In 2014, Lori Clanton was feeling overwhelmed by Fresno. Not only did its massive sprawl present a challenge for her to wrap her head around; working in philanthropy for a decade, she’d also become concerned about the problems and challenges facing the city and its diverse residents. So one Saturday, she decided to get intimately acquainted with her adopted hometown, one piece at a time.
While she’d previously walked on Saturday mornings for exercise, Lori had always stuck to her own neighborhood. But on this particular Saturday, she called up two friends and told them to meet her at First and Barstow. “They were surprised, but they went along with it,” she recalls. When they arrived, she dropped another bombshell. “By the way,” she told them, “we’re not going to talk to each other on this walk.” And so Fresno Mindfulness Walks was born.
Closing one’s mouth to open the mind
At first, the concept of not talking to one another seemed like an impossible assignment. Her friends laughed at the idea. But once they’d completed a four-mile course and compared notes, they discovered that each of them had discovered something new about Fresno. “We saw things that surprised us, and we’d all lived in Fresno for decades.” One of her friends, a teacher, had been a lifelong Fresno resident. Walking through neighborhoods where her students might have come from, she noticed little details that prompted her to feel an outpouring of empathy and understanding for people who lived in her community.
“I think we saw those things because we agreed not to talk,” Lori explains, adding, “When we talk, we rehash our week; we stress about next week.” Having put those conversational impulses aside, the practice of silence “opened up our minds to really see with all our senses, observe sights, sounds, smells, feelings,” Lori explains. “And such a simple thing had a profound impact on me and my friends, so I started inviting other people to do this with me.”
Exploring Fresno’s nooks and crannies
Today, Lori estimates that she has covered most of the neighborhoods within Fresno’s 110 square miles. “If I put all four years of walks on one map, it’s pretty darn full,” she notes. “You see, you gotta see it all. Fresno’s complex and big and diverse–and that’s amazing and beautiful. And to be part of the health and healing of Fresno, I think it helps just to kind of have the whole thing in mind, and realize that what you do in northwest Fresno impacts the people in southeast Fresno, and vice versa, and realize that it’s all connected.”
She’s interested in getting into all of Fresno’s nitty-gritty details. On a typical walk, you’ll find her boldly venturing off the beaten path, shimmying through obscure passageways, investigating openings in fences, marching down alleys, and the like. “We walk across schools and churches. If there’s an open gate we go through it, because we want to observe…the nooks and crannies,” she says. In the process, she’s developed an enviable working knowledge of Fresno. “Walking and seeing Fresno firsthand is like primary source information.” She envisions herself and the other walkers as “citizen journalists…we’re seeing for ourselves, firsthand.”
Seeing Fresno with the fresh eyes of a tourist
Now in its fourth year, Fresno Mindfulness Walks draws between 15 and 30 people on Saturday mornings. The walks are free, open to everyone, and no RSVP is required. All that’s required is the willingness to keep one’s thoughts to oneself until the walk’s end, at which point Lori and her walkers compare notes. Later, Lori compiles the impressions to share on her blog, which meticulously chronicles her four years’ worth of walks, as well as on the group’s Facebook page.
She approaches walking Fresno with the spirit of a tourist, noting that when people go on vacation, we typically walk with a mind open to learning and seeing new things. She challenged herself to bring that spirit into her own city. “I can drive five miles from my house and see a world that’s nothing like my own neighborhood. Welcome to Fresno: It’s this beautiful, amazing microcosm of the world.”
Lori adds, “I don’t walk with the intention of solving a problem at the end or starting a new nonprofit.” Instead, she finds that pure observation leaves her mind open to new creative thoughts. Often, though, walkers report life-changing insights or decision points reached while walking. One walker even purchased a house in a neighborhood she fell in love with while walking with FMW.
“It also allows me to see the real value or the real wealth [of Fresno’s neighborhoods],” Lori says, “not just price per square foot, or not just a neighborhood that’s all manicured, but the things that we value as people living in a neighborhood, the sense of community. And you don’t get that just by talking about north or south neighborhoods or zip codes.”
She tells the story of walking one of Fresno’s old neighborhoods and striking up a conversation with a lady who was outside watering her yard. A walker later pointed out that in the days before automatic irrigation, this is how neighbors kept up with one another, via over-the-shrub conversations. “You don’t put a price on that,” Lori effuses. “I mean, that’s a value. So she knows when her neighbor is sick or has a new grandchild or all those things that have a sense of community.”
While the walkers don’t talk to each other during the walk, they are encouraged to speak to anyone they happen to meet on their way. And those conversations often yield some great fruits, figuratively and literally. “We’ve met people who offer us fruit from the trees in their yard. I bet at least a dozen times we’ve been invited into people’s backyards,” Lori says. “We’re a group of strangers, and sometimes there’s three of us or 20 of us, and we’ve all gotten invited because somebody wants to show us their space or something they’ve created. It’s a beautiful thing, and I would say that’s happened all over Fresno. [In] all quadrants of Fresno, we’ve been invited into people’s backyards.”
“I’ve also learned that Fresno is full of public art,” Lori adds. “We walked the Mural District, and that’s a great example of graffiti art—huge mural art. But in neighborhoods, people put art in their front yards. Sometimes it’s something they’ve probably bought, but a lot of times it’s things they’ve made.” She says she has a “couple hundred pictures of front yard art” that she’s observed over the four years of FMW. “Some neighborhoods, I feel like I’ve just been in an art gallery, just walking street to street.”
Fresno Mindfulness Walks presents real-time human interest stories
Often, walkers discover the kind of feel-good human interest stories you might never see on the news. Says Lori, “We were walking by Viking Elementary, and it was Saturday school, so there was the principal and the teachers there, and the kids were gardening. The students were telling us how much having plants in their classroom and seeing the production from their garden had meant for them. And one little boy said, ‘Since we’ve been gardening, the bad behavior in our classroom has declined. My teacher is so happy!’”
At another school, the walkers discovered a principal supervising kids on the playground. The principal explained that the neighborhood doesn’t have a public park, and she wanted to ensure the kids had a safe place to play on Saturday.
On one occasion, walkers noticed a FedEx truck delivering donated furniture to a single mother with five kids and an empty house. Another time, they witnessed a man leaving food on the porch of a sick neighbor. Once, they saw a house on fire and called 9-1-1, and watched as a neighbor went into the burning house and carried out an old man with an oxygen tank.
One Saturday, they met a group of Egyptian Coptic Christians, who shared homemade bread with them. Another time, Buddhists offered them pastries. Recently, walkers met a group of Sikhs who invited them all to a feast. “Those are the heartwarming and amazing things we see going on in Fresno that, if I were home in my own house, or just sticking with my own familiar routes…would not be in my awareness,” says Lori. “And it brings me so much joy to have that in my awareness.”
Saturday walks are free and open to public
Neither a business nor a non-profit, Fresno Mindfulness Walks is a free weekly event, and everyone’s welcome to join the expedition. Each Saturday morning’s meeting place and a general description of that week’s route is announced on the Fresno Mindfulness Walks website, as well as on the group’s Facebook page, usually just a couple of days in advance of the walk. Like and follow the group for updates. To participate, simply show up at the announced location, and get ready to “breathe, walk, observe, and discover” a new aspect of Fresno.