When I first met Dr. John Francis, I was not walking, but rather running to meet him; we had lost each other that was the madness of a Beijing train station after his arrival from Hangzhou. After frantically running between platforms, I found just the man I was looking for – complete with banjo and walking boots.
Dr. Francis started his Planet Walking journey in the 1970s when he witnessed the aftermath of an oil spill in the San Francisco bay. So affected was he that he decided to give up motorized transportation, electing to only walk or bike as his modes of transport. On his 27th birthday, he realized that he was not listening to the people around him; only choosing to argue and debate with others. Thus, he chose to walk in silence for one day…one day eventually became 17 years. In his time walking on the West Coast, he earned his bachelors, masters, and doctorate degrees in environmental studies with emphases on oil spills…all in silence. Dr. Francis broke his silence on Earth Day in Washington D.C. in the 1990s expressing gratitude to his family and friends first, but also to express that he had learned something: humans are part of the environment too and thus, how we treat each other is the first chance we get to treat the environment well. The environment is more than just the air and water – it’s also the frogs and soil, it’s also civil rights and economic equity, it’s also education systems and gender equality. Dr. Francis proceeded to continue walking the length of South America while being declared a UN Goodwill Ambassador and later a National Geographic Explorer Fellow. Finally, 22 years after giving up anything with a motor, Dr. Francis decided it was time to ride in cars and planes and trains again, but now with the aim to raise awareness of the environment, encourage people to really listen, and develop ideas globally surrounding environmental conservation and using walking as an experiential education tool.
We were so thrilled to partner with PlanetWalk, The Hutong, National Geographic, and Chinese International School Hangzhou to support Dr. Francis’ PlanetWalk journey in Beijing. We were able to have many events in Dr. Francis’ honor from speaking engagements to walks to a night of song and stories – check out some photos below for a recap of the “celebration of life” as Dr. Francis might call it.
Dr. Francis was able to speak with Year 9 students at Dulwich College Beijing who will be embarking on their own PlanetWalk in June with The JUMP! Foundation. Students were eager at the end to come up with their own way of silently thanking Dr. Francis for his visit.
At Canadian International School Beijing, Dr. Francis spoke with primary and middle grades students. These students clapped along to Dr. Francis’ banjo-picking and even welcomed him with some fan art. One particular primary school student asked Dr. Francis a poignant question wow-ing the educators in the theatre: You taught a college class when you were silent. What did you learn from your students?
On Dr. Francis’ first visit to the Great Wall of China, he stopped along for some banjo playing and watercolor painting. He had many many Chinese fans who stopped to take photos, but still managed to chat with our JUMP! team too.
In a day filled with walking, Dr. Francis, supported by our friends at The Hutong, explored the nooks of the Forbidden City, took in a flower festival at Zhongshan Park, and rambled in the maze of Beijing’s hutongs. This walk was joined by our friends at National Geographic and two Dulwich College Beijing Junior Facilitators; we were able to catch a silly moment between the Junior Facilitators and Dr. Francis.
Finally, Dr. Francis finished his day of walking Beijing with an evening of songs and storytelling at The Hutong venue. Here, we were joined by members of the National Geographic, Hutong, and JUMP! Communities to hear Dr. Francis play banjo, tell his story, and have casual conversations with the PlanetWalker himself.
Between meetings and speeches and walks, I was able to develop a close bond with Dr. Francis to see that he really did believe in every word that he said. I began to notice that when he spoke, he very animatedly used his hands – a relic of his silent days I figured. In the Beijing heat, we would be sure to get in our daily recommended dose of ice cream and street food; 串 (chuan, BBQ skewers) was ours of choice. He had the poise of one who could sit comfortably silently and observe and truly listen – all the while, a fantastic storyteller of his adventures around the world. He is critical of many of the systems in place in which people are not treated equally as individuals or as whole groups of human beings, but his calm and light, but wise demeanor conveyed the importance of his mission. His mission began as a single man walking instead of riding, but now Dr. Francis is setting his sights on developing a Walking Campus which would offer PlanetWalking as a mode of education for remote learners globally. He is currently developing this innovative idea which I’m definitely excited to see grow and launch as a major way to make experiential education accessible to many in our global community!
We’re so glad we could support with Dr. Francis’ visit to Beijing and can’t wait to see him next time! For more information about PlanetWalk, do visit their website, www.planetwalk.org
Special thanks to PlanetWalk, The Hutong, National Geographic, Chinese International School of Hangzhou, Alibaba Foundation, Dan Kinzer, Jeremiah Jenne, Coco Chen, and Joshua Gortney for all their support of Dr. Francis’ visit to Beijing and The JUMP! Foundation.
Written by Sam Luu