Saturday, December 19, 2009

Greg Mortenson: Stones Into Schools

To say that I was excited to see and hear Greg Mortenson speak would be an understatement. He wrote one of my favorite books ever. "Three Cups of Tea" was just a magnificent and inspiring read that I can't stop recommending to people. He was making his rounds to promote "Stones Into Schools"- a first-person narrative continuing his mission to promote peace through education. The lecture took place at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall- an absolutely beautiful building. I had actually taken a tour of its multiple levels of intricately carved walls before. That night, though, the place just seemed more amazing with a sold out crowd.

In the lobby were booths of the different companies sponsoring the event. Powell's Books were selling "Stones Into Schools". Literary Arts and the Oregon Cultural Trust were handing out information about their organizations. And there were free publications from the Central Asia Institute available as well. CAI is the non-profit co-founded by Greg Mortenson that allows him to do the things he does.

It's always exciting to be around people who share a common interest or passion- in this case, I guess, it would have been the importance of education. I was surrounded mainly by teachers and librarians. To have someone see someone else they knew across the concert hall was a pretty common occurrence. There was an elderly lady who was seated near me. She was decked in red everything- including a feather boa- and she was so in praise of "Stones Into Schools"- she had just bought her fifth copy that day, in fact- that I couldn't wait to get my own copy to read.

The only thing I was worried about was Greg Mortenson's speaking skills. I had heard from others he wasn't that good but I needn't have worried. If that was the case before, it was probably because he was new to it all but he's certainly had much practice since then. I found him to be well-spoken, funny and informative. He did make an error when giving shout-outs to the places he's visited before in Portland. But that certainly could be overlooked considering, just that day, he had given another talk to some high school students before pre-signing copies of his latest book.

Early on in the lecture, Mortenson played a short video of his daughter, Amira, interviewing Tom Brokaw, one of his earlier supporters to his cause. Then, through a PowerPoint presentation his son helped him with, he basically talked about the events that led him to where he was now in his life- a sort of recapping of "Three Cups of Tea" and the opportunities that the book provided after its publication. It was interesting to hear that the hardcover edition had a different subtitle from the paperback. He never liked the original publisher's choice of "One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism One School at a Time" and it was eventually changed to "One Man's Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time."

Some recurring themes during his speak were the need of community and relationship building (especially of listening and respecting elders for what they've been through and can offer in terms of advice), the ability of children to change the world when given the chance (because it was schoolkids, and not celebrities or powerful politicians, that funded his earlier missions through the Pennies for Peace program), and the importance of education as an important factor in battling ignorance, hate and many other problems that stem from them. With messages like those, it wasn't that surprising then for me to learn that "Three Cups of Tea" has become required reading for people in Special Services.

He praised some military people he'd spoken to that seem to get that it's not bombs that was going to solve our problems but the empowerment of the people through education. Needless to say, he was critical in President Obama's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan because the decision was made behind closed doors and didn't ask the input of the people there.

Overall, Greg Mortenson gave an inspiring and well-received talk. And, once again, my desire to do good in the world, my call to service, was awakened.

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