Our Grantees at Work: Coalfield Development Corporation in West Virginia
By Sarah Torsell, Program Director, Initiatives
Working with our Rural and Native American Initiative, I’ve seen rural communities with some of the nation’s highest rates of poverty. A number of them are in West Virginia, one of two states where poverty rose last year to a rate of 19.1 percent, up from 17.9 percent, and one of four states with a poverty rate above 18 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s recently released report.
Southern West Virginia has been hit hard by the downturn in the coal industry. Some parts of the region have grappled with poverty for decades, a struggle compounded by unemployment, an opioid epidemic and a high incarceration rate. Some communities lack even basic infrastructure, such as roads, water and sewer systems, and housing is often dilapidated and in short supply.
Recognizing the deep generational challenges that West Virginia would face nearly a decade ago, Brandon Dennison, along with other citizens, founded Coalfield Development Corporation in 2010. After intense community engagement, Coalfield pioneered a relationship-based, holistic approach to on-the-job training.
Growing up in West Virginia, Brandon knew that "West Virginians love to make stuff, grow stuff, fix stuff." So, he conceived a new kind of workforce development program that is part social enterprise incubator, part training, and has a key principle: it creates a work schedule for the participants that is a mix of paid work, classes and personal development.
Unemployed and underemployed people were hired to work at one of Coalfield’s social enterprises. Trainees worked the 33-6-3 model each week: 33 hours of paid labor, 6 hours of higher education class time, and 3 hours of life-skills mentorship. Benefiting from access to higher education, on-the-job training and mentorship, residents are creating better lives for themselves and their families.
Section 4 funding and support from Enterprise have helped Coalfield Development grow into a nonprofit social enterprise that manages multiple mission-driven businesses and drives economic mobility. It operates as a family of five social enterprises, businesses that combine the compassion of the nonprofit sector with the efficiency of the for-profit sector.
These social enterprises include:
- Revitalize Appalachia, which teaches workers construction skills to rebuild or tear down abandoned structures.
- Rewire Appalachia, which trains young people and former coal miners in solar and broadband installation.
- Rediscover Appalachia, which focuses on creative placemaking and arts and culture. The West Edge Factory, a 96,000-foot building that once employed over 1,000 people, has sat vacant for nearly a decade – today, it’s Rediscover Appalachia’s home.
- Reclaim Appalachia, which converts mining-impacted lands in Central Appalachia into sustainable economic development sites by tapping into the resiliency and work ethic of former miners and other coalfield workers.
- Refresh Appalachia, which provides training in farm and food entrepreneurship to young people and those displaced from the coal mining industry.
This Quality Jobs Initiative at Coalfield is empowering people in times of economic distress through creative work, skilled craftsmanship, hospitality and innovative use of spaces. They do this through on-the-job construction training, coordinating and training on solar-based projects, making sustainable clothes from recycled materials, wood work and farming and food entrepreneurship.
Today, Coalfield Development Corporation is a regional leader building a new economy during the wake of the coal industry’s rapid decline. Coalfield’s list of growing accomplishments includes:
- Creating 150 new jobs and more than 40 on-the-job training positions
- Developing 800 professional certification opportunities
- Redeveloping more than 200,000 square feet of dilapidated property
- Attracting over $12 million of new investment to the region through five new businesses
Through our continuing work to create opportunity, we are making a commitment to promote economic mobility that will transform people’s lives and their communities, and Coalfield Development Corporation is a shining example of that effort. As Brandon Dennison says: “We all know how crucial housing is, but it’s got to be a part of a more holistic effort if we want to end poverty.”