Connecting People to the Planet – An interview with Calla Rose Ostrander, class of 2000

Environmental Leader and Climate Change Activist


Since your graduation from SMWS in 2000, down what paths has your heart led you (college, grad school, work, adventure, and more!) (Can you include your current job title and where you work?)

It is so wonderful to be asked a question, a first question at that, about heart! I find again and again that the heart is the leader. My heart lead me to my work in this world, reconnecting people to our planet with wonder and beauty. But my career path formed when I first understood the concept of economics. In addition to being a product of thirteen years at Shining Mountain Waldorf School, I came of age in the 1990’s Clinton era of a rapidly growing and globalizing free market. Economics was the language of power and in 8th grade at a green living fair on campus I read a book by Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter Lovins that became my first bridge between my love for the web of life in which we all live to the economic structures of the modern culture which we agree to all live by. The summer after I actually went to Snowmass Colorado, where the Lovin’s non-profit Rocky Mountain Institute is located, and asked if I could intern with that summer. My mom drove me up (thanks mom!) and I took the bus in. Though I was very serious in my inquiry about an application to intern, the lady at the front desk all but rolled her eyes at me. She told me that their interns all had college degrees. I said I’d pull weeds for free, she said the people who did that had masters degrees. Another, kinder, woman with ginger colored curly hair drove me back to town and told me to go to college and come back.I attended the University of Puget Sound with the help of family, friends, many part time jobs and a classical music scholarship. I returned to Rocky Mountain Institute the fall after my graduation with a degree in International Political Economy and the same woman who gave me a ride home became my mentor. At UPS (not the brown box one) I gained a deeper understanding of the social, political and economic structures that surround environmental policy and identified cities as the place where real political action towards climate change was beginning.  I worked with cities as part of my role at RMI and when I was offered a job to help the City of Aspen write its first climate action plan I took it. After three years in Aspen’s global warming office I decided I needed to learn Spanish (and how to surf) and left for Mexico. However, through a series of wonderful circumstances that involved six months of travel gear and my passport being stolen (less wonderful but ultimately important), falling in love, and being recruited by a very persuasive human being, I ended up working for the City and County of San Francisco implementing then Mayor Gavin Newsom’s climate policies and program for the next six years.In 2013, celebrating the completion of San Francisco’s new Climate Strategy (which, in case you are curious, boils down to three numbers and one word: 0, 50, 100, Roots), and in pursuit of solace for a broken heart, I went on a surf trip up California’s northern coast.  On our second to last day at sunset when glare was high on the water, I dove off my board into very shallow water and suffered a moderate traumatic brain injury.  Healing my head and my heart led me to a new way of approaching the world. I am grateful every day for the incredible gifts of a working body and mind and for this amazing capacity in life that we call resilience.I am now an independent strategic advisor to individuals and organizations committed to stabilizing the Earth’s climate and I love my job.

Did you always envision yourself stepping into working with / for the environment? When were you first inspired to take this work on?

The best answer I have for this question is “yes”. From the first time I began to formulate what I would do in the world, it was always this. When I was young we took a trip to Costa Rica. The rainforest was magic to me. I can still remember seeing the toucans fly, big wide swooping dives. Having only seen this creature in a cage before, it was like seeing freedom and joy and power all together – my heart soared with it. Then we saw the clear cut: the stumps of trees like butchered limbs, the broken skin of the earth, soils washing down the roads. The people we stayed with took in monkeys that no longer had homes, took in neighbors who no longer had homes. My heart broke for all of them, the trees, the animals and the people. I internalized it. Every night before bed from 3rd grade through what must have been 7th grade I prayed that one day I might help save the rainforest. I think I also prayed to marry Macaulay Culkin or Evan Silverman.Thank goodness the universe is wise enough to not answer all the prayers in an exact fashion.

Do you feel that your SMWS education and curriculum supported / inspired / prompted you to dive into the waters you find yourself in today? How so or how not?

Yes, absolutely. And there have been challenges, like not knowing how to type quickly or properly cite academic text when I went to college. I still can’t spell and I write in run on sentences. But there is spell check and things like citations can be learned in a semester or two. What takes longer to learn and what I am increasingly grateful for my Waldorf education is three fold: the ability to observe a full system and parts of any system simultaneously, the self authority to think outside the box, and the combined ability and desire to communicate across a wide diversity of people without prejudice who may be inside many different boxes (long years sitting in circles working things out, ropes courses, plays, etc). Perhaps equally as important, Waldorf gifted me with a second family for life in my classmates. 

