Honoring the Living History of John Francis

It’s not often that being silent can amplify your voice. Everything we think we know about being “heard” involves talking. One Black environmentalist took a different approach, and by listening to his own inner voice, a revelation came to him.

I’m talking about John Francis, aka The Planet Walker.

In January 1971, when John was in his 20s, he was deeply moved by a shipping accident involving two oil tankers that collided in San Francisco Bay. The oil covered beaches and birds and importantly the smells were inescapable — not just images from somewhere else offshore or in a remote part of the world as is often the case. He felt powerless to affect the status quo of this “dirty energy” system.

Self Portrait by John Francis

Around that same time, his neighbor Jerry, a White local sheriff’s deputy, died in a boating accident. Jerry was someone whom John Francis thought epitomized the American Dream, with a wife, two kids, and an actual white picket fence around his home. Jerry’s death made John acutely aware that tomorrow is never guaranteed. 

So with a vigor coupled with a youthful, perhaps idealistic sense that what was “right,” would surely be recognized and taken up by the masses, he decided to stop participating in the fossil fuel economy for his own transportation needs. John stopped traveling in gas-powered vehicles — not an easy feat in California then or now.

John admits that he naively thought if he started walking and stopped taking cars, he would inspire everyone to do the same. As one of two Black people living in his Bay Area town, he stood out to begin with, and now everyone would get wind that one of them was abstaining from automobiles, and perhaps it would inspire them to do the same. 

Instead of inspiring others to join in behind him in a wave of pedestrianism, John found that his example only seemed to inspire people to argue with him about whatever it was they thought he was doing. The more John engaged, the more they dug in. After all, people like cars, and many seemed to feel that his decision to walk implied that he was judging their dependence on automobiles.

Photo by Glenn Oakley

These  arguments became less and less productive and more and more tiresome. On the occasion of his 27th birthday, John decided to give himself the gift of silence — of not talking that day. That day of silence was a needed rest that he had never given himself. It allowed him the mental space to reflect that he was not listening to others while he expected everyone to listen to him. 

He committed at that moment to go wholeheartedly into a direction his heart was taking him, and in that moment, his heart told him to listen.

When John removed his contribution to the verbal conflict, he quickly learned that by not interrupting people, he was giving them — and himself — the opportunity to see if their respective goals were more aligned than either of them previously thought. John found that by letting people fully express themselves, they often came around to some of the points he had unsuccessfully tried to get them to agree on through debate. He extended his silence day by day, and ultimately remained silent for 17 years. That’s not a typo — 17 years! 

During that time, he founded Planetwalk a non-profit environmental awareness organization, received a B.S. degree from Southern Oregon State College, a Masters degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana-Missoula, and a Ph.D. in Land Resources from the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And yes, he got to all of those places on foot!

His purposeful silence (communicating with note cards, facial expressions, longer-form writing, and sign language) was both spectacle and strategic. It opened more conversations than he ever could have by talking. It was unique. It supported his own emotional wellness, inspired many and it helped him focus on developing his organization, Planetwalk, which fosters communication between young people, scientists, and environmental practitioners.

John emerged from his 17 years of silence in 1990 in order to work for the US Coast Guard’s Oil Pollution Staff. He received the US Department of Transportation’s Public Service Commendation for his work there, and he stayed out of cars for another 10 years. 

It was a great pleasure to speak with him and read about all he has done, why, and how. His book, Planet Walker, is just as moving now as it was when it was first published in 2008 — if not even more so.

The creativity, commitment, and consciousness of Black people throughout American history is a well of inspiration for me. John Francis is a leader because of a unique combination of what he has done, and what he chose not to do.

No matter how little you think you have at your disposal to achieve the things you want to see in life, it’s important to remember that not now, doesn’t mean not ever. There’s no way to know where your creativity will take you and what you can achieve.

PS: For more of John, I had the pleasure of featuring John on my radio show, The Promised Land, back in 2010.