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Working to Combat Energy Inequity in Atlanta: A Reflection on the 2019 Carbon Reduction Challenge

Gwyn Rush

Gwyn Rush

As a high school student in Columbus, Georgia, I cared about a number of social justice causes. Competitive public forum debate exposed me to issues such as LGBT rights and gun violence. My mother also inspired my interests. As a geography professor, she was actively involved in addressing community issues such as food access and racial justice.

In 2018, I enrolled as an international relations major at Agnes Scott College. There, my interest in social justice grew as I found more and more opportunities and movements in which to get involved. For instance, I joined the executive board of URGE, a national reproductive justice organization with college chapters. I also became involved with the campus’s Center for Sustainability in order to work on a problem I had noticed: the unused and broken campus greenhouse. For a class assignment, I had been working on an action plan to engage the campus in thinking about where their food comes from. I thought that having students get involved in a campus greenhouse would help this effort.

I’ve been fortunate thus far at Agnes Scott to have such a framework and support system in which to pursue my social and environmental passions.

Last December, in my email inbox, I noticed an unfamiliar name: Brittany Judson. I opened the message and read how Brittany, a fellow undergraduate at Agnes Scott, was starting a new student group dedicated to environmental sustainability. She said one of my peers at URGE had recommended me. We made plans to meet for dinner so she could tell me more.

At our meeting in the dining hall, Brittany described the new group as a “youth-centered retrofitting program to fight energy inequity.”

“So, what are your interests, and how would you like to fit in?” she asked.

I didn’t really know what to say. I had little experience in environmental justice and hardly knew what “retrofitting” or “energy equity” meant. However, her passion was contagious.

I replied, “I don’t know how I’d like to contribute yet, but I’d love to join the group!”

I started attending meetings and learned Atlanta is an “energy inequitable city,” meaning that benefits and burdens of energy consumption and production are not equitably distributed. In particular, low income households have a high energy burden. This means they pay a disproportionately high percentage (about 10%) of their income towards their utility bills. Of these households, many residents are people of color.

In January 2019, we officially launched our effort to found the Atlanta Youth Energy Corps (AYEC), a hopefully soon-to-be non-profit organization that performs energy efficiency retrofits for low income homes of color in the Metro Atlanta area. Members include young women and people of color who believe that incorporating equity into sustainability efforts is not only a possibility but also an imperative.

But where to get funding and visibility? A team member discovered Georgia Tech’s Carbon Reduction Challenge (“Challenge”), which engaged students in researching and implementing plans to reduce CO2 emissions. Our group signed up and began a pilot project: our first home retrofit.

The project was daunting. I wondered, “Can we really pull this off? Would we have time to do a retrofit? If we did, what then? How would we even begin to calculate carbon or financial savings?”

We partnered with Agnes Scott to work with two college-owned homes rented by faculty and staff; on one, we would do an assessment, and on the other, a retrofit. In our initial meeting, we met with Susan Kidd, director of the Center for Sustainability; David Marder, head of Facilities; and Ken England, vice president of Business and Finance. They were immediately on board and gave us approval and funding to do our work on the homes.

“The Challenge…has energized both me and my peers to keep working towards our goal for a more equitable future for all.”

After lots of research, planning, and hardware store trips, we successfully implemented a simple weatherization project (price tag: $134) on one home. On the other home, we performed a walk-through assessment with the help of Joe Thomas, a local retrofitting consultant. An energy assessment is a critical step in doing a bigger retrofitting project that includes both higher sums of money and higher carbon savings. Doing the assessment helped us understand the process for our future plans to do bigger projects with bigger impacts.

The next step was to calculate our CO2 and cost savings and to share our project at a poster presentation. Overall, we estimated that we saved about 2000 lbs. of CO2 and $80 a year in energy bills for the retrofitted home. While the cost savings may seem small (especially compared to some projects with corporate partners), living in a home is a long-term commitment, and savings from this small investment will add up over the years. Despite our small short-term savings, our mission of equity, success in implementation, and dedication to continuing this work paid off. We received an Honorable Mention and a $500 cash prize. Beyond that, the poster exposition gave us the chance to talk about our work with industry professionals, opening up future opportunities to partner with bigger organizations. I think I speak for the whole AYEC team when I say that we are incredibly grateful for the opportunity the Challenge provided us to launch our organization’s efforts.

The Challenge has also opened doors both for the organization and me personally. In September, I spoke about the AYEC on a panel of youth activists at the Georgia Climate Action Symposium. In the audience were several hundred students, community members, academic and industry leaders, and European diplomats. In November, the AYEC got more exposure when we presented our Challenge poster at the Georgia Climate Conference. It is no understatement to say that the Challenge has been a crucial personal and organizational stepping-stone. It has energized both me and my peers to keep working towards our goal for a more equitable future for all.

I would like to acknowledge the members of the AYEC team: Lauren Church, Madeleine Hardt, Brittany Judson, Ilsse Ortega, and Emily Smith. Special thank you’s go to: the Agnes Scott College staff and administrators who helped us (including Sustainability Fellow Gianni Rodriquez, Susan Kidd, David Marder, and Ken England); the Challenge coaching team who helped us throughout the process; Meghan McNulty for helping our team with carbon and financial calculations; and Akhil Chavan and Lalith Polepeddi for their help on our poster.

Interested in learning more about the AYEC? Check out our website at and follow us on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter at @atlantayec.

Gwyn Rush is a second-year international relations major at Agnes Scott College. Her particular area of interest is environmental justice. She is a founding member and the public relations coordinator for the Atlanta Youth Energy Corps. As lead on communications and social media, Gwyn enjoys the opportunity to combine her love of visual arts and commitment to creating a more just and sustainable world.

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