Julia Bolz
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Julia Bolz

Julia Bolz left her job as a Seattle attorney to build schools and educate young girls in war-torn Afghanistan. She talks about how and why she took on such a monumental challenge and her ongoing work for social justice in developing countries.

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About the Episode

Julia Bolz left her job as a Seattle attorney to build schools and educate young girls in war-torn Afghanistan. She joins us to discuss how and why she took on such a monumental challenge, as well as and her ongoing work for social justice in developing countries.

Enrique Cerna:
Julia Bolz, welcome to Conversations. Good to have you here. And congratulations on being the recipient of the Seattle World Affairs Council Global Citizen of the Year award. That's quite a great honor. I was there actually that night. Jimmy Carter also was the keynote speaker, but I imagine for you, that was something that was very precious to have that night.

Julia Bolz:
Well, thank you for having me here today. I am thrilled to be here. And I felt so honored to be the recipient of this award. But more excitingly for me was to have Jimmy carter be one of the presenters. And for those of us who are involved in social justice work, he has been one of our heroes, one of my heroes for years. So it was really a thrill for me.

Enrique:
Yeah. At 87 years old, and for the amount of traveling that he and his wife still do, and everything that they still do, pretty amazing, very impressive. But what you do is impressive as well. Let's talk about Julia Bolz and really how you earned that honor. Because it's your work that you have done globally that has made so much of a difference in young women's lives and young people's lives. You actually were an attorney here doing international law work.

Julia:
I was. If you had met me back in 1998, I was a partner at Ryan, Swanson, and Cleveland here in Seattle. I was practicing international law. And just about that time, one of my sisters had ovarian cancer. And I found that her touch with this illness really got me questioning who I am, what am I doing, what's the legacy I want to leave behind? And in looking back at this Julia I had spent years creating, I actually didn't leek her. So I didn't like her. So I ended up by taking a leap of faith, and I did something which was on my heart, which was social justice for women and girls. And I ended up moving to Zimbabwe and Africa.

Enrique:
And how did you end up going there and what did you do?

Julia:
Well, Zimbabwe at that time was really one of the stars of Africa, a lot of the large NGOs, nongovernmental organizations, in the world, were based there. And so I just started doing a whole variety of things to get introduced to human rights and social justice work. All sorts of development tools. But one of the things that really happened to me while I was there, it was kind of a life changing experience. I have to say that I had defined success in the past as good grades, a good salary, good job title. And that was part of this Julia that I didn't like anymore. And when I got to Africa, I lived in townships where people were in tin sheds and cardboard boxes, mud houses, where there was no running water or electricity, and it was really the poorest of the poor who taught me I was looking for success in the wrong place. It wasn't what I had valued, but it was really about giving back to people. And about the relationships that I had built.

Enrique:
Kind of sounds like you were out to find yourself and maybe you did.

Julia:
I was, I was. This was kind of like my eat, pray, love journey. But it was a wonderful experience for me. I ended up by resigning from my partnership, and I made really a decision to help people as much as I could. And it took me to about 70 countries around the world. Eventually ending up in Afghanistan. So after 9/11, it came to light that this country had been ruled by this group of extremists called the Taliban. The Taliban had a list of virtues and vices. It was a virtue, the girls couldn't go to school, it was a virtue women can't work, a virtue women can't go outside unless they have a Burka that covers them from head to foot. A virtue that windows are blackened so women can't look out and men can't look in. It was a horrible situation. And on top of that, you then have this extreme poverty. And Afghanistan led the world in child mortality, land mine victims, and literacy was about 6.5% in the area that I ended up working. I hooked up with teens that were living in central Asia. They had lived there for 15 years, they had relationships, they spoke the language. They were living in the local communities. And so where other folks struggled when they first got in, the teams that I worked with were already into those communities, making differences. And they gave me a big sense of security as well.

Enrique:
Tell me about Parvana.

