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The founder of a social enterprise working on entrenched poverty, job creation, and economic change in southwest West Virginia is the recipient of a national award that comes with a $250,000 cash prize.
Brandon Dennison, the founder of Coalfield Development Corp. in Wayne, West Virginia, has been named this year’s recipient of the Heinz Award for Technology, Economy and Employment. The award is one of several given annually by the Heinz Family Foundation. The awards honor the late Senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania.
The Heinz Family Foundation said in its announcement that Coalfield Development Corp. employs a “transformative model of employment-based social enterprise [that] is helping to end generational poverty and create a new, diverse and environmentally sustainable economy for West Virginia.”
Coalfield Development serves a largely rural area along West Virginia’s border with Kentucky, along with the metropolitan areas of Charleston and Huntington. The nonprofit has created a family of businesses that employ 200 workers.
Dennison has said that Central Appalachia suffers from an over-dependence on the coal industry and that Appalachian values such as self-reliance and creativity can be key ingredients in building an alternative economy.
Last year, Coalfield Development received a $1 million prize from the Communities Thrive Challenge, sponsored by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan and the Rockefeller Foundation.
I asked Dennison about the Coalfield Development Corp.’s activities and why he thinks the organization is receiving national attention. And, of course, I asked him what he intends to do with the $250,000 prize. The interview is edited for clarity and length.
Tim: You have talked about tapping into Appalachian creativity, gumption, and grit as sort of a bedrock of how to build a new economy in the region. What do you mean by that?
Brandon: Our theory of change is that there have been a lot of do-gooders and philanthropists and government agencies that have been truly well intentioned in Appalachia but have not gained a lot of traction. Because I think it feels like, oftentimes, that it’s trying to change this place into something that it’s not. There is change that has to happen here in Appalachia, but it should be change that’s more on local terms, and change that honors all the things that are really good about this place.
Our approach starts with what’s really good about the place and builds from there, rather than emphasizing all the problems, and other than, you know, making Appalachia feel like it’s some alien, backwards, messed up, hopeless place.
Tim: Tell me more about what you see as the things that are working, or the things that are good that that can be built on.
Brandon: I think there is a really special creativity here in Appalachia. I think there’s a frugalness. I think Appalachian people tend to not be real wasteful, and tend to not really put on airs. We don’t need a lot of fancy, expensive stuff to be happy. I think we are, by and large, more in touch with our landscape and our environment than maybe some folks in more urban settings might be. There’s an ingenuity, so we’re able to think creatively, work with what we have at our disposal, put things together based on what we have and come up with solutions.
Tim: Are you saying that Appalachians have these special characteristics that are different from other parts of the country? I know the statement, “We’ve mined the coal that fed the industrial revolution and created wealth for others.” But other parts of the country have their own stories. In the Midwest they can say “We’ve grown the food.” Detroit could say, “We’ve given people transportation and mobility at an affordable cost.” So, do you see Appalachia as unique in its bedrock culture and what can be built upon? Or is there something going on in Central Appalachia that’s more universal?
Brandon: Well, when you talk about those histories and farming — just, in one fell swoop, when the soybean farmers were hurt by the tariffs, the USDA wrote out like a $1 billion subsidy program for farmers affected by that, in one fell swoop, lickety split.
Of course, Appalachia is not unique in being the only region that’s contributed to this country’s development in really significant ways. But I think we are probably – along with the Mississippi Delta and our Native reservations — unique as being under-invested in by the country. Our country has set up a system that has extracted wealth from Appalachia and other natural resource communities. The wealth has flowed out of here, and what’s flowed out of here is much greater than what’s flowed back in.
Tim: What are some of the things that you’re doing at Coalfield Development that tap the region’s creativity and grit?
Brandon: We’re creating new businesses, and the businesses are staffed by local people. The businesses are designed to show what a new economy that’s not just coal can look like. They’re designed to tap into that creative ingenuity and that grit that I really believe is here and that I see is here every day.
So, I think what makes [Coalfield Development] different from other social enterprises is we put people straight to work. We’re not just a training program where you get a certificate. We’re an employer, and we’re an employer of local people. We’re betting our whole business model on the ingenuity and the creativity of local people.
Tim: What are some of the different enterprises you’ve got going there with the participants?
Brandon: We helped start the first solar installation company in southern West Virginia. We have a construction and renovation company, a woodworking company, an agriculture enterprise. And our newest one makes T-shirts out of recycled materials. We have a license with Major League Baseball, which means we can sell shirts with team logos on them. It means that that we are in the gift shops of six Major League Baseball stadiums.
