Humanitarian Greg Mortenson

Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

Pennies for Peace founder argues that unless girls are educated, society can’t change.

Greg Mortenson is helping to change the world. Co-founder of the Central Asia Institute and Pennies for Peace, he's established over 78 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan and has overcome numerous obstacles, including death threats from Americans for helping Muslim children. Mortenson was born in Minnesota, grew up in Tanzania and served in the U.S. Army during the Cold War. This year, he'll receive Pakistan's highest civil award for his humanitarian efforts. His books include the New York Times best-seller Three Cups of Tea.


Tavis: Greg Mortenson is the cofounder of the Central Asia Institute, which is also the home of his remarkable program Pennies for Peace – more on that in a moment. But he’s also the author of “Three Cups of Tea,” which has sold more than two million copies worldwide and has been on “The New York Times'” bestseller list for over 100 weeks – not easy to do.
He’s out now with a young reader’s edition of “Three Cups of Tea,” and for that matter a new children’s book as well called “Listen to the Wind.” Greg, nice to have you on the program.
Greg Mortenson: Thanks, Tavis.
Tavis: I can’t even hold all this stuff – you got so much stuff out at one time. (Laughter) Books and children’s books and remakes. Congrats on all the success, though.
Mortenson: Oh, thanks, sir, appreciate it.
Tavis: I made a joke a moment ago and I wasn’t really being funny, but 100 weeks on the bestseller list, that’s a – what do you make – a lot of us have written books, but what do you make of a book, being the author of a book that sits on the list for that long?
Mortenson: Well, I think what it is is that the American public really embraces – I say if you fight terrorism it’s based in fear, but if you promote peace it’s based on hope. The real enemy, whether it’s in the U.S. or Afghanistan or Africa, it’s ignorance, and it’s ignorance that causes hatred. Even the U.S. military’s using the book as mandatory reading for officers going into counterintelligence training.
Liberals, conservatives, Muslims, Jews, Christians, and I find – I think education is something that can bring us together. You know, we’ve become so polarized over politics and religion, but education is something that really can bring us together. But it’s even a surprise to me, because I’m not really an author, and I had no – the only reason I wrote the book is to basically make people quiet and quit hounding me about writing a book. (Laughter)
Tavis: Take me back to the genesis here. What’s the book about? Why did you write the original book? Let’s talk about that first.
Mortenson: Well, I grew up in Africa, as I mentioned, in Tanzania, where you visited with Bill Clinton.
Tavis: Sure.
Mortenson: My father started a hospital, my mother started a school. I went there when I was three months old in ’58. I came back to the States when I was 15. So that was – the world I knew was in Africa. My father, when he started a hospital, he got up and said that in 10 years, all the department heads will be from Tanzania and most of the Americans and Europeans, they told my dad, “How could you dare say such a thing and set these people up for such an unrealistic expectation?”
When we came back to the States, my dad died from cancer in his 40s, but we got the annual report 10 years later, and all the department heads were from Tanzania. That’s one of the key lessons, empowering local people. So progress forward, I have three sisters. My youngest sister is Krista, and she had severe epilepsy. In 1992 she saw the baseball movie called “Field of Dreams” that takes place in a cornfield in Iowa – if you build it, they will come?
Tavis: Mm-hmm.
Mortenson: And so she was very inspired by it. I should back up one moment, though. When I came back to the States I was really excited. I was in high school, I wanted to play football, Fourth of July, and my first day in high school, I got beat up in St. Paul, Minnesota. The kids put a garbage can over my head and started pounding on me.
It was because I made this mistake – I said, “I’m African.” There’s confusion about that. It was the first time, though, in my life that I learned what the word “racism” meant, and it wasn’t in Africa, it was here in the U.S. And I was actually in the Army, which I joined four days after high school, because we were very poor and I wanted to get the GI bill, in the Army, where I met men and women from all across the U.S.
