THE BLOG
06/17/2016 12:46 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2017

Glenda And The $8 Transformation

How do you solve those dogged social problems, the really painful ones, the ones that draw the harsh contrasts between rich and poor, privileged and disadvantaged? Well, sometimes, the solution emerges from the smallest of steps and in the most unexpected of places. It begins with just one person, eight dollars, and a vision.

There was a time when Glenda Whelcher's neighborhood was on the worst of the top ten lists. Tenth most violent in the country. Fifth worst place to live.

In addition to the violence and poverty -- or maybe because of it -- the neighborhood was a food desert. With no grocery in walking distance, people got their milk at the local gas station, where it cost more. And that was money they wish they spent elsewhere. "If I could save $20," Glenda's neighbor said, "I could send my daughter to dance class." But the 20s don't materialize, and the dance classes don't happen.

That is what Glenda lived with every day. She's 76 years old.

Glenda's neighborhood in East Chattanooga, Tennessee, has little trust of outsiders. In their view, the institutions in this country have abandoned them. So, how can you bring community development to a neighborhood where there's no trust? The answer to that question lies in the most surprising of places.

I'm a professor of physics at Georgetown University where I run the Georgetown University Energy Prize (GUEP) - a data-driven competition open to small and mid-size communities all across the country that helps promote a cleaner, more efficient, energy future.

Glenda and I are as different as chalk and cheese. When I started GUEP back in 2014, I would never have expected that our lives would cross. Thankfully, an organization called Greenspaces entered the GUEP competition, and opened my eyes to the people and streets of Chattanooga.

Greenspaces started by mapping the highest energy intensity areas in Chattanooga. Then, on the same map, they overlaid the households paying the highest energy bills. They were looking for the places that were using the most energy, populated by the people who could least afford it. Glenda Whelcher's neighborhood stuck out like a sore thumb.

Glenda's neighborhood was firmly in their sights, but how do they build trust? They needed to deliver something that could generate quick benefits. In a neighborhood where $20 makes a difference, they didn't have the luxury of taking the longview. They needed to guarantee a payoff within a month. Their idea: energy efficiency.

In Glenda's neighborhood, people were paying more than $200 a month for electricity. In the winter, over $600 a month. The houses were leaking like sieves. So, a Greenspaces rep knocked on Glenda's door and told her about an $8 fix to seal the leaks around her window frames and save her money on her next electricity bill.

There's a typical response to offers like that in Glenda's neighborhood: "No!" Door slam. In their view, there's nothing wrong with the house. The bills are high because the utility is screwing them. It's just another company sticking it to the poor.

But, Greenspaces kept the conversation going with Glenda. They told her she had nothing to lose. She could install it herself -- no stranger had to come into her house -- and she could judge for herself in a month if it made a difference. She agreed.

The next month Glenda's bill went from more than $200 down to $67.

Trust was established. And she told her neighbors, with Greenspaces following up behind with the $8 fix. And they told their neighbors, who told their neighbors.

Then, there was a neighborhood movie night. Then a community BBQ. And now, the neighbors say that for the first time in their memory, the city government is investing in East Chattanooga.

It's easy for those of us working in energy efficiency to get caught up in big numbers. And GUEP is generating big numbers. Together, the 50 communities competing in GUEP have saved more than $60 million and have cut more than 300,000 tons of CO2. We're having the impact of taking one car off the street - permanently - every 5 minutes.

But, as successful as it's been, it's worth pausing on all that and recognizing that there are people behind those numbers. There is, truly, a transformative power to energy efficiency.

With the support of a GUEP sponsor, Johnson Controls, I've held events across the country to see the hard work of the 50 participating communities. Because of the cost savings and carbon reductions the GUEP competition is generating, I'm hearing a refrain: "whether we come in first or not, we're all winners."

"We're all winners." True, but I didn't fully realize how much we've won until I walked the streets of East Chattanooga and saw the transformation. Thanks to Glenda Whelcher, yes, we are all winners.