For the most part, the communities in which I live and go to school do not face many challenges except for high stress and ambitious overachieving. However, just a twenty-five-minute drive away in almost any direction would bring me to some of the poorest and most challenged areas of Washington, DC. These neighborhoods suffer from crime, poverty, and failing schools, and desperately need help. I visited a similarly underprivileged area a year ago when I worked with an organization called Green Light New Orleans on a Quaker service trip with the DC-based William Penn House.
Green Light is a Louisiana non-profit organization that replaces light bulbs in lower-income residents’ homes with energy-efficient light bulbs (CFLs). The idea is that the CFLs will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the community as well as drastically cut energy bills. The CFL recipients sign up for the service and schedule appointments for a Green Light team to replace their bulbs. At first, my fellow trip-members and I were a bit skeptical, as we could not see the direct impact on the New Orleans community as easily as we could see the merit of rebuilding a house that had been destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. After all, a light bulb is much smaller than a house. But when we went from house to house across the area and interacted with people in their homes, we began to see the light, so to speak.
From our hostel in the Garden District, we drove through a slew of neighborhoods, all of which varied in socioeconomic status. I remember driving down a street of stately and beautiful Southern residences, which quickly turned into a run-down block with ramshackle homes covered in graffiti. In the first house we went to, an elderly woman smoking a cigarette opened the door and allowed us into her home. All of the houses in her community that were not dilapidated and deserted had bars on the first floor windows. Although we had apparently woken her up with our phone call on the way, as her voice sounded slow and tired, she received us with hospitality and showed us which light bulbs she wanted us to replace.
As we walked through her tiny, cigarette-choked home, I felt a real desire to help this sweet-natured women, who allowed us, strangers, into her home without showing any of the doubt we’d felt. The last step of the job was to tell the resident how much money he/she had saved and explain the environmental impact that the bulbs will make over time. A toothy smile lit up the woman’s face when we told her that she had saved over $200 in the next five years, a smile I will never forget.
Although not all of the residents were as kind and obliging as the first, everyone in the work camp was upset to return to our hostel each day; we wanted to continue working and helping others. We met each night to talk about what we’d experienced and decided we would like to continue to do such valuable and rewarding work at home. They say that you have to visit another city in order to understand your own – we realized that people in situations like those we met in New Orleans also lived in our own city and would benefit from our help. But when we returned to DC, all fired up to help in our own backyard, we learned that there was no environmental organization similar to Green Light in Washington. Brad Ogilvie, our trip leader and the William Penn House Program Coordinator, was also very disappointed.
One afternoon, I noticed a post on the William Penn House website about our rewarding experience in New Orleans. The item stated that the organization wanted to start a similar project in DC. I contacted Brad and we have been planning a DC light bulb exchange project for months. We will do our first test run this summer. We will buy CFLs of different wattages and visit a few self-selected light bulb recipients from an expanding list that we are compiling.
Not only will the project benefit the light bulb exchange recipients and reduce their carbon footprints, it will also benefit the volunteers as my friends and I learned last year. Most of my peers and I do not spend significant time in these needy communities, speeding as we pass through them on the way to soccer tournaments or a Nationals baseball game. By connecting the two areas of our city, people from my more affluent community will be able to gain perspective and learn about another part of DC, where people face real stress, and also show real kindness. This is something we can forget to do as we race from activity to activity and ladder rung to ladder rung. Also, those who waste electricity by running their air conditioning and lights on all day or by leaving their electronics to charge all night (typical teenage behavior) may adopt more sustainable practices after seeing the significant impact a few light bulbs can make. I would like to challenge my community to extend its wealth - in the form of both time and money - to neighborhoods that are not so fortunate.
Making an impact on the local and community scale can effect substantial, global environmental and economic change. In total, Green Light has saved $22.5 million in energy costs in New Orleans and has conserved 191 kilowatt hours of energy already. Green Light’s success attests to the fact that small actions on a large scale will make a substantial impact. Change beginning in a small neighborhood in Southwest DC could work its way up from the community scale to the national scale and perhaps even to the global scale. But first, we must open the fence gates, make the twenty-five minute trip to these areas, and make changes on an individual basis.
Sylvia Beyer, a Green Light New Orleans light bulb recipient, believes that Green Light is changing minds as well as light bulbs. She said, "Thank you so much for helping our city become more environmentally friendly - and with such a financial incentive to change from incandescent to fluorescent bulbs, I think more and more people will look for new ways to practice conservation."
One city’s light bulb exchange project has sparked another’s, demonstrating the power of mass and individual efforts to save the environment, put money in empty pockets, and bring communities together. Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I hope to help create one such group in the nation’s capital.