A Conversation With Greg Mortenson

Greg Mortenson has been building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, emphasizing education for girls, since 1993. His first book, “Three Cups of Tea,” tells the story of how he began that work. Mortenson also is the co-founder and executive director of the Central Asia Institute. In February, he lectured on campus and received the Doshi Family Bridgebuilder Award, which honors an individual or organization dedicated to fostering understanding among cultures, peoples and disciplines. Mortenson’s most recent book is “Stones Into Schools.” He was interviewed by LMU Magazine Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch.

Listening to other people’s needs is at the heart of your work. Why is that so important?

I learned from my father, who worked in Africa for many years, and my mentor Haji Ali, chief of the village of Korphe, Pakistan, that it’s important to listen. The best decisions I make are not about me but about others. My father always told me that your faith is about actions and not about words. It’s about listening to people and, instead of helping people, empowering people. There’s a big difference between helping and empowering people.

The Doshi Family Bridgebuilder Award includes an award of $10,000. What can that provide for children in Pakistan and Afghanistan?

That can completely train six maternal health care providers in a two-year program. It costs about $700 to $800 a year to run the program. We have a special emphasis on our scholarship fund, so these funds are going into the scholarship fund.

What do you say to people who feel they could never change the world?

I think anyone is capable of changing the world or doing good things. My heroes are kids. I’ve met thousands of kids who are doing amazing things. One example is Zachary Bonner of Tampa, Fla. Zach is 12. He started the Little Red Wagon Foundation because he saw homeless kids in the Tampa area. In summer 2009, Zach walked from Tampa to Washington, D.C., and he raised $78,000 to raise awareness of homeless kids. Starting on Dec. 25, 2009, Zach began a walk from Tampa to Los Angeles to raise $1 million. I keep telling kids, “Your peers are your role models.”

It takes a lot of hope to do the work that you are doing. Do you ever worry about running out of hope?

It’s always there. There’s a Persian proverb that says, “When it is dark, you can see the stars.” I find often that people who have the most hope are the most impoverished people. They’ve been in war, they’ve been exploited, they’ve been in horrific situations. And yet they have hope. If they have hope, then we certainly can aspire to that hope.

Do you see a day when your work and the work of CAI will be completed?

There are 120 million children who are deprived of education because of slavery, poverty, religious extremism and gender discrimination. So, my main goal is to hand this work over to kids and get them inspired, because I don’t think our generation will be able to finish that. But I do think it will happen. There will be peace, and every single child will be able to go to school.