Walking for Civility: Moving Through the Benjamin Franklin Circle Virtues
At America Walks, we believe walking and moving can be used as an accessible, gentle, and tactical intervention for division in our communities. This three-part series on Walking for Civility examines the ways the act of walking and promoting walkable communities functions as a bridge to civility, connection, and community change.
Benjamin Franklin Circles (BFC) is a collaborative project of 92nd Street Y (92Y), the Hoover Institution, and Citizen University that reflects a shared commitment to fostering civic participation, open dialogue, and ethics-based leadership. Circles meet regularly, using Ben Franklin’s classic 13 virtues to spark discussion about members’ goals and aspirations — who they want to be, and what they want to contribute to the world. The groups revisit and redefine these virtues – as tools to enrich their own lives and communities.
The tagline and focus of the Ben Franklin Circles (BFC) is to “transform yourself and transform your world”, and the Sedona Philosophy BFC group is building on that motto by getting more intimately in touch with their world each time they go outside — by walking. The only walking group of about 300 circles throughout the U.S., Sedona Philosophy in Sedona, Arizona is modeling the differentiator that walking can afford us in all of our circles. Exploring the virtues in a deeply personal way while traversing the natural environment has sparked enhanced creative thinking, deeper common bonds, and more direct, meaningful connection and investment in sustainability of the community and the planet.
Nature Encourages a Fresh, Sincere Outlook
People show up to the group with varying backgrounds and abilities to walk and move in nature, and who is there on any given day and how they are feeling affects the routes they take. Sedona and the surrounding Red Rocks State Park community is blessed with over 220 miles of hiking trails, where members of the walking group are able to explore their individual, inner lives outside.
Andrea Christelle who runs Sedona Philosophy and the BFC walking group, has noticed that people think differently, and often more creatively and honestly, when immersed in the natural world.
“We thought that a natural setting would facilitate the personal exploration that is a part of studying Franklin’s virtues. It is really a deeply personal process that involves making value commitments and thinking consciously and deliberately about how we want to live our lives.”
Andrea says walking in nature is a comforting and soothing way to think about our priorities, and people are considering how to incorporate these virtues in deeply personal ways.
The Shared Physical Experience Creates Common Bonds
The group meets monthly at the Miller Visitor Center and each person says a little bit about the virtue they are currently discussing. Then they all walk to a wildlife viewing area or to the banks of Oak Creek, where there are simple benches that provide an outdoor space to discuss the virtues. After about an hour of conversation, they head back to the visitor center. The walks open and close the conversation, and give people a chance to talk in groups of two or three about their ideas or how the virtue fits into their lives.
“The walking is probably the most intimate part of our experience. It is a really nice way to get people comfortable talking before they are in a larger group, and it also ensures that everyone has an opportunity to reflect on the virtue at the end,” says Andrea.
At America Walks, not only do we loyally believe and invest in the magic of walkable communities, we trust that the very act of walking can aid in more intimate and energizing discussions, while facilitating a decompressive and safe space setting. Andrea confirms that walking, especially in a beautiful natural area like Red Rock State Park, promotes a deep common bond between all forms of life.
“In nature, hierarchical relationships tend to diminish and relate to one another on a simply human and empathetic level. We experience not only our connection to each other this way, but also to the other animals we see, the plants and trees, the creek, and even the wind and air.”
Andrea says the group feels the interconnection of all life on Earth and can experience their own relationship with nature. Sustainability and environmental stewardship are priorities for the community generally as well as the group. They often discuss reducing carbon footprints and how to manage development to protect natural spaces.
The group started with a small number, and they have deliberately kept it that way. As people come together month after month, the trust and relationships build. Dialogues become more personal, revealing, and often humorous.
Walking to Cultivate Political Will and Community Change
At America Walks, our mission is to is to advance safe, equitable, accessible, and enjoyable places to walk and move by giving people and communities the resources to effectively advocate for change. The virtue circles encourage people to think about their own dispositions and about how we all affect the wider world. Groups and circles (of any nature) might consider cultivating political virtues that would inspire people to advocate for the conditions we are working so diligently to create in communities across the U.S., and for other community changes.
Andrea is a proponent of the clear benefits that walking has added to the Ben Franklin Circles and thinks other virtue circles, and any circle really, may want to consider working these benefits into their program, or vice versa (start a BFC within your existing walking group!). There are a variety of ways community members can blend these activities, and she thinks people should pursue what resonates with them intuitively and sincerely.
“The virtue of sincerity was especially meaningful to our group. Franklin characterizes sincerity as thinking ‘innocently and justly’… having genuine good will, and a sort of innocence. Nature is the perfect place to explore and enrich a sense of sincerity, and it is a virtue that our world needs now,” says Andrea.
Anyone can start a Ben Franklin Circle, a walking group, or better yet, a hybrid. Knowing what we know about the benefits of walking, especially after the privilege of getting to know Andrea of Sedona Philosophy and Benjamin Franklin Circles, we believe this simple call to action holds the essence — the virtue, if you will — of a true civic duty.