Last year, a pair of anthropologists traveled to central Appalachia to talk to locals about the so-called “War on Coal.” They trekked across nine counties in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, recorded hundreds of conversations, and published the results in a report for the Topos Partnership, a public interest communications firm.

Appalachians told the researchers they want independence, and they believe independence comes from work. Work used to come from coal, but mining jobs are fleeing the region. In the last five years, Kentucky and West Virginia shed 15,000 coal jobs.

U.S. Coal Jobs

“When we have coal, then we have money put into our communities, but when you don’t have coal, your coal miners leave. They go places,” said a woman from Logan County, West Virginia. Coal miners could make upwards of $80,000 a year, and they spent their hard-earned dollars at the grocery down the block and the bar around the corner.

As coal departs, Appalachia is being forced to reinvent itself. Amid reports of economic decline are stories of rebirth, of communities reclaiming their independence.

Computer programming

Kentucky tech startup Bit Source is hiring out-of-work coal miners and teaching them to write code.