Monday, August 2, 2010

Effective fights for freedom - by Judge Jim Gray

This week I will continue to discuss the recent Freedom Fest convention in Las Vegas, where one of the speakers was Greg Mortenson.

You probably know of Mortenson as the co-author of the book "Three Cups of Tea," which describes his experiences in building about 50 schools for boys — and girls — in mountain villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan. His new book, "Stones into Schools," provides an update on this amazing success.

Mortenson is a fairly shy, humble and self-effacing man who stumbled upon his life's work project that is bringing a measure of peace to those two troubled and unstable lands. As was descending from his attempt to climb K-2, the second highest peak in the world, Mortenson became lost, sick and disoriented, whereupon he was nursed back to health by the people of one of the villages.

In gratitude, Greg promised to come back and build them a school, which he learned, was the most closely held desire of the villagers. Thereafter he kept his promise, and that began his story.

Mortenson does it right by employing the methods I was actually taught during my training for the Peace Corps. He understands that no program will be really successful unless it addresses what we in the Peace Corps called the "felt needs" of the community.

That means that the people in the community must actually want the project, and be materially involved in the decision-making and implementation process. And then the project only has a real chance to become permanent if it will continue to prosper without us.

In that regard, during training we were told the hypothetical story of a Peace Corps Volunteer, who was asked by one of the visiting Peace Corps staff members what he had accomplished during his two years of service.

The volunteer responded by pointing to some people working in a field and growing some drought-resistant grain, which he had introduced into his village, and pointing in another direction to the people working to install a new water treatment plant that he had initiated.

Finally, he pointed to a neighboring house in which a woman was working on her loom. She was doing work for the coop he had helped to start and that weaved native cloth in traditional designs to be sold in the tourist trade. And all of this was happening while he was sitting down and having breakfast.

In his work in building schools in remote mountainous villages, Greg Mortenson considers it essential to take the time to build up relationships with the tribal elders in the communities, listen to them, work with them, and be guided by them.

And he will not build a school unless the village is completely involved by donating the land, the necessary wood and the labor. As a result, none of his schools have been attacked by the Taliban, because the elders have influence and a strong following in their villages, and the Taliban does not want to alienate the villagers.

One example he discussed involved his being approached by the elders from a remote village in Afghanistan that was heavily infiltrated and controlled by the Taliban. Nevertheless, these elders requested that he help build a school in their village. Given the location, Mortenson was naturally skeptical of being able to do this, but he invited the elders to visit a school that he had built about 50 miles from their village.

When these elders met him at the school a few weeks later, they were all dressed in robes and turbans, and each was heavily armed with a machine gun. But, as he tells it in the book, when they saw the playground, the men dropped their guns on the ground and each man started playing on the swings and slides. And it was a sight to behold, with turbans flying in the wind and big smiles all over these stately and (for us) normally terrifying-looking men.

After a full hour and a half, Mortenson told them that it was time to stop playing and to address the issue at hand. So they sat down with him and soon invited him to come to their village to discuss the building of a school. Although it would normally be quite dangerous for a Westerner to go to that area, he later traveled there safely as their guest.

When Greg arrived the village elders unanimously agreed to his terms and requested a school — as long as it would have a playground! Mortenson agreed, but remained humorously concerned that the adults would be using the swings and slides so much that they might not be available for the children.

Before he left the village, Mortenson asked the chief elder (who is almost always the one who has the most silver in his beard) why they so badly wanted a school. The man responded that when he was 12 years old, the Soviets invaded the country.

So he was pulled out of school, and taught to hate and to fight, which he had been doing ever since. Thus he never really had a childhood. But now he not only wanted to make up for his own loss, he also wanted his children to have the childhood and education that he never had.

Our government actively solicits Greg Mortenson's advice, and, as a military veteran, he gives it openly and freely. But he goes out of his way not to accept any money from our government. If he were to do that, he would be seen as an arm or instrument of the government, and that would in effect terminate his effectiveness. And unfortunately, the government does not often follow his advice about developing relationships with the elders in the various villages.

But there is no reason why each of us cannot fight for freedom like Greg Mortenson — each in our own way. Obviously most of us cannot affect an entire world, but we can be effective in the smaller worlds that we do live in. And, like Greg Mortenson, we can begin by listening better to the people around us.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of "A Voter's Handbook: Effective Solutions for America's Problems" (The Forum Press, 2010) and can be contacted at or via his website at


Tom Sebourn said...

That was a fantastic post. Do you mind if I share it?

Judge Jim Gray said...

Hi Tom, I don't mind if you share it. Providing you put a link to my website: and my name for credit reasons. Feel free to email Judge Jim Gray at his website to let him know where you reposted his article. Thanks, Ky Gray