Julia:
Oh, well, Parvana is this little girl that I met. And actually, I have to step back a second. Because I went back to Afghanistan about 16 times. And one of the reasons I kept going back is because the results we saw were not simply good, they were phenomenal. And I really saw that education made a difference in every aspect of life. Socially, politically, economically. And one of the things we also saw is that it gave communities hope. And Parvana is an example of that. So you have to imagine in our schools when we'd have a dedication, it's one of the biggest events in a community. Thousands of people come, they're singing, dancing, a feast. But at the very first school that we built, there were also hundreds of girls who didn't come because their fathers didn't believe that the girls should be educated. And Parvana was one of those little girls. She was about 9 years old. And she had never been to school before. And she stayed home day after day weaving carpets. Well, one day, Parvana shows up at school, to much of everyone's surprise. And I remember the principal cobra went up to her and said, what are you doing here? If your father find out about you, he'll kill you, he'll stone you. Go home. But Parvana had spent days watching her friends going to school, coming back healthier, families are living longer, they're laughing, their lives have completely been transformed. And Parvana realizes, even as a 9 year old, that this is the only way her family is going to change is if she can become educated. So Parvana keeps coming, and she comes into school day after day, and everyone sees her. In fact, we interview the rest of the girls at a later time, and all the girls in the school know about her, and they take an oath not to say anything. So she comes back. Nobody says anything. And then the day comes, Parvana's gone and her desk is empty. Well, the story goes like this. Earlier that day, her family had gotten a letter in the mail from a relative in Pakistan. Father couldn't read, mother can't read, nobody could read, no one had ever put up, taken up a book. So this little girl steps up to her father and says, I can read the letter for you. S and instead of killing her, which is what we thought he would do, he embraced her, and he went out and told the community about it. And this is a true story. We went from 420 girls at that school to over a thousand. And the story of Parvana just went out further and further. Reverberated. And then we had the next girls' school, and then the next girls' school. And I tell the story because it just shows me, it's not me or the military who's going to make a change in Afghanistan. It's the 9 year old little girls like Parvana, the principals like cobra, who would be killed, the fathers who take a risk because they believe so strongly that education is the hope for their future.

Enrique:
And they see it.

Julia:
And they see it. And I tell you, and I probably have said that story 500 times. And it just motivates me to the bottom of my heart. Because these kids are such amazing children and they are going to change the world.

Enrique:
You brought that back to Seattle in working with some of the elementary schools here. Tell me about that.

Julia:
Well, part of my philosophy again was we're not simply there to teach the afghans, but they have something to teach us. And what I want to be able to do in the U.S. communities is to bring a taste of the developing world in Afghanistan to them. I'm a real believer in this global citizenship, that we need to understand what the other side of the world looks like, feels like, tastes like, and then we will, we'll start engaging. And so I would dress kids up and Turbines and Burkas, I would bring in afghan foods, visitors, anything I could to different them a more realistic view of what it was like. If you walked into John hay or Coe elementary, you might find kids sitting on the floor eating rice from the Kabul restaurant. You might find kids dancing and talking with afghan visitors. But really, my hope was that they would get an idea too of what it's like to live in the developing world, on a dollar a day. And that changes your life. You don't have running water. So maybe you're not going to take a long shower today or maybe you're going to have to walk to school. But it gives them an idea of the blessings that we have here, as well as maybe to have more compassion for what it's like on that side.

Enrique:
Your role in doing all of this, you were involved in an organization that you called Ayni.

Julia:
Yes.

Enrique:
And really to help support all of this as well. Now, you're changing gears. And it's not that you don't care about all of this, but you're looking at what you've done and how else you could do things. Tell me about that. And what is it that you want to accomplish now?

Julia:
Well, I am changing gears. So after 10 years in Afghanistan, I have felt really called into it, and I'm feeling called really to leverage that work and take it to a higher level. But even while I was in Afghanistan, of time I would come back to the united states, I realized that we could make a big impact by talking about our stories. Because they were so good. I mean if we can do this in the worst part of the world, we certainly should be able to have good results in other parts. So part of my work has been to have face to face meetings with members of congress, the world bank, the state department, the White House, I want them to know how important education is, especially for educating girls. So I really foresee my work now as going to more of a policy level of making sure people understand the value of education, and also to understand the solutions. So one of the groups that I've been working with is a grassroots lobbying organization called results, and they have a chapter here in Seattle. And the idea is to end the worst aspects of hunger and poverty. And I learned that there are 68 million kids in the world today, mostly girls, who are not in primary school. So having been out in the field and seen first hand the impact that education has, I have been trying to be, have a voice for the voiceless. Of bringing this message to congress and these individuals, so that they understand this is where we need to invest.

