Changemaker of the Week: James Leslie '99
James Leslie '99 is a technical advisor on ecosystems and climate change for the United Nations Development Program in Lima, Peru. He has initiated multiple projects to enable adaptation by rural communities in Peru to climate change impacts, and is playing an integral role in the organization of the climate change convention meeting in Lima, Peru in December 2014. Through his work with UNDP, he is translating Brown's mission to to serve the community, the nation, and the world in a unique and exciting way.
Q: In what ways have you been a "changemaker" since graduating from Brown?
A: Since graduating from Brown, I have been working on sustainable development issues in Latin America. I initially worked and lived in Paraguay as a Peace Corps Volunteer. This experience was life-changing, and redefined my career path towards international development. I now work for the United Nations Development Programme in Peru. In my capacity as Technical Advisor on ecosystems and climate change, I have developed a project portfolio that ties together systemic policy reform with on-the-ground support to biodiversity conservation and climate-resilient sustainable development. As an example, I meet regularly with senior-level public officials, such as the Minister and Vice Minister of Environment, in the context of our support to the organization of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP20) scheduled for December. At the same time, I also visit frequently with indigenous community leaders in the Amazon - many hours, and in some cases, days of travel from Lima - to measure progress and discuss next steps in our joint efforts to reduce local communities' vulnerability to climate change.
Q: What is the most important lesson you've learned since starting this work?
A: Many of the solutions already exist to our sustainable development challenges. The main barriers to their widespread adoption are social and political-economic in nature. I've learned that removing these barriers requires an interdisciplinary approach - with support of environment scientists, economists, sociologists, etc - in order to package holistic solutions in the context of economic and political priorities. In practice, integrated solutions are not easily legible to civil servants operating within rigid public bureaucracies. An additional challenge I face is to ensure that the development solutions that we support are adequately informed by both science and lessons learned from past experiences.
Q: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to any college student thinking of becoming a "changemaker"?
A: Becoming an effective "changemaker" requires opening oneself to continuous change - in terms of how one sees the world, those around him or her, as well as his or her role in a broader social and environmental context. Changemakers are always learning, particularly from and alongside those whom they are interested in benefiting. A changemaker is a risk taker who looks constantly through a lens of opportunity.
Q: What is your personal mission statement?
A: I am guided by an underlying interest to make a positive contribution to people's lives, particularly by working alongside them to restore and conserve the environment. I believe I am most effective - and find the most rewarding - working in partnership with others, as well as pursuing opportunities to support both organized civil society organizations as well as individuals to achieve their own potential as change agents. I regularly reflect on - and re-calibrate if needed - my own efforts to ensure that they benefit peoples that have been historically marginalized by the political and economic elite.
Q: What's one interesting fact people might not know about you?
A: In Paraguay as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I had the opportunity to put to practice much of what I had learned through Brown's UTEP (Undergraduate Teacher Education Program), while teaching basic environmental science to school children in their first language, Guarani.
If you know a Brown student or alum who is making a difference on campus, in Providence, or around the world, nominate them here to see them featured as Changemaker of the Week.