WSB Extra: Meet schoolbuilder Julia Bolz before her Alki appearance

This Saturday, Julia Bolz speaks at Alki UCC. Event-presenting InSPIRE Seattle is hoping many will come hear about her amazing work. Local writer David Preston spoke with her in advance of her visit.

(All photos in this story are courtesy Ayni Education International)
By David Preston
Special to West Seattle Blog

In 1998, Seattleite Julia Bolz decided to take a sabbatical from her successful immigration law practice to follow her heart around the world. She ended up in Africa, where she focused on empowering the poor — especially women and girls — by working with nongovernmental organizations focused on microfinance, health care, and human rights.

Not long into her journey, she knew the work was for her, so she resigned from the partnership to work full time in the field of social justice. In all, she has worked in, or travelled to, more than 70 countries — more countries than many folks could name — but since early 2002, “right after the Taliban were removed from power,” her focus has been Afghanistan. There, she founded a project called “Journey with an Afghan School” that builds and equips schools, provides teacher training, and builds bridges of understanding between the two countries.

Building a school can be a major undertaking, so I asked Julia why she started there rather than, say, sending blankets (which is what I, a struggling journalist, would have done.)

“We wanted to give [the Afghan people] what they needed most, so we took surveys, asked lots of questions, and met with dozens of people in the field: village elders, government leaders, community members, and religious leaders. We asked them, ‘What do you want?’ And time after time, they told us: ‘Schools. Build us schools.’ The Afghan people understand that education is a building block to eliminating poverty and extremism.”

Obviously, decades of war and international ostracism had not improved the educational climate. “I was in Balkh Province, whose capital is Mazar-i-Sharif,” she told me, spelling it out for me twice to make sure I got it right. (I’d heard of the place on the news, but couldn’t remember the context. At that time the news from there probably wasn’t good, but things do appear to be changing.)

“During 30 years of war and conflict, teachers were often targeted, because they’re the change agents. Just a few years ago, you’d hear about a teacher being shot, a principal beheaded, or a school burned almost every day of the week. In the north-central part of the country, where we worked, it was a double war zone. First, the Soviets fought there against the Mujahadin. Then it became the base of the Northern Alliance, which fought a long war against the Taliban.”

“Mazar-i-Sharif sits on the old Silk Road and is a still a major trade center. It has always been one of the most progressive cities in the region — a melting pot of cultures, religions and languages. This region has had some experience with secular education, even for girls, and the Soviets expanded on that during their occupation. But it also bore some of the worst fighting, and after 30 years of war, what schools there were had been destroyed. There were no formal teachers, no textbooks, no pencils, nothing. Those who had not fled typically had only a few years of schooling.

“I came back to the Pacific Northwest [from my first visit to Afghanistan] with one particular image etched on my heart. There were dozens of girls in an open field, scratching in the mud with a stick and writing on a chalkboard against a mud wall.”

Back in Seattle, the persistence of this vision motivated Bolz to take action.

“I started doing show-and-tells, talking about Afghan history and culture, life in a war zone, and the need for schools. One school, in particular, Coe Elementary, was really touched by it. Afterward, teachers, kids, parents, and even the principal, asked if they could help me. The amazing thing about this was that Coe itself had recently burned to the ground and the kids were still in a makeshift school. So here was this group of Seattle kids who’d lost their own school, reaching out to other kids who’d never even had a school.

“With help from Coe kids, several other schools in the Seattle area, and my friends and family, we raised $30 thousand to build what was then one of the first girls’ schools in north-central Afghanistan. After the school was dedicated in 2003, I thought my work in Afghanistan was done and over with, but not surprisingly, we were then approached by literally dozens of other communities seeking help.”

“Seeing kids trying to study and learn on a threadbare mat in an abandoned mud home or in a torn tent is heartbreaking. And once I started seeing how education truly transformed their lives, I couldn’t stop trying to help. Now I’m going on my ninth year, and we’ve done 18 brand-new schools and repaired 21 others. The schools we do are pretty big — typically over a thousand kids. The one we’re working on right now is a full campus and will serve about 4,500 girls. In total, we serve about 25,000 students, from kindergarten through 12th grade. We also run two teacher training centers that serve over 250 trainees.”

Bolz is obviously a whiz with statistics. In fact, if I hadn’t known she was a lawyer, I might have figured her for a policy researcher, or maybe a project manager, with some PR person thrown in. However, when I asked her what word she’d use to describe her job — philanthropist? fundraiser? organizer? — the answer was a brisk: None of the above.

“I’m an educator and advocate. I go all over the world speaking about the importance of educating kids in the developing world and advocating for change. To the State Department, Capitol Hill, the White House, the World Bank, universities, religious institutions, businesses. You name it. My goal is to see the U.S. Congress pass legislation that provides the resources and leadership needed to ensure all children receive a quality basic education by 2015. There are still 75 million children worldwide who are not in primary school.

“I’m excited that the ‘Education for All Act of 2010’ was recently introduced in the House, but it needs co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle. Given all of our international links in the Pacific Northwest, most folks understand that the U.S. is part of a global community and that what happens in one part of the world can directly affect us here in the U.S. I encourage everyone I meet to contact their representative and let him/her know that education is the foundation to a country’s development, as well as its security.

