Brandon Dennison

West Virginia

Project Overview

Reclaim Appalachia addresses the interconnected economic, cultural, and environmental distress of West Virginia’s collapsing coal economy. Seeking to reclaim the Appalachian spirit of hard-working persistence, the initiative translates the region’s vibrant cultural roots into fresh opportunities for young adults with few prospects for the future. According to Brandon Dennison, Executive Director of the Coalfield Development Corporation, the initiative’s parent organization, Reclaim Appalachia taps into social entrepreneurship as a way to bridge the gap between the region’s inventive culture and economic opportunities that can transform individual lives and restore a sense of purpose to communities. Reclaim Appalachia’s solution is to hire unemployed young adults, laid-off coal miners, and others through a variety of social enterprises, including a sustainable construction crew; a woodshop producing bee boxes and birdhouses; and an agriculture-focused enterprise providing training in farm and food entrepreneurship. While helping to advance community-based projects, rehabilitate derelict buildings as affordable housing, and create new cultural anchors, crew members also receive community college credits and life-skills training. At the end of their 30-month contract, trainees can be placed with private-sector partners to begin careers or start their own businesses. Through its growing network of social enterprises, Reclaim Appalachia is ambitiously converting an oft-demeaned cultural heritage into a catalyst for regional revival.

Five Questions

1What needs does Reclaim Appalachia address and how?

Coalfield Development is a community-based organization that provides quality and affordable homes, creates quality jobs, and generates opportunities for low-income families in southern West Virginia. We wholly or partially own a family of employment-based social enterprises designed to diversify the regional economy to be less dependent on coal. By “employment-based,” we mean enterprises that exist for the purpose of advancing the well-being of their employees, which we do primarily through our personal and academic development programming.

2Tell us about a moment that inspired your project.

Before enrolling in graduate school, I led a service trip to Mingo County, West Virginia. As we worked at replacing a roof for a dilapidated home, two young men walked toward us. They were shirtless in the humid heat of July. Tool belts were slung over their shoulders. They asked if we had work. I explained we were volunteers, and they continued on their way. But that image never left me. It angered me to think that young people who are motivated, who want to work, cannot do so because of where they live.

3What is the biggest challenge you face?

For generations, the entire southern West Virginia economy has been dependent on coal. Because of coal’s rapid decline, West Virginia now has the nation’s highest unemployment rate and its lowest labor participation rate. More people die of drug overdoses in West Virginia than in any other state. Our natural landscape is decimated by mountain-top-removal mining. Because of out-migration, our beautiful historic buildings, the cultural anchors of our communities, are decaying. Hopelessness has settled over the landscape like the black blanket of dust that settles after a coal train passes.

4What other leaders have informed your work?

Reversing generational cycles of poverty is extremely difficult work. It takes a holistic approach, and one organization could never provide all of the support needed for success. So we partner with key county entities, municipalities, economic development authorities, and housing authorities. Other partners include Unlimited Futures (for financial skills and professional development), social work agencies (for family programs), and the Heritage Farm Museum and Village (for personal reflection and leadership). Perhaps most importantly, we partner with private-sector employers.

5Describe someone who highlights what your project is all about.

Andrew is a crew member from our first on-the-job training crew hired in 2012. When he came to us, Andrew had just been laid off from a mining-related industry. He was couch-surfing from house to house. At age 21, he was about to have his second daughter. Today, Andrew is a proud graduate of our program. He has earned his Associate’s Degree in Applied Science. He is a new homeowner. He works full-time for a local cabinetmaker. His daughters are thriving in pre-school. When Andrew graduated from community college, his daughter put on his graduation hat and said, “Daddy, I want to walk across the stage one day.”

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