greg is a pragmatic activist, an international developer who helps people by spending time with them. My favorite quote from the evening was his words, “The only way we can solve poverty is to see poverty, taste poverty, and be with poverty. We can’t solve poverty from a think tank in Washington D.C.”

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