Enrique:
Why? Why is there this, it almost seems the emphasis to keep girls and young women away from that opportunity to get an education, to better themselves, to then ultimately that would help their own families. Why is that still existing so strongly today in our world?

Julia:
I think some of it has to do with, well, I'll go back. I think a lot of it has to do with poverty and economic disparity. Because if you only have funds to send one child to school, you're going to send the boy. If you only have a pair of shoes for one child, you typically give them to the boy. But what we have found in study after study is that the best tool, the most radical comprehensive way to change a community is through educating girls in particular. It impacts health, economic growth, democracy, extremism, and we saw that all actually first hand in Afghanistan. So just as an example, we used to see kids, or girls having 13 children. And today, through education, birth rates are dramatically lower. Even with boys, boys would say I'll have four wives. But through education, boys are now saying one wife is enough. That's okay. We also have seen changes with boys as well. One of the stories I love to tell is the boys used to carry AK 47s into a classroom. So imagine up in the north where I am, you have all these different ethnic groups, people had fought on different sides of the various wars, nobody liked each other. They killed each other. And this had gone on for decade. So now, we bring them into a classroom, the guns go away, they're learning the same language. And if you came to visit, you would see them playing soccer together. So it's not simply about the three Rs, reading, writing, and arithmetic, it's about nation building and really building peace within Afghanistan.

Enrique:
We haven't been very good at nation building, though. I mean, ah, not to really follow through on the commitment, and I suppose Afghanistan is a very good example of all of that.

Julia:
Well, I would say one of the reasons for this is that our philosophy over time has been to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat. And we have put our emphasis into combat troops, body scans, C.I.A. operatives, cameras at airports. And the reality is we're looking way downstream from where the problem actually exists. It's poverty, hopelessness, lack of opportunity. So if we can focus up here and teach people new skills, education, economic reform, microfinance, and bring those tools there, you don't get down here. And one of the things with our government is that we have tended to focus down here. And I remember when general petraeus was interviewed not very long ago, he actually said we need to focus on education. Because we don't want to see those troops killed, we don't want to put them in harm's way. We want to get to the problem before it becomes a disaster with true extremism.

Enrique:
What do you think the effort now to get us out of Afghanistan? Well, it's mainly troops. Do you agree with that? Do you think the emphasis should be then if we're going to get out of there, then we need to really think about what our foreign aid is and how we're going to use that foreign aid to do what you've been doing?

Julia:
Well, one of the misbeliefs within our society is that the United States puts a lot of money into foreign aid to begin with. And in many countries, for instance, great Britain, it's at 7%, and it's part of their philosophy. We're less than 1%. We are at .1%. So from my philosophy, and the belief of folks that like results, we need to put money into these effective tools that we know will work, which are education, microfinance, global health. And one of the beautiful things about Seattle is that there are a number of organizations here who are all working on those issues. But it is maintaining those types of programs in funding within Afghanistan. Now, I also believe that we do need the military there because I don't believe that the Afghans are table to hold up that country and there will be problems. But can we keep going the status quo? We've already seen that that doesn't work. And we need to put money into these other strategies.

Enrique:
So I guess if you want military still there, what do you see their role being?

Julia:
Trainers. Empowering the folks who are there. One of the things that just occurred, I think it was yesterday or today, is the hand over of many of these prisons now to the Afghans. One of the greatest things that we do as Americans is exporting our constitution, our freedoms, our, the ability even to use these prisons as examples of what we believe in in democracy. So those are the place where I think that we can be focusing on. We'll also probably need to continue training folks who are over there.

Enrique:
Our folks or their folks?

Julia:
Well, our folks will continue training theirs. But one of the issues that I've had since the get go is they've been using a lot of our folks to do the reconstruction. And I really think that should be put into the hand of experts in development.

Enrique:
So we should be there really more as advisors and trainers, not to get away from the sense that we're there as occupiers?

Julia:
Well, or in the sense that you can eliminate extremism by simply killing people. Because there are millions of people around the world, and we're seeing that all over. And one of the other statistics, just to share with your listeners, is that if you look at the developing world in general, about 50% of the population is under the age of 15. So when you think about this, 15 year olds who will be running these countries, we will be impacted by them. So we want to give them this tool that they need in order to become educated citizens and to take part in their countries, to learn about democracy. And how do you do that? Through education.

