Union of Concerned Scientists

New Economic Opportunities in the Heart of Coal Country

Photo: Coalfield Development Corporation

America is awakening to the reality that our country’s energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables—while cutting pollution and creating new jobs in many places—is painful for Appalachian families.

For generations, our communities have depended on coal-mining jobs and the businesses supported by the coal industry. Nationally, coal-mining employment fell from just over 91,000 in 2011 to under 66,000 in 2015, with West Virginia and Kentucky among the largest declines. This transition won’t be a just and fair one until our communities are made whole.

But in this challenging time there is real opportunity, if we have the courage to seize it. This can be the moment when we finally start not just talking about our potential as a region, but actually realizing it.

Our story

I founded Coalfield with much love from West Virginians for West Virginians. I was born and raised in the state. While I was fortunate to have a solid, middle-class upbringing, I was always aware of the pain going on around me. In college, I became a committed member of a Presbyterian Church, which fostered in me a deep commitment to social justice. We learned from and were inspired by people making a way forward in tough places all over the world: migrant workers in apple orchards, communities of color, low-income communities, and native people on reservations. I even had the chance to travel to Botswana and Nepal on behalf of the church.

But everywhere I went, I had the nagging sense that these were amazing places and amazing people, but they weren’t my place. I felt I could have a big impact back home, where the need was great and growing greater. So in 2011, joined by my best friend from high school, I decided to try and do things differently for our state to show that we could be more than just one industry and just one trade.

Since then, I’ve had the honor of seeing a former mine-industry worker go from being homeless, to joining our construction work-crew, to becoming a homeowner. I’ve seen people walk across the stage and become the first in their family to earn a college degree. We’ve installed the first solar systems many of our small towns have seen. We employ former strip miners who now reclaim and rejuvenate the soil through our agriculture work on former mountaintop-removal sites.

At Coalfield Development, we support a family of social enterprises that work in community-based real-estate, green-collar construction, mine-land reclamation, artisan trades, sustainable agriculture, and solar installation. These are real business enterprises that have real economic potential in central Appalachia. These are enterprises that are beginning to diversify the local economy in a tangible way.

Each enterprise has sustainable revenue models, including earned revenue (contracts, sales, service fees, etc.) and, thus, long-term sustainability. They are unified by an innovative model for workforce development and training that we at Coalfield developed.

We recognized that job training programs are insufficient—people need jobs to support themselves and their families. Our model puts people to work while developing new skills.  Under the 33-6-3 model, each of the enterprises hires unemployed people to work the following weekly schedule: 33 hours a week are spent doing paid labor for these enterprises on projects which tangibly improve the community; 6 hours a week are devoted to core community college classes for an Applied Science degree; and 3 hours are committed to life skills coaching, such as parenting, financial management, time management, physical health, teamwork, communication, and goal setting. Some of the 33 hours of manual labor even count as on-the-job credits applied towards the academic degree (according to curriculum agreements in place with the community colleges).

So yes, we are feeling great pain in the face of the coal industry’s decline, but we’re not just dying towns. We are also hard at work ensuring that great things, very creative endeavors, are afoot. We’re persistent problem-solving communities, who love our home and are steadfastly committed to it.

National attention

An exciting policy development in 2015 was the creation of the POWER Initiative (Partnerships and Opportunities in Workforce and Economic Revitalization), a federal initiative to support community efforts to diversify our local economy. This provided the Appalachian Regional Commission with its largest budget since the 1970’s, which led to major support for innovative efforts like ours.

This is an appropriate role for the government to play: funding research and development for early stage, pre-market business concepts that lead to real economic growth in communities that need it.

As we work to adapt, to diversify our economy, and to shape a better future, we need the country to believe in and support us. The country should not blame us for climate change—miners only ever mined coal because there was demand for it. Anyone who has turned on a light switch is just as much to blame for climate change as a coal miner, if not more so.

What’s needed now is local solutions driven by local people. And then we need national and global investments to support our strategies. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is doing just that. Incredibly, he announced $3 million in grant funding to support coal communities in conjunction with the premiere of the National Geographic documentary From the Ashes, which tells our story along with the stories of many other coal-impacted communities. We’re honored to be a grantee, and we hope others around the world will follow suit by investing in our region. One way to do this is by checking out our Crowdrise campaign page to donate.

What you can do

We really do need the donations, and we’ll steward them well. But even better would be if folks from around the country will do business with us. Buy furniture from our Saw’s Edge Woodshop or produce from Refresh Appalachia. Contract with Rewire Appalachia and Solar Holler, LLC to install a solar system on your roof, or with Revitalize Appalachia to renovate your property.

Even better yet: move here, start a company, and put our smart, talented, loyal miners back to work.

Brandon Dennison is the founder and CEO of Coalfield Development Corporation, a family of social enterprises working throughout coal country to help build a new economy in the wake of the coal industry’s rapid decline.

Photo: Coalfield Development Corporation

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