A sixth-generation West Virginian, Brandon Dennison knows coal country and what the decline of fossil fuels spells for its residents: unemployment, disinvestment, and increasing poverty. The 2019 Grist Fixer founded the nonprofit Coalfield Development in 2010 to help laid-off miners get back to work in stable, sustainable industries that don’t contribute to climate change. Now, COVID-19 has merely accelerated social changes that were already underway. But it’s not all bleak: “As painful a time as this is for many people, there’s now space for new growth that was not there before,” he says. Dennison talked to Fix about some of these new opportunities.
His remarks have been edited for clarity and length.
Expanding the economy in a post-coal world
Even when coal was booming, we had some of the highest poverty rates in the nation, because coal tends to squeeze out other economic activity. I think a lot of our generational poverty ties directly back to coal.
Now, the coal industry is dying. That’s been clear for decades now, with bankruptcies for coal companies and layoffs for miners. And as our whole economy is built around coal, the ripple effects are pretty severe, and our leaders have not done a good job of charting what a viable and healthy post-coal future might look like. The recession brought on by COVID has accelerated the decline of coal, as businesses are using less energy.
A lot of people ask me: What’s going to replace the coal jobs? I think it’s the wrong question. A huge part of our problem is that we’ve been so dependent on this one industry. We don’t want to replace that one industry with another industry. We want to have a diversified economy that works for all kinds of people with lots of different skills and backgrounds and talents.
Aligning values and vision
Coalfield Development acts as an umbrella for a family of social enterprises, which are businesses that further a social or environmental goal. These enterprises are intended to help put people back to work. What ties it all together, regardless of what industry or sector these enterprises are in, is that all share our vision for a more sustainable and diversified Appalachian economy — and they all use the “33, 6, and 3” model, which is how we organize the workweek: 33 hours of paid work, six hours of classroom time working for a college degree, and three hours of personal development or what some folks call “life skills.”
Any business we invest in needs to align with our values and vision, and it needs to use this model. Sometimes we connect with local entrepreneurs, helping them get started with money and support. Sometimes we workshop a business plan and then go find someone to put it into action. We’ve successfully trained over 1,200 people, created over 250 new jobs, and started over 50 new social enterprises to date. It’s all about better pathways for local people, including former coal miners.
I was on the steering committee for the National Economic Transition platform, and I pushed really hard for investing in social enterprises as a big piece of the plan. The philosophy behind this is: We need to deal with climate change, and we need to move away from fossil fuels. But we also need to honor the fact that this whole country was built on the backs of fossil fuel communities. If we’re going to transition to cleaner technology and energy, we should do it in a way that honors the contributions of those communities and make sure that it’s a fair and equitable transition.
Finding a more flexible future
We have identified some sectors that we think have potential here, such as renewables, recycling, and bio-based manufacturing. These are also all sectors which help mitigate climate change, not contribute to it. For example, we have a farm enterprise called Refresh Appalachia, and we have a recycled-clothing company called Sustain You. Saw’s Edge is a woodshop where we incorporate reclaimed wood materials into household items.
Back in 2013, we partnered with Dan Conant, another Grist 50 honoree, on Solar Holler, which was the first solar-installation company in southern West Virginia. At the time, solar was still very much viewed as a thing for urban elites. Conant wanted to democratize the industry and make it available for lots of people, including rural people. And since we’re a community-based organization, we were able to use our relationships on the ground to help make that happen.
The key here is that these are flexible industries, which means that in the face of COVID, they are still in operation. Our recycled-clothing company manufactures cloth masks now. Our ag business has shifted to home deliveries for people at high risk, to make sure they have access to fresh, healthy food. Our woodshop is making work-from-home office equipment.
Building a new foundation
In 2014, we bought an old, vacant factory building with the idea that it would belong to the community and be a hub for creative endeavors. West Edge Factory, as we call it, is huge — around 100,000 square feet — and we bought it for a buck a square foot. We brought it back to life with live music, art shows, exhibitions, and festivals.
A lot of times, when we are starting these new businesses, instead of just renting a shell building, we will use our construction company to revitalize a historic building and make it more energy efficient and powered by solar energy, and then we’ll base the businesses out of the rehab properties. There are a lot of dilapidated buildings, and there hasn’t been a lot of new investment, so these revitalization projects get people excited and feeling like something’s possible again. It’s a visible improvement, a tangible thing. And it’s an opportunity to create local jobs and bring in some new investment to the town.
West Virginia is a beautiful state. The pace of life is slower and the cost of living is a lot lower than in the cities. In a post-COVID world, there could be some new opportunities for folks that want to get out of the city, have a little fresh air to breathe, have a little more room to stretch out and play. For that to work, we’ve got to get better broadband access. We don’t yet have the sort of broadband access that you really need in the modern economy. But if we can get that figured out, I think West Virginia might actually be well positioned for the economy of the future.