It’s a quote we all know and love well, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” attributed to late global leader and peacekeeper Mahatma Gandhi. That’s exactly what Founder of nonprofit Planetwalk Dr. John Francis did in 1971 when he took a vow of silence that lasted for 17 years. What led him to take such extreme measures? His activist work started after seeing the horrendous impact of an oil spill in his community along the San Francisco Bay.
While helping others clean up after the oil spill, the young 27 year-old felt the need to help in a bigger way. He stopped using motorized vehicles and began walking wherever he went. After receiving some mockery from some friends and family, however, Dr. Francis made the decision to turn silent as well. The next time he spoke again wouldn’t be until nearly two decades later, when he was asked to speak at an event in Washington, D.C., on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day.
Blair is most excited to hear from Dr. Francis who will speak at the Society of Skeptics on Tuesday, November 11, on his life, journey and current, heroic work with Planetwalk.
“At first, I decided to give up talking for one day,” shared Dr. Francis in a TED Talk in 2008. “And it was a very moving experience, because for the first time in a long time, I started listening.”
The refreshing sensation of processing what communication and listening genuinely meant, Dr. Francis decided to continue “keeping quiet.” During the next 17 years, Dr. Francis “walked, played the banjo, painted, wrote in his journal, and tried to study.” After spending time living in a wilderness area he decided to pursue his formal education.
He received his bachelors of science degree from Southern Oregon State College, and afterwards found Planetwalk, a non-profit dedicated to raising environmental awareness. He went on to earn a master’s degree in environmental studies from the University of Montana-Missoula, and a doctorate in land resources from the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
At the National Geographic Society, where Dr. Francis, served as the first education fellow, he found the opportunity to publish three books: Planetwalker: 17 Years of Silence, 22 Years of Walking, The Ragged Edge of Silence: Finding Peace in a Noisy World, and Human Kindness: True Stories of Compassion and Generosity the Changed the World. Today, Dr. Francis dedicates his time to managing his organization, Planetwalking across Africa, and speaking all over the world, influencing and learning from young students.
“While I understand that what I have done may be inspiring to young students, I am also looking forward to learning and being inspired by them,” said Dr. Francis in a pre-event interview. “I am looking forward to learning more about Blair, the students there and the Skeptics program.”
Dr. Francis cannot wait to join the hilltop and relay an important lesson: “Remember to persevere, listen to others and practice kindness, because as we aspire so shall we become.”
All are welcome to hear Dr. Francis speak in the forum of the Chiang-Elghanayan Center next Tuesday at 7 p.m.
History of Skeptics
The Society of Skeptics was established as a forum for students and faculty to discuss and debate important global issues; it has grown to become one of the premier high school lecture series in the United States. Each week, speakers from the political, social, scientific, economic and literary arenas share their unique perspectives with students, who are encouraged to engage with presenters, asking questions and debating points of view.
The program, which is funded in part by the Class of 1968 Society of Skeptics Endowment Fund, is an outgrowth of the Blair International Society, begun in 1937. Forty years later, former history department chair Elliott Trommald, PhD, Hon. ’65, established the modern Skeptics program as a regular forum for student discussion and debate; history teacher Martin Miller, PhD, took over in the mid-1980s and molded the program into a weekly lecture series, one that has since continued without interruption. Under the tutelage of Dr. Miller and his successor, history department chair Jason Beck, Skeptics has featured a wide variety of speakers who are thought-provoking, engaging, accomplished in their respective fields and often controversial. For a listing of upcoming Skeptics programs, please visit Blair’s website.