On a crisp Sunday morning, scores of young volunteers spread out for blocks among modest apartment buildings on Atlanta's south side. They carry clipboards, small stepladders and large, bright blue bags filled with their secret environmental weapons: hundreds of compact fluorescent light bulbs, or CFLs.

"One thing I think the CFL does, it's a starting point," says Tony Anderson, the brains behind these bulbs. "I think the whole point of what is happening in the environmental movement today is, how do we translate the conversation so that everybody understands it?"

For his mission, it's not by talking about carbon footprints or polar bears. Anderson does it by tying environmental realities to people's lives. "For every one light bulb replaced, you save 350 pounds of coal from being used in a coal-fired power plant, smoke that's billowed out, that we breathe in," he says. "I talk about asthma rates, and people understand exactly."

Data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows African-Americans are almost three times more likely to die from asthma than whites. Hispanic children are 60 percent more likely to have asthma, compared with non-Hispanic whites.

Anderson created "Let's Raise a Million," an effort in Atlanta, Detroit and Grambling, La., to distribute a million CFLs and to spread the word on energy efficiency.

For this Atlanta event, 77 volunteers get a safety briefing about CFLs, (which contain a small amount of mercury), and tips on helping residents complete a simple energy audit in their homes. The take-home message for those at the Donnelly Gardens and Donnelly Courts Apartments: You'll likely see the benefit with a lower electricity bill. CFLs use 75 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs, and can last 10 years.

George Felton, a chef, lives on the second floor of Donnelly Gardens. He welcomes the young people to his apartment, and accepts several boxes of CFLs. "I thought it was a very good idea," Felton says. "I try my best to recycle. I had a couple [CFL bulbs] that I had received from Georgia Power last year. They have been working very well. I like them very much, and I appreciate these. He added, "With global warming, and pollution, energy efficiency is the best thing we can have."

LaQuiche Brown just moved to Atlanta from Nashville to work on the Let's Raise a Million campaign. "This is something that is not going to cost a fortune [that] we can get into right now. Especially since we are in a recession, we need savings any way we can get them," she says.

Anderson says it's time to move beyond stereotypes about what defines "an environmentalist."

"Hey, do you drink water? Do you breathe air? Do you walk on grass? Hey, I think you are an environmentalist!" he laughs.

Volunteers included students from Campus Progress, which promotes a variety of progressive causes. The service project was part of the group's Southern Regional Conference at Morehouse College.

William Tucker, a middle school science teacher, represented Creyahtion.com. That Atlanta group uses money made from recycling for scholarships and community development. "We've been blessed with this Earth; we need to take care of it," Tucker says.

The idea for Let's Raise a Million unfolded last year when Anderson gave his mother 30 CFLs for Mother's Day, he says. "Three months later I overheard a conversation she was having with one of her girlfriends, 'Girl, I'm going green!'"

He figured if his mother lit up with such enthusiasm, it would be contagious, so he brought the idea to his green organization at Morehouse. After success there, the project grew. Anderson gets support for Let's Raise a Million as a fellow of the Compton Foundation.

During their February distribution, volunteers reclaimed 953 "dirty" bulbs, and installed 1,393 new CFLs in 102 households. Using the Department of Energy's Energy Star CFL calculator, those bulbs could bring $96,210 in savings to those families — and prevented the creation of 1,271,138 pounds of greenhouse gases.

Anderson hopes numbers like those will lead to new sponsors. "No Walmart yet, no Philips yet," he says. "But I think once they see our work and see that there is real progress being done, I think they will be willing to come to the table, and help us raise a million light bulbs." 

Seeing the light
Tony Anderson's grassroots group uses lightbulb giveaways to preach down-to-Earth environmentalism to low-income families.