And that really helped affirm my faith that Americans were good people, but it’s because of our diversity and not our commonality. So my sister saw the movie, she was inspired by it, and so in ’92 she was going to go from Minneapolis to Iowa to see where the movie was filmed, but she died in her sleep, so.
I used to climb mountains a lot; I decided to go to Pakistan to climb K2, the world’s second-highest mountain. I didn’t get quite to the top. And then coming off the mountain I felt – I was really disappointed. Most of all, I’d felt I’d let my sister down.
And I stumbled into a village, I saw 84 children sitting in the dirt doing their school lessons, and so when a young girl asked me, “Could you help us build a school?” I made a promise that day. I said, “I promise to build a school for you.” And I think today, Tavis, we are trying to resolve poverty. It’s in the news and lots of books about it, but the only way I think we can really solve poverty is that we have to taste poverty and we have to smell poverty and we have to touch poverty, and we can’t solve poverty from a think tank in Washington, D.C.
So basically I came back to the States, had to raise $12,000. I had no clue how to fundraise, so I – I didn’t know how to use a computer, either. So I hand-typed 580 letters to celebrities and movie stars, and – (Laughter)
Tavis: And that’s the funniest part of the whole story to me.
Mortenson: Yeah, not to you, though. (Laughs)
Tavis: That you hand-typed 580 letters, yeah.
Mortenson: It wasn’t – not to you.
Tavis: I wasn’t around then.
Mortenson: You weren’t on the list. Dear Michael Jordan. (Laughter) Dear Sylvester Stallone. And guess what happened? Nothing happened. Then I got one check from Tom Brokaw, and then I sold my car, I sold my books, and in the springtime, my mother, who’s a principal in Westside Elementary School in Wisconsin, she invited me to come and talk to the kids.
And a fourth grader named Jeffrey – and it was the first time I’d ever talked to anybody, you know? I was pretty nervous. And a fourth grader said, “I have a piggy bank at home. I’m going to help you.” Of course I didn’t think much of it, and they raised 62,340 pennies. And that’s really – it inspired (unintelligible), but that’s really what got this started, is a bunch of kids and their pennies.
Tavis: Every time I hear your story and I want you to share it for the benefit of the audience; I know the story. And I know it because I’ve gone over it so many times. And I’m always, always taken aback by how you came around to building schools when your mother and father had done that before you even knew – you were too young to know what they were doing in Tanzania, but one’s doing a hospital, one’s doing a school.
What do you make of the fact that your life ends up paralleling what your parents had done so many years earlier, when you were too young to even know that?
Mortenson: Well, that’s a good observation, and I just found out last month that my great-great-grandfather, who was from Norway, he started the first school up in Norway. So maybe it’s in my genes, I’m not sure. But what I really believe is education is a key to pretty much everything – prosperity, economics, peace, stability.
We can drop bombs or we can hand out condoms or build roads or put in electricity, but unless the girls are educated, I don’t think a society can change. And I’ve seen profound – I’ve been lucky to do this 16 years. What happens when a girl gets educated is number one – well, first there’s infant mortality drops, the population explosion drops, and the health improves.
You also see a girl coming home, her mother asks her to write a letter to her family, because often when a woman’s married, her maternal ties are severed. You also – also in the Qur’an it says that when someone goes on jihad they have to get permission first from their mother.
So if a woman has an education, she’s much less likely to encourage her son to get into violence or terrorism or gangs, and we have the same thing here in the inner city. You’ve got a single, less educated mother who’s under a lot of duress, and when she has an education she’s much less likely to encourage her son to go out and get a job.
I see the real solution is educating girls. It has long-term, over one or two generations, that impact. And if you look at, in society, what led to the women’s suffrage act, the civil rights movement, many of our big, formative events in our history, two, three, four generations before that, education really was the founding basis of all of those catalyst events in our society.
Tavis: Pennies for Peace, that program that you started because of that fourth grader in Wisconsin, update me on the Pennies for Peace program now, number one, and I got a follow-up on that.
