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Alum Profile: Calla Ostrander

By Ben Holland

“I’m not only Calla’s friend, I’m her fan. Her strength, centeredness, clarity, committment and chutzpah inspire me. She’s doing important work now, but someday she will be extraordinarily influential, which will benefit us all.” -- RMI’s Michael Kinsley

If you’ve followed RMI’s work for long enough, then you know we’re prone to optimism. There’s a reason for that. We spend every day developing creative ways to achieve high levels of resource productivity. And in doing so, we see a world full of possibilities to explore. For 28 years, we have worked toward creating a vision for a world in equilibrium, where the needs of each individual are never hindered by a lack of resources.

But if vision were enough many of the problems we face on a daily basis would have been laid to rest in the early 1980s. Ideas are subject to the time in which they live and the audience exposed to them. Without voice, vision is immobile, ossified in context.

That’s why torchbearers are so important. We have plenty here at RMI (our Chairman and Chief Scientist, Amory Lovins, has profoundly delivered our message for years), but we have also nurtured something of a family outside RMI consisting of former staff members spread around the globe.

Calla Ostrander is one of those alumni. A former communications fellow in our Snowmass office, she directed donor events, designed RMI’s first knowledge-management system, and developed the Energy Opportunity Finder with Michael Kinsley.

“Everything I know about life-cycle management, integrated systems, biomimicry and efficiency, I learned at RMI,” Ostrander said.

Since leaving RMI, Ostrander has encountered many unique challenges, but one common thread has run throughout—community. Much of Ostrander’s work then and now can be described as outreach—maintaining an essential artery to the outside world.

Putting RMI Skills to Practical Use

As climate action coordinator for the city of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, Ostrander is responsible for managing citywide emissions inventories as well as climate policies like the Carbon Fund. This program sells offsets for carbon-intensive activities and then reinvests the proceeds into local operations that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Inspired by traditional offset programs, the Carbon Fund takes a far more local approach. For instance, in purchasing offsets for activities such as air travel, the air traveler directly invests in programs such as Urban Orchards, which plants fruit trees in urban areas, or Dog Patch Biodiesel, a waste-grease filling station. Such programs, along with a host of established environmental regulatory policies, make San Francisco a leader in climate protection.

To be sure, San Francisco is a progressive city with a great deal of political will and legislative backing for climate policies, but that hasn’t relieved Ostrander of her fair share of challenges.

“In San Francisco, there are so many offices devoted to environmental concerns—keeping our air clean, reducing emissions, cleaning up our waterways—but there’s less of a connection to the environment than you would assume,” she said.

The importance of framing the discussion is a daily reminder in Ostrander’s work. For example, the city’s Green Jobs program hires sixty low-income people from around the city, educates them about climate change, recycling and toxicity issues, and then sends them back to their communities with knowledge and new skills.

“Some of our workers will come in to work and they’ll say, ‘You know, my family thinks I’m full of it. They don’t believe in what I’m doing,’” Ostrander said.

The problem is in the large gap between technical experts and the general populace. “You have to ask, ‘What are the most important points, who is my audience, and where are they coming from?’ Because these issues affect at least one thing that everyone cares about.”

Moving Communities Toward Sustainability

Although Ostrander is in the initial stage of her career, she has an incredible ability to translate the technical to an often-indifferent audience, a skill she uses deftly in San Francisco but one she really learned in her former home of Aspen, Colorado.

After leaving RMI in 2006, Ostrander took a job with the city of Aspen. As project coordinator for Aspen’s Canary Initiative, Ostrander was responsible for many of the community’s environmental activities alive today. As co-author of the Canary Climate Action Plan, she helped outline Aspen’s current emissions reduction goals and the policy options for achieving them.

A city famous for excess (energy gobbling second-homes and a airport full of private jets), Aspen has made headlines recently for its environmental policies. A fair amount of credit is due to Ostrander, who became a public spokesperson for the Canary Initiative.

“Colorado is still very much the Wild West,” Ostrander said. “You don’t have the bureaucratic means for instituting such policies—as you do in California—so you have to frame the argument. I would block out 50 percent of my time setting up my argument so that people could identify with it.”

As a ski town, Aspen’s economy is largely based on the sport and is therefore dependent upon a future without substantial warming. The motivation for the Canary Initiative looms above them every season, in the form of four revenue-generating mountains: Ajax, Buttermilk, Highlands and Snowmass.

Ostrander has a keen understanding of that tenuous thread between educator and audience, as well as an unwavering drive to move her community forward. It’s a certain zeal for communicating profoundly important issues. Former RMI staffer Auden Schendler calls it a “contagious idealism and optimism that will keep us going when things look bleak.”

Ostrander’s strength is in recognizing the diversity of her audiences and their respective opinions but finding common ground in each of them. “After all, at the end of the day, you can’t get everybody,” Ostrander said. “You can fight tooth and nail, but you’re likely to just empower them.”

Ben Holland is RMI’s Outreach Coordinator.

--Published February 2010

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