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Tony Anderson Turns Low-income Areas Green One Light Bulb at a Time

For mother’s day, Tony Anderson installed a compact florescent light bulb in his grandmother’s house a few years ago. Several months later, while visiting her again, he overhead her say to a friend, “Girl, I’m going green!” Anderson immediately knew that he found a way to include people who had been left out of the public discourse on climate change.

African- American low income communities did not seem to be talking about global warming, Anderson noticed, “that conversation just wasn’t being had in our community;” but with the compact fluorescent light bulb, which use far less energy than tradition incandescent bulbs, Anderson saw a way to directly connect people to their environmental impact every time they turn on a light.

As a junior at Morehouse College, Anderson started the Let’s Raise a Million Project to install one million “clean blubs,” as his organization calls them, in peoples’ homes. Thanks to a fellowship from the Compton Foundation and support from the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Foundation, Anderson has already changed 12,000 bulbs.

Social entrepreneurism is not always glamorous. Anderson started with 800 light bulbs from the Sierra Club stashed under beds and in the closets of six different friends’ houses because he had no place to put them.

He expanded quickly, but says that he it has not been without its difficulty, “overwhelming is a complete and utter understatement.”

The energy efficient bulbs make people think about climate change, Anderson said. It plants a seed in their mind and “facilitates the kitchen table discussion” that was missing from minority communities.

When Anderson distributes the bulbs, he explains how they lower energy bills and prevent more coal from being burned, which curbs pollution and reduces asthma rates. “People get that,” Anderson says. A large majority of African-Americans live within thirty miles of coal-fired power plant, he says.

Let’s Raise a Million has already expanded to three locations. Anderson leased a house in Atlanta, where the project began, to serve as the organization’s headquarters and warehouse. Friends at Grambling University in Louisiana focus on reaching out to senior citizens, and a third facility, based at a Church in Detroit, distributes bulbs and educational materials to faith-based communities.

At the Clinton Global Initiative University conference, an event for young social entrepreneurs held in New Orleans last spring, Bill Clinton singled out Anderson for praise. The former president brought Anderson on stage, in front of hundreds of other young social-entrepreneurs, university presidents and the media to laud his efforts. “It was great to be recognized,” Anderson said.

Anderson is also proud to say that Van Jones –a prominent social and environmental justice advocate and leading figure in the “green jobs” movement– has agreed to be his mentor. Anderson believes he is on to something big. Los Angeles recently announced a plan to deliver 2.4 million compact fluorescent light bulbs, or nearly one for every household in the city, and he expects other cities follow suit. “Light bulb installation programs are going to catch on like wildfire,” Anderson said, “if we can really show tangible results, this could be a green gold mine.”

Anderson graduated from college in May, and thanks to a Compton Fellowship, plans to devote the next stage of his life to light bulbs. “If you put your neck out there, you’re going to have to back it up,” he said.

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