Growing up near Golden Gate Park in San Francisco’s Richmond District, Leslie Alden was riding city buses by herself when she was in second grade. She witnessed Vietnam War protests, civil rights marches, second wave feminism and the free speech movement by the time she was in middle school.
“I was a city kid,” the 63-year-old Alden recalls. “I grew up without a lot of money but with the riches of San Francisco—books, after-school science classes and music lessons at the Conservatory of Music.”
Raised by a ballerina turned legal secretary, Alden watched her single mom buy her own house at a time when that was out of reach for most women. Her mother, who later became a prolific painter, showed her daughter that it was possible to work miracles with creativity, determination and hard work.
Her Calling Is Climate Change
As she confronts the ravages of climate disruption in her work as cofounder and executive director of DRAWDOWN Bay Area, Alden leads a climate and sustainability effort that is attempting to work another kind of miracle: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2030 and become “Fossil Free by ’33” in the greater San Francisco Bay Area.
With 25 years’ experience working in the public sector, Alden cut her teeth in government by working for Charles McGlashan, the late Supervisor in Marin County (north of San Francisco), who served as a mentor and friend, as well as her boss. McGlashan’s dedication to policies that bettered people’s lives helped ignite Alden’s passion for climate work. Alden helped him launch MCE Clean Energy, the first of California’s community choice energy programs. His untimely death from an undiagnosed heart condition at age 49 fuels her dedication to saving the planet.
Alden co-founded the Marin Climate Action Network and Drawdown Marin in 2017. Her accomplishments up to this point have set the scene for her most ambitious endeavor—persuading communities, businesses and governments that typically operate in silos to tackle climate change head on, collaboratively.
“We already have the solutions,” Alden says. “It’s about bringing people together to implement them. We can’t wait for the magic fairy dust of futuristic technology. By the time it comes online, it will be too late. We have to decarbonize our buildings, our transportation and our food systems—now!”
We have the solutions; it’s about bringing people together to implement them.
Individual choices matter, Alden believes. “People just need to realize how simple it is to trade out a gas stove for an induction model, eat a plant-rich diet, or bike more and drive less. We need to make the solutions available for people to take smart climate actions that benefit them as well as the planet.”
But to gain speed and leverage in this movement it will be vital to focus on existing best practices, create or strengthen public-private partnerships and support sweeping systemic change. And the public must hold elected officials’ feet to the fire.
“Change happens slowly and then all at once—like the overnight success that was 30 years in the making,” she says, insisting that transformation on a vast scale is possible.
“If we put as much time and energy into implementing existing solutions as we do to researching the problem—and if we stay in the game—we can do this.”
Working as an Older Adult on Climate Change
Alden believes older adults have a special role to play in averting the worst climate impacts by sharing wisdom and resources with younger activists, without being prescriptive. “We have to give purpose and inspiration to the people coming up behind us,” she says, recounting the words of a teenage member of the Sunrise Movement who told older climate activists, “We want you here. Just don’t tell us what to do.”
While the word “workaholic” is not in her vocabulary, Alden admits that she’s a bit of a grind. She refreshes her spirit with shared activities and enjoys hiking, sailing and going out with friends. “I’m trying hard to relax,” she jokes.
“I try to step back and gain perspective. Compared to the span of geologic time, human history is a blip. Many species have come and gone, so have many societies. Climate work is serious, but we can’t take ourselves too seriously. Otherwise, who would ever want to invite us to dinner?”
Alden is enrolled in the Public Leadership Credential program at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University where she meets in virtual discussion groups with 300 leaders from around the world. A policy wonk, she enjoys sharing ideas and approaches with other thought leaders from a variety of disciplines, and applies it to her work with DRAWDOWN.
“In discussions about the ethics of leadership, values play a huge role. And this applies directly to climate change. What are our values around energy equity? Why are the least resourced communities suffering the worst impacts? We have to talk deeply about our values as we implement solutions,” she says.
‘Climate work is serious, but we can’t take ourselves too seriously.’
To age healthfully she believes a sense of belonging and a feeling of agency are important. And as she approaches age 64, she has thoughts on her new position as an elder.
“It comes down to sharing what we know, being willing to teach and to mentor. I’ve embraced that role. When younger colleagues ask for advice I’m delighted to give it and I also want to learn from them. I’m happy to be an ‘auntie.’ We need to acknowledge the value of the entire tribe —young, middle-age and elders. We all have a part to play.”
These days, Alden works entirely from home. Home for her is a lovely cottage on a dead-end road with an unobstructed view of the hills surrounding Corte Madera in Marin. Purchased in the early 1980s, the house is fronted by a Japanese style garden that wouldn’t be out of place in a Zen monastery, with a fountain Alden designed herself. It’s an island of serenity in the midst of a busy life.
“I have a restless, curious mind,” she admits. “I just want to keep doing good work. There’s a lot to be encouraged and inspired by. There’s a lot to celebrate.”
For more information on Alden’s work at DRAWDOWN Bay Area, visit https://www.drawdownbayarea.org/.
Eleanor Vincent is a writer who lives in Northern California. She has published a memoir, poetry and essays and writes a monthly column on resilient aging for the Rossmoor News. Visit her here.
Photo: Leslie Alden
Photo credit: Addison Olian, 2021