“As levels of education increase, birth and mortality rates decline, income rises, and people live healthier lives. Education also teaches much-needed leadership skills, civic responsibility and life skills, which is paramount for freedom and democracy. Given that over 50% of the population in many developing countries is under the age of 15, global education is key to building a peaceful and stable world. According to a study done by Save the Children, every year a boy is in school decreases his chance of engaging in violent conflict by 20%.”

When she’s not educating government ministers and aid donors, Bolz’s “job” is to “strengthen the Afghan school system.” Then she puts on yet another hat: Networker.

“Over the years, I have partnered with a number of different American teams that have lived in Afghanistan full time. A typical team includes expert development workers with experience in community development, construction, well drilling, sanitation, teacher training, and project management. Along with Afghan staff, they build and equip schools, drill wells, and build latrines, libraries, computer centers. They also manage teacher training centers and provide dozens of training sessions.”

A pamphlet that describes Bolz’s umbrella organization (Ayni Education International) emphasizes the cultural exchange aspect, which is modeled somewhat on the Seattle sister-city program. “Cultural bridge” is an expression Bolz uses frequently, and it aligns with her personal philosophy of education and cultural exchange as tools for reducing poverty and building peace between nations:

“Every school we have built in Afghanistan has a U.S. community or school ‘journeying’ with it. In addition to raising funds to build and sustain the school, American students have sent over stories, poems, photos, and art. We’ve also done cross-cultural curricula, such as gardens, and we’ve facilitated programs and speakers, so the students can get to understand each other’s cultures better. This year, for example, John Hay Elementary and Coe Elementary participated in a ‘Day in the Life of an Afghan Student,’ where the children heard from several Afghan exchange students, ate Afghan food donated by the Kabul Restaurant, sat on the floor in rooms without lights, wore Afghan clothes, walked to school, and went the day without computers, iPods and TVs. A few years ago, the principal of Coe, David Elliott, even joined us for a few weeks in Afghanistan.”

“There are probably over two dozen schools in the Seattle community where I’ve spoken to students and [as a result] they’ve gotten involved with our Afghan school project. I think of this process as building the bridges that will lead to understanding, tolerance, and peace. If we get to know each other, then we’ll know we have a lot in common. My message to the people of Afghanistan in particular is: ‘Get to know us, don’t shoot us.’

I asked her if she’d met with resistance from Afghan men, simply because she is a woman.

“I was one of the first female development workers in the country after the Taliban were removed from power. When I came in, women were not allowed to work or attend school, their faces were hidden beneath burkas, and they were not allowed outside unless accompanied by a male relative. To see someone like me — with my face showing in public — was a shock to everyone at first. In meetings, I was placed in the corner and encouraged to be silent. No one touched me, spoke to me, or even looked at me. Gradually, though, I was able assert myself, making a point of showing that women had opinions and knowledge and that women could even be leaders. Today, they all know who I am. I regularly meet with the provincial governor, members of Parliament, government ministers, and community leaders. They shake my hand; they listen to my concerns and ask me questions. Over time, I’ve seen significant changes in the way the men treat their daughters and wives and in the way women now participate in society.”

Even though Afghan schools are still segregated by sex, change appears to be gradually trickling down to the classroom level.

“When I started ‘Journey with an Afghan School,’ if I had asked a high-school girl in Afghanistan what she wanted to be, there would be no response. Just silence. Now I get: I want to be a teacher, so I can ensure that my country is no longer dependent on foreign aid, or I want to be a teacher, so children can learn math, history, and science — in addition to the Koran.”

“One of my favorite responses was from a girl who said, ‘I want to be the Minister of Education, so all girls will have a chance to go to school.’ These kids now have hopes, dreams, and the wherewithal to take their country into the 21st Century.”

Does she have any disappointments?

“I don’t think it’s as much a matter of being disappointed as just thinking about the size of the problem. Sometimes it seems like it’s never ending. We’ll put up a school for 4,500 kids, and all I have to do is walk across the street and there are another 5,000 kids there, sitting in ripped tents, looking for someone to help them build a school too.”

Bolz’s home base is in Seattle but she spends most of her time traveling around the US, educating and advocating for change. She’ll be at Alki Congregational Church at 6115 SW Hinds Street at 7:00 PM on Saturday, May 22nd to talk about her experiences in Afghanistan and answer questions. Admission is free.

For more on Julia Bolz, “Journey with an Afghan School” and “The Education for All Act of 2010,” see the following Web sites:

David Preston is a freelance writer and editor based in West Seattle. You can reach him at

4 Replies to "WSB Extra: Meet schoolbuilder Julia Bolz before her Alki appearance"

  • Joe May 17, 2010 (7:43 pm)

    She is a true hero.

  • Kayzel May 17, 2010 (8:06 pm)

    aynieducation dot org is not a working web site.
    Can you please give us one that is?

  • Bobby D May 20, 2010 (10:57 am)

    For starters, I have to say Julia Bolz is the poster child for courageous Americans. As a man, I would be very intimidated by the violence and danger in Afghanistan. I can’t imagine being a woman and having the courage to go to Afghanistan.

    The World Bank, the former Secretary General of the UN (Kofi Annan), Chris Elias (head of PATH), Nicholas Kristof, and other development experts agree, there is no more powerful action we can take to assist the developing world and the cause of world peace than to empower women. Education is the first step to empowerment. The effects of making an education available for females are overwhelming. I am grateful for the work Ms. Bolz does, enabling the voiceless to speak.

Sorry, comment time is over.