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Living the Dream: Planetwalker John Francis

In 1971, John Francis witnessed an oil spill in San Francisco Bay that inspired him to give up all forms of motorized transportation. A few months later, he took a vow of silence that lasted 17 years, and also embarked on a silent walk across America with the intention of raising environmental consciousness and promoting world peace. After he reached the East Coast, the U.N. Environment Programme named him a Goodwill Ambassador, and the U.S. government recruited him to write oil spill regulations in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster.

Since then, Francis has founded and directs Planetwalk, a nonprofit environmental education group. Read more about Francis’s incredible experiences in his book, Planetwalker: How to Change Your World One Step at a Time, or listen to his 2008 TED talk.

What does “the good life” mean to you? And how did you come to this vision?

For me, the good life is waking each morning, thankful for the miracle of life and all that comes with it. If we have our health, that is a blessed thing. So having Gratitude.

What’s the one thing you enjoy most about your lifestyle?

I am coming from a journey—a lifestyle—where I had spent 22 years only walking and 17 of those years maintaining silence. What I enjoy now is recognizing the connectivity between that part of my life and my lifestyle today, which still has me on a journey. Now, though, I work with students and others to bring walking to them as a vehicle to learn formally in schools—and informally, just as a human being.

Is there anything at all about your life these days that you really wish you could change or improve?

After walking and studying the environment for so long, informally and formally, I realized that because people are part of the environment, our first opportunity to treat the environment in a positive or sustainable way—or even to begin to understand what sustainability is—is in how we treat one another. So, I would like to be even more engaged in community.

Tell us a little about the work that you do.

My work these days is very eclectic. I continue to develop Planetwalk, the environmental education nonprofit, and within that, I am developing a walking education program, “Semester-on Foot,” in which students go on a walk, visit communities, and do community services while remaining connected to their learning institution through digital and distance learning technologies. Planetlines is an environmental education curriculum, K-University, that employs GPS and digital technology to help students learn and share their journey with others. If you think there is some overlap there, you are right.

Describe some ways in which you are involved in your community.

My kids go to West Cape May Elementary School, our small rural public school with an enrollment of 82 students. With other parents, I engage the students with stories of Planetwalk, and I am looking to develop Planetlines, the environmental education curriculum I mentioned earlier.

Besides environmental education, I am campaigning to be one of three Borough Commissioners. One of the three eventually takes on the role as Mayor. While this is my first foray into seeking political office, my running mates and myself see our campaign as community service.

For many, your lifestyle is considered “outside the mainstream.” Does this present any challenges, and, if so, how do you deal with them?

This is a very interesting question, because now I seem very different than the person who stopped riding in automobiles for 22 years and stopped speaking for 17 years. Today, I am married with children, own a home with a mortgage, drive a car (albeit a hybrid), fly in planes, and talk. I still travel, and my work remains eclectic. But whether I am teaching as a visiting professor, speaking in front of a professional organization, designing curricula, leading a Planetwalk, or running for Mayor, my “outside the mainstream” story and experience contribute a great deal to who I am now. The challenge for me is to be in the present. Each morning, I try to reflect on the journey that has brought me to this place, and then begin again.

Please describe any new skills or hobbies that you’re really excited about or that you would love to learn if you had the time and resources.

Besides learning new languages, I would like to walk more, paint more, and play music more. I think that all those things are within me. Taking my own advice, “We only need to begin.”

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

Keep it simple, and always be willing to question yourself.

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