Enrique:
What was the sense, what was the feedback that you got from the afghans that you worked with about America and Americans?

Julia:
Where I worked, which is up in the north, it was the home of the northern alliance. So I was based out of Musari Sharif. In that area in particular, people really supported America. They were very grateful for the military intervention and taking the Taliban out of power. And also, all of my colleagues, we've been shown great respect by the people up there. There's been a real interest in America. In fact, when people know that we're putting in a school, I will probably have a hundred different communities literally come to us and say, help us, help us. We would really love to do this. And we're also putting in computer centers now, and that's another way to link, and people are very interested in linking, as well as learning English. On the other hand, I can tell you that we might take a step forward, but there's an event that will occur that takes us 10 steps backwards. For instance, the Koran burning. People here don't understand the significance and the importance of these cultural events that can occur. Some of them have come out of Lewis-McChord. So part of our work here is really educating people and the troops so that they understand how to build these bridges of understanding and not to build the negativity. Because every time those things happen, of course, it all sets us back for us.

Enrique:
Now, are you going to stop going to Afghanistan? Sense you're going to be concentrating so much on changing policy, changing lines on this, in this area and here?

Julia:
I honestly don't know. I can tell you, though, that the country is just etched on my heart. There hasn't been a day that I haven't been eating, breathing, and praying for Afghanistan. And I just find that...

Enrique:
Or dressing.

Julia:
Or dressing Afghan. But I find that right now, almost 10 years' worth, my body is looking for a little bit of a change. And a little bit like a soldier, when you come back with all the traumas, it's the same thing for development workers.

Enrique:
Really?

Julia:
Well, we live in...

Enrique:
I guess we never think about that.

Julia:
We don't. But in many ways, well, my life is quite different from them. You have to imagine they're surrounded by barbed wire and tanks and sandbags. Well, we live in local communities. So I rely on the graciousness of these communities for survival. My friend have been shot, killed, kidnapped, beheaded, killed in plane crashes, so there's not a time that I've been over there that something hasn't happened. So I have seen this all, I have been part of this, tanks are rolling down the street. And you're really on your own. And so it's quite a different experience.

Enrique:
It's emotional, I can hear it in your voice.

Julia:
It is. In fact, it was interesting, the night before the world affairs council with the Jimmy carter event, I actually had a mini breakdown.

Enrique:
Really?

Julia:
I did. And I felt so unworthy of getting this medal. And I found, just like a soldier who probably gets a medal, and he says, why me? My friend have been killed. My friends are still there. Those kid are still starving. Why me? And, um, I ended up actually being drawn to something that Mother Theresa wrote. And she talks about how she got the Nobel peace prize and she felt so awkward. And she said, use it as a tool for talking about the poor, for talking about what's on your heart, for talking about these girls in Afghanistan and how they've changed my life. And so when I got up in front of the group, that day to receive my award, that's when I was able to focus on, and it really kept me, I guess, in my, well, I didn't break down, but it kept me just I guess solid in my truth.

Enrique:
And the work goes on.

Julia:
And the work goes on. But I would love to share a couple things with your readers, or listeners, if you don't mind. Because I feel like there's something that they can do. And this is part of mother Theresa speaking to me. It's not to be complacent, but there are things that we can do. So the first one is contact your representatives, your members of congress. And ask them to put global education into the foreign aid spending bill. All the debates are going on right now in congress. Where should we put our money, what should we do? Encourage them to put it into global education, particularly $125 million into what's called the global fund, the global partnership for education. Excuse me. Another one is that our representative on the eastside, Dave Reichert, was a cosponsor of a bill pending in congress, which is called the education for all act. And the purpose of this bill is to ensure that all kids have a chance to get into primary school. So please contact your member of congress, ask them to sign on to this important bill. And then the last one, contact the Obama administration. The administration has not done very much with regard to global education, it's a perfect opportunity to do an initiative for girls. And encourage them to do that. Encourage them to step forward and to take a leadership role.

Enrique:
Julia Bolz, thank you for your time. And sharing your story.

Julia:
Thank you so much.

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05/16/12

I met Julie at my first RESULTS - google RESU:TS - international conference four years ago and she has haunted my conscience since because of her commitment a courage.

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