What does a typical day for you look and feel like?

I spent nine years working in an office 9am-6pm and commuting to and from. Then, because of my injury I had an opportunity (/was forced) to be off of screens and out of the office for almost a year. In that time I realized I’d lost track of bird song and the way the air smelled. I now try and start each day with enough sleep and a walk outside. I work across the state of California or from my living room in Topanga when I am not traveling. I know the birds in my neighborhood and the people and their dogs and the coyotes too. 

Who are the people that inspire you in your work the most?

I have been inspired by so many incredible people, Barbara Rose Balock, Amory Lovins, Randy Udall, Silvia Earl, Arnie Ostrander, and the people who’s names who haven’t heard but who make entire cities and water systems run. Two years ago I left my position with San Francisco to join a team of people who started something called The Marin Carbon Project. This includes folks from the Resource Conservation Districts (best kept secret in conservation) co-founder John Wick and his wife Peggy Rathmann, Dr Jeffery Creek of the Carbon Cycle Institute, Dr. Whendee Silver of UC Berkeley, Rebecca Burgess of Fibershed, Dr. Nuna Teal of The Jena & Michael King Foundation, and my friends at 11th Hour, The Berry Good Found Foundation and Kiss the Ground. These people are in the process of starting the second agricultural revolution and healing our relationship to the planet in the process. It is my joy, honor and daily inspiration to work with them all.

 How do you get people who may be uninterested in supporting the environment to listen, change their views, and / or become conscious about their possible harmful actions?

I was given the amazing fortune of being able to ask this question of His Holiness the Dali Lama. He answered saying he believed most human beings are innately good and want to do the right thing. And that all change begins with you: your body, your home, your neighborhood, your community. His answer was of course longer and dazzlingly beautiful, completely circular, and left me high for days. But that is essentially what I took away from it, and that is always where I start with anyone I am speaking to about my work. I start by trusting them. Then taking time to understand where they come from, what they care about and what they do every day. This allows me to understand what they value and what their goals are. Once I know that I share with them my values and goals and we can see what we have in common, then we have a place to begin.I’ve also found that having the best data and telling good stories is far more powerful than trying to raise someone’s consciousness by pointing out what they are doing is wrong or using fear or shame. The environmental movement has too long relied on this kind of messaging and people are tired from it. Fear and shame may work on an immediate basis, but people are burnt out by it and it requires a lot of intense energy to keep up (Fox News). In the long run it just makes people angry (current presidential election). Inspiring love, or teaching someone something new is much more powerful. Those seeds stay with people and bloom into solutions you could have never come up with on your own.

Do you see / feel a difference in working with older vs. younger generations?

I once worked through the same problem of how to best manage restroom paper towel waste with a group of Waldorf 6th grade girls and with the city council. It took the Waldorf 6th graders two hours, while it took me three months with the a city council! Young people’s minds are more open, and so are their emotional bodies. They don’t have as many experiences that would evoke fear or political loyalty or ego that adults often do and that allows them to take risks by committing to an idea, following it through and then leaving it quickly when it fails, then repeating this until they find the answer that works. That being said, I believe it is essential that the adults stop placing the burden of action upon the younger generation and take responsibility for what is in front of us now.

If you could change the world for the better today, what would you do?

Teach people how to engage consciously with their fear of death and install composting everywhere. 

For young adults coming into the world and searching for inspiration, for meaning for ways to help, what guidance and advice might you give them?

Follow your heart, it is the leader. Use your mind to figure out how to get there. Learn to listen to your gut, it knows when and what decision to make. Time is yours.

Is there literature or periodicals that you feel all young adults and adults should be reading in order to stay informed about environmental change?

National Geographic and Scientific American are great for learning how natural systems work and falling in wonder with the beauty of the world. I subscribe to the journals Science and Nature Climate Change. Online, NASA and BBC have great resources. Grist is great and easily digestible. I also have a Google search that delivers articles related to topics I want to follow. I don’t read them, but I open the emails to scan headlines, it helps me keep tabs on the conversations in the media.

What is your favorite quote? OR what is one of your favorite memories from SMWS?

…the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. -Goethe