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Tim: You get people employed right away, but you’re also doing more than that. Tell me what the other things are that you think need to be in place for somebody to be successful in creating and finding their own job.
Brandon: I think that’s another piece of our theory of change. In Appalachian economic development circles, there’s so much talk about — normally it’s the politicians — “We’ve got to have jobs, we’ve got to have jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs.” And that’s true, but it’s really an incomplete conversation. Because it’s not just joblessness we’re dealing with in Central Appalachia, it’s poverty. And it’s generational poverty. A minimum-wage job is not enough for a person to claw their way out of generational poverty. It really takes a holistic set of support.
So, we always knew that we would be a direct payer of wages, and we would create jobs. That was a key hook. But the community college piece was always really important, because that’s a credential that a person can keep with them for the rest of their life that will help them earn more and provide more to the local economy.
And then we layered on the “threes” [element of the program] because we realized that, OK, we got a job, we’re advancing education, but there’s still all these other challenges that are getting in our way — mental health challenges, physical health challenges, financial debt, transportation problems, childcare problems, addiction issues. Even things like just attitude, like, you know, no sense of optimism. That can shape this sort of an attitude that needs to be kind of coached through. So we decided to carve out three hours every single week to work on deeper life stuff, and to reflect together, and hold ourselves accountable to goals, and life plans. I think that’s the most important piece of the whole deal, actually.
I think we had a realization that if you’re just training people for entry level jobs, you’re almost cementing poverty, and making it permanent, holding people back from their full potential. …
We call someone who’s worked with us for two years and earned four professional certifications and finished their associate’s degree, we call them a “coalfield champion.” And for coalfield champions, we have a 100% success rate for placing them in jobs at or above what they’re making with us and launching successful careers. Literally 100%. [Not all the members] achieve champion status. That’s more like 70%, about two thirds, give or take.
There’s an important takeaway there, too. A lot of times when it comes to economic transition, it’s like, “Oh, well we’ll just retrain those people, and that’s the solution.” And that’s totally insufficient. We can train people in all kinds of jobs, and they can have all kinds of certificates. But if there aren’t healthy, diversified businesses and all those different kinds of jobs, then that certificate’s worthless. I think our conversations about job training and retraining need to go a lot deeper.
Tim: And have you been able to locate the different enterprises in different places? Are they all in one spot?
Brandon: To drive from the north end of our service area to the south end, it’s three-and-a-half hours. So, we are spread out. It’s logistically challenging, but we definitely feel obligated to be a job creator and opportunity provider in those smaller communities.
Tim: In a guest column in Newsweek you talked about some of the public and private entities that are helping in the region. You feel like there’s a role for outside or public entities to play in development?
Brandon: Very much so. I think ultimately we’d like to have this thriving private sector economy of locally owned businesses who do trade together, but we’re so far from that reality that I don’t see any way forward without significant federal support. Now, the way the federal support comes in, the processes are actually really important. I think the federal support should come in with strong local grassroots on-the-ground partners. And then I think foundation support, government support, and certainly your private business support — it’s going to take all three sectors to get where we want to go.
Tim: Coalfield Development has received national attention for your work. And now the Heinz Award. What is it in your work that folks are able to say, “Hey, that’s something I want to get behind”?
Brandon: I think it’s so tangible because we hire people, and we take on these physical spaces. People connect with it because it’s just real in that way. … No one piece of what we’re doing is anything new. But I think the way we’ve put it together is fairly creative. There are other on-the-job training programs, there are other community-college programs, there are other life-skills programs, but we’ve kind of pieced it all together in a holistic, comprehensive way that seems to connect with a lot of different stakeholders.
Tim: The prize comes with a substantial cash award. Do you know how you want to use that money yet?
Brandon: Yeah, I’m working on a plan, but I have some pretty good initial thoughts. The vast majority of it will go to Coalfield Development, and one of the things that I’m going to do is set up a lifelong learning fund. And so, this will be for Coalfield staff and employees to advance their careers, both personally and professionally. So, really just trying to establish a culture in Coalfield that celebrates learning and supports people in Appalachia taking their learning as high and as far as they can.
The other thing I’m going to … but I hesitate to, I don’t want to sound overly self-righteous about it. But I’m going to make some donations to some key partners and entities that have helped me get where I am as well, which will be kind of cool, because you know, so many folks have given to Coalfield over the years, and helped Coalfield, as an entity, and me as an individual, get this far. Now it’s a chance to kind of pay that back.