Reclaim Appalachia addresses the interconnected economic, cultural, and environmental distress of West Virginia’s collapsing coal economy. Seeking to reclaim the Appalachian spirit of hard-working persistence, the initiative offers a tool to translate the region’s vibrant cultural roots—from storytelling and woodworking to banjo-strumming and quilting—into fresh opportunities amid a landscape of mine-scarred mountaintops, crumbling Main Streets, and hopelessness among young adults with few prospects for the future. According to Brandon Dennison, Executive Director of the Coalfield Development Corporation, the initiative’s parent organization, Reclaim Appalachia taps into social entrepreneurship as a way to bridge the gap between the region’s inventive culture and economic opportunities that can transform individual lives and restore a sense of purpose to communities. Reclaim Appalachia’s solution is to hire unemployed young adults to rehabilitate formerly industrial and other derelict buildings as affordable housing and cultural anchors, while at the same time offering community college credits and life-skills training. At the end of their 30-month contract, trainees have earned an Associate’s Degree, gained work experience, acquired four professional certifications, and can be placed with private-sector partners to begin careers or start their own businesses. As it seeks to become a comprehensive social enterprise, Reclaim Appalachia is ambitiously converting an oft-demeaned cultural heritage into a catalyst for regional revival.
Five Questions for Brandon Dennison
1. What needs does Reclaim Appalachia address and how?
Coalfield Development is a community-based organization that provides quality and affordable homes, creates quality jobs, and generates opportunities for low-income families in southern West Virginia. With support from the Innovation Prize, we are spinning off our environmental reclamation and deconstruction/upcycling work into a subsidiary social enterprise: Reclaim Appalachia. This subsidiary will provide paid on-the-job training for unemployed young adults and laid-off coal miners in the creative trades, as well as in mine-land reclamation and the adaptive re-use of historic buildings.
2. Tell us about a moment that inspired your project.
Before enrolling in graduate school, I led a service trip to Mingo County, West Virginia. As we worked at replacing a roof for a dilapidated home, two young men walked toward us. They were shirtless in the humid heat of July. Tool belts were slung over their shoulders. They asked if we had work. I explained we were volunteers, and they continued on their way. But that image never left me. It angered me to think that young people who are motivated, who want to work, cannot do so because of where they live.
3. What is the biggest challenge you face?
For generations, the entire southern West Virginia economy has been dependent on coal. Because of coal’s rapid decline, West Virginia now has the nation’s highest unemployment rate and its lowest labor participation rate. More people die of drug overdoses in West Virginia than in any other state. Our natural landscape is decimated by mountain-top-removal mining. Because of out-migration, our beautiful historic buildings, the cultural anchors of our communities, are decaying. Hopelessness has settled over the landscape like the black blanket of dust that settles after a coal train passes.
4. What other leaders have informed your work?
Reversing generational cycles of poverty is extremely difficult work. It takes a holistic approach, and one organization could never provide all of the support needed for success. So we partner with key county entities, municipalities, economic development authorities, and housing authorities. Other partners include Unlimited Futures (for financial skills and professional development), social work agencies (for family programs), and the Heritage Farm Museum and Village (for personal reflection and leadership). Perhaps most importantly, we partner with private-sector employers.
5. Describe someone who highlights what your project is all about.
Andrew is a crew member from our first on-the-job training crew hired in 2012. When he came to us, Andrew had just been laid off from a mining-related industry. He was couch-surfing from house to house. At age 21, he was about to have his second daughter. Today, Andrew is a proud graduate of our program. He has earned his Associate’s Degree in Applied Science. He is a new homeowner. He works full-time for a local cabinetmaker. His daughters are thriving in pre-school. When Andrew graduated from community college, his daughter put on his graduation hat and said, “Daddy, I want to walk across the stage one day.”