As a college student, Brandon Dennison volunteered with his church to repair homes in West Virginia’s coal country. He never forgot seeing people his own age desperate for paying work. In 2016 West Virginia was the only state in the country where more than half of all adults were unemployed according to the Census Bureau. Dennison didn’t just get angry — he got motivated.
After Dennison graduated from the social entrepreneurship program at Indiana University’s business school, he began exploring a business model that would provide more than jobs alone. He founded the Coalfield Development Corporation in 2010.
The nonprofit has six different divisions including its signature program, Reclaim Appalachia, that began training young people to deconstruct old buildings and use the reclaimed materials to make furniture or build new housing on former coalfield land, as Dennison explains in this video produced for the JMK Innovation Prize.
Crew members get more than a job; for two years they get $12 an hour to work 33 hours a week, enroll in community college for six hours a week and spend three hours a week learning life skills. “They needed a real opportunity, not just a minimum-wage fast food job — a real opportunity with education, life skills and the emotional support it takes to really reverse these generational poverty cycles,” Dennison told the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Coalfield Development has created more than 40 on-the-job training positions and more than 200 professional certification opportunities for unemployed people, many of whom were laid-off coalminers. Almost half of the funding comes from sales and contracts; the rest comes from public and private funders. The organization has a “theory of change” based on trust: “The biