In West Virginia, coal is as deeply entwined and entrenched in the geographic landscape, the sweeping, rolling Appalachian Mountains, as it is in the culture of the region. It's how millions of people earn and have earned a living.
Coal "has a cultural power," says Brandon Dennison, a 33-year-old native West Virginian. Dennison is the founder and CEO of Coalfield Development Corporation, a community-based nonprofit business incubator located in the tiny Appalachian town of Wayne, West Virginia, 140 miles east of Lexington, Kentucky.
"Coal mining is a job people are really, really proud of," he says. "There's a pride that a lot of modern America was built on coal."
But as coal production has declined significantly in recent years, so has the number of coal mining jobs. When those jobs disappear, the communities dependent upon them often suffer. A recent report from the Appalachian Regional Commission shows that dozens of counties in the area are at "distressed" economic levels, meaning that their economies are among the worst 10% in the U.S.
As much of the world moves on from coal, Dennison has taken on the job of helping coal-dependent communities pivot, too. His aim: helping the down-and-out and unemployed in rural West Virginia develop skills and find new career paths. To date, Coalfield Development has created 225 full-time jobs and trained more than 1,000 workers.
Dennison spends his days overseeing Coalfield Development and its dozen or so subsidiaries. Those include the construction and real estate firm Revitalize Appalachia, carpentry company Saw's Edge Woodshop, solar enterprise Rewire Appalachia (recently acquired by Solar Holler), and a sustainable agricultural operation called Refresh Appalachia.
The organization's goal is to train, retrain, or otherwise prepare West Virginians for a different economy, one that's shifted away from coal production. Coalfield helps by finding and hiring unemployed people, enrolling them in community colleges, and allowing them to build skills on the job while also earning a degree.
Over time, the combo has distilled into what Coalfield refers to as the "33-6-3 model." That means that workers devote 33 hours per week training on the job, six hours per week doing schoolwork to earn an associate's degree, and three hours devoted to personal development coaching.
"That degree will benefit our workers for the rest of their lives, even if they weren't working with us," says Dennison.
Even as a child, Dennison saw that there were deep, systemic issues in and around Appalachia.
His parents taught at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, providing a layer of economic security that many of his peers lacked. At one point, for instance, he realized that some of his schoolmates were living in abject poverty. Some didn't even have running water.
Those early experiences left an impression on Dennison, and it's one of the primary motivators that led him to start his organization in his home state. "The more I traveled, the more I felt connected to West Virginia," he says. "West Virginia was really my place. It's where I belong, and I feel like I can have the greatest impact right in my own backyard."
After earning a graduate degree from Indiana University, he came back to West Virginia and started working as a grant writer and consultant. Meanwhile, he patched together a mix of grants, donor fundraising, and loans to kick-start Coalfield Development. The organization officially launched in 2010, engaging mostly in small-scale community projects.
Coalfield's first big project was refurbishing an old building in Wayne. That renovation included training workers in clean, energy-efficient construction and destruction techniques, to turn the old residential building into new apartments. Coalfield blossomed into other business areas, creating companies under its nonprofit umbrella that worked in different sectors, such as clothing production and solar panel installation.
By 2016, Dennison was able to transition to Coalfield full time. He now earns $80,000 per year running the company.
Coalfield was originally focused on helping young people build skills and earn degrees. But after the company opened up opportunities to out-of-work coal miners, Dennison says, it started getting attention — and, crucially, funding — from outside of the state.
Carter Stewart, a board member at Coalfield Development and a managing director of the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, which provided Coalfield with funding, says that the organization stood out among the many others that come to them for money. Stewart says that's because Coalfield has an innovative approach to solving problems, and it's a model that can be adopted elsewhere.
Dennison, in particular, won over the DRK Foundation. "We found Brandon to be a very thoughtful, charismatic, passionate leader," Stewart says. "He's very much a humble leader with an iron will who's willing to walk through walls to make sure his organization succeeds."
Dennison's aim is to create a model for how local economies across the country can diversify and move away from single industries. That includes fishing, mining, or logging towns, or places where the economy is dependent on tourism.
That Coalfield's methods seem scalable helps attracts funding and support. Dennison hopes other communities will pick up and run with what he's learned, too. "We can't employ every unemployed person," he says. "But I think we're pioneering and modeling what new and better [solutions] can look like."
Carter agrees. Though many other social experiments and economic rehabilitation programs have failed, he says, Dennison and the Coalfield team appear to be succeeding. That approach is what's slowly earning Dennison such high status in his community.
"[It's] a more holistic approach to lifting up these individuals and lifting up the community, says Carter. "He's a superhero in West Virginia."
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