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Redefining the Environmental Movement: Part II

In his new role as graduate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, John Francis leads a seminar where 12 graduate students discuss and examine the awakening and the current state of conservation and the environmental movement, including Environmental Justice, gaining the new insights that can come from classroom reflection and interactive discussion through through National...

In his new role as graduate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, John Francis leads a seminar where 12 graduate students discuss and examine the awakening and the current state of conservation and the environmental movement, including Environmental Justice, gaining the new insights that can come from classroom reflection and interactive discussion through through National Geographic online.


Meet the Class

I started off the first class by playing the banjo, welcoming music and the spirit of listening and cooperation to dwell amongst us. After that I spoke. I was reminded that the last class that I had lead was at the University of Montana, in Missoula, a discussion class, and I didn’t speak, as I was eleven years into a seventeen-year vow of silence. Then my students looked on in shock as my roommate, translated my mime and sigh language that their teaching assistant in the discussion class did not speak because of a vow and after today we were going to lose the interpreter. So when I spoke to the students in this first class, there was a collective sigh of relief.

Going around the room we introduced ourselves, and talked a little about why we had taken this particular seminar.  Much of our environmentalism came from our parents, whether overtly as activists protesting or as a matter of life style, growing up on a farm, family outings in nature, and experiences during our childhood. Not everyone considered her or himself an environmentalist and fewer still felt they were activists.

John Muir's Combination Alarm Clock and Study Desk
John Muir's Combination Alarm Clock and Study Desk. Photo by John Francis


First Assignments

One of our first assignments was to write a paragraph about where we were in our “environmental” journeys.  At the same time we were encouraged to look at an environmental history time line beginning with pre-history and early civilizations with evidence of deforestation, air pollution, and soil erosion, and going all the way through the 19th and 20th centuries with Teddy Roosevelt and forester Gifford Pinchot.  Most of the younger students cited their parents as an inspiration to work for the environment. Some of the older students recalled earlier experiences of being closer to nature and cleaner environments.

We also read an article by Dick Russell on “Environmental Racism” and how an “impoverished and largely Hispanic “ community in East Los Angeles, with other minority communities across California, believing that proposed toxic landfills and incinerators in their neighborhoods posed unacceptable health threats to them and their children.  “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States” by Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., illustrated how the preponderant waste sites in the US were in or near minority disadvantaged communities.

But while we were learning about race and the environment, we were also learning about our larger journey by watching “The Journey of Man,” the Public Broadcasting Corporation documentary hosted by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Spencer Wells, the leading population geneticist and director of the Genographic Project.  Using genetic markers the documentary traces our human journey and expansion from Central Africa, through Asia, Europe and Australia, and all the way to the tip of South America. In the end, when Spencer turns to the camera to tell us what he learned and what lesson stood out, his words were taken to heart by our class “ We are all literally African under the skin, brothers and sisters separated by a mere two thousand generations. Old-fashioned concepts of race are not only socially divisive, but scientifically wrong.”

Still, like seeing the planet for the first time from space, those words are so profound, it might take time for us to really comprehend the concept of total brother- and sisterhood. Our idea of the environmental movement had begun to change as well our ideas of who we are had began to shift or perhaps expand.


Casting a Wide Net

The seminar journals that each student kept deepened our conversation and widened the opportunity for our reflection. In my own journey I used the illustrated journal to document my walk across the county and the inner landscape of silence.

In the following weeks students have explored the work of some well-known “environmentalists” and “conservationists ” such John Muir, a student at UW-Madison when he was 22, who later went on to found the Sierra Club, Aldo Leopold, a UW professor who wrote A Sand County Almanac, and was considered the father of wildlife ecology along with US Senator Gaylord Nelson, who helped found Earth Day and also had connections with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As well, students chose lesser known local activists in First Nation communities such as Faith Gemmill, a Gwich’in native from Arctic Village, in Alaska, fighting for climate justice for indigenous people of Alaskan interior, and Majora Carter, working to restore green spaces to the South Bronx. We stretched our net wide to be inclusive in defining the environmental movement and it proponents.


Celebrating a “Peace Pilgrim

John Muir's Combination Alarm Clock and Study Desk
People walking in honor of "Peace Pilgrim." Photo by John Francis

On one September weekend, I flew back to Egg Harbor, New Jersey to celebrate the life and work of Peace Pilgrim.

A website dedicated to her explains:

From 1953 to 1981 a silver haired woman calling herself only “Peace Pilgrim” walked more than 25,000 miles on a personal pilgrimage for peace. She vowed to “remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace, walking until given shelter and fasting until given food.” In the course of her 28-year pilgrimage she touched the hearts, minds, and lives of thousands of individuals all across North America. Her message was both simple and profound. It continues to inspire people all over the world.

She was an inspiration to me and to thousands of  people around the world as her story spread.


Speaking With the “Enemy”

Our class is a celebration of diversity and when someone did a presentation on Will Allen, who had began an urban farm to bring nutritious vegetables to undeserved urban communities in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, there was unanimous applause–until a student disclosed that Will’s non-profit, Growing Power had been given one million dollars to advance its work by Wal-Mart, the very company that many saw as enemy to fresh affordable food.

We debated the positive and negative sides of speaking with the “enemy:” the other side(s) of our argument or position. It looked hopeless and it seemed like the inclusiveness that we searched for was doomed to exclusivity. We were saved by an article about a meeting that had taken place between Michael Pollan author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” who writes about food and industrialized agriculture, and the executive vice present of Wal-Mart’s grocery merchandise. As a class we accepted that we had to include corporations in the conversation even if we disagreed with how they operated, especially if the conversations presented the opportunity for positive change. However, the operative word was caution.

When I mentioned that next month’s class would involve a video-conference visit involving the US Department of Defense (DoD), there was an almost collective sigh, or maybe it was a groan.  Before we even began some students expressed their disapproval. But this ongoing debate about who to engage with and how is exactly what makes these conversations, and this seminar, so important now.


Learn More

Redefining the Environmental Movement: Part I

NG Fellow: John Francis, Planetwalker



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Meet the Author

John Francis, Planetwalker
John Francis, a visiting associate professor at the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, known the world over as the Planetwalker began his environmental work in 1971, when he witnessed an oil spill in San Francisco Bay. Feeling partly responsible for the mess washing up on the shore, he stopped using of motorized vehicles and began to walk. Several months later, because of the arguments his decision caused, John took a vow of silence lasting 17 years. During that time, he founded Planetwalk a non-profit environmental awareness organization, received a B.S. degree from Southern Oregon University, a Masters in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana-Missoula, and a PhD in Land Resources from the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Ending his silence, John served as project manager for the United States Coast Guard Oil Pollution Act of 1990 Staff, in Washington, DC. and United Nations goodwill ambassador to the World’s grassroots communities He authored Planetwalker: 17-Years of Silence, 22-Years of Walking and “The Ragged Edge of Silence: Finding Peace in a Noisy World” both published by the National Geographic Society, where he is currently an education fellow.