Mortenson: Well, Pennies for Peace, for lack of a better word, is kind of going bananas lately. It’s in – last year, 270 schools, this year 3,400 schools. We think next year 15,000 schools. What it does is kids decide on their own what they want to support. Could be in L.A. here, it could be around the world.
We also have what’s called a toolkit, so we’ve worked with the NEA, the Pearson Foundation, so it can be integrated into the public and private school curriculums. The most exciting thing, I think, though, it’s that it’s inspired kids to go off and do their own thing on their own.
Just two examples – a guy in Danville, California, he’s 12, his name is Garrett, and he started an organization called Last year he raised $58,000 to set up eight soccer fields in the ghettos of Johannesburg.
Tavis: And he’s 12 years old.
Mortenson: Twelve years old. (Laughter) Another guy, another 12-year-old, his name is Jared, he’s from Tampa, he started a foundation called Little Red Wagon Foundation. He plans – he’s very concerned about homelessness – kids who are homeless, like in the States here. He is going to walk this year from Atlanta to Tampa to Washington, D.C. in May. He plans to raise $1 million, and last year he raised $100,000, to help homeless kids in the U.S.
Tavis: And he’s 12.
Mortenson: He’s 12 years old. I actually helped him set up his board, and he called me one day, he said, “Could I just have kids on my board?” I said, “I don’t think there’s any law against that in Florida.” So all his board directors are kids.
Tavis: Are kids. (Laughter)
Mortenson: You have to be under 18.
Tavis: The schools that you’ve been building, there are now what, 78, 80?
Mortenson: Seventy-eight, 78, yeah. And then we run about five dozen other schools, like in refugee camps, in Taliban areas, and then where there’s a lot of conflict and war. And we focus on girls. One is because there’s a lack of support for girls’ education, but also I really believe that educating a girl, you’re educating a community.
You probably heard this when you were in Tanzania, Tavis, that there’s a saying. It says, if you educate a boy, you educate an individual, but if you educate a girl, you educate a community.
Tavis: Exactly, yeah.
Mortenson: And I think there’s also, in the Holy Qur’an, there’s a saying that says that the ink of a pen is greater than the blood of a martyr – meaning the pen is more powerful than the sword. And I also find that when girls become educated, they – well, first of all, the Taliban, if you look at – they’ve destroyed over 500 schools in Afghanistan, 175 schools in Pakistan, but 80 to 90 percent of those schools are girls’ schools.
So maybe you can answer this, but why a group of men are destroying girls’ schools and not a boy’s school –
Tavis: Yeah, they know what they’re doing. My friend Jim Wallace of Sojourners says that poverty is the new slavery. We can debate that, but the point here is that there are a growing number of people talking about it. How do we get traction on that issue beyond the talk? Poverty.
Mortenson: Well, first thing, with Martin Luther King, he said that even if the world ends tomorrow, I’m going to plant my seed today. So no matter – and I ascribe to that with every single kid I talk to. I tell them, “Remember what Martin Luther King said? Your parents might want to talk about fear and trepidation and everything, but don’t worry about tomorrow. Today we can do something, and it’s a seed.
And I also found that there’s lots of kids now today who really are going out in their communities, they’re doing community service. Forty percent of university graduates today want to go out and make a difference in the world. That’s a “U.S. News” report. In 1990, it was only 18 percent. That was in the day everybody wanted to go out and make a buck.
And so I’m – I can’t but help be optimistic when I see what kids want to do.
Tavis: Well, if we all follow Greg’s lead, we’ll all start planting more seeds today, no matter what happens to the world tomorrow. His book, “New York Times” best seller, “Three Cups of Tea.” I want to tell you about that first; on the bestseller list for over 100 years – over 100 weeks. Probably 100 years, too. (Laughter) Freudian slip, but 100 weeks for sure
Now a kids’ version, the young readers edition of “Three Cups of Tea” is out now, “One Man’s Journey to Change the World One Child at a Time,” and his children’s book, brand new, “Listen to the Wind,” the story of Dr. Gregg and ‘Three Cups of Tea.” Greg Mortenson, congrats again. Honor to have you on the program.
Mortenson: Thanks, Tavis. Thank you so much.

Tavis: It’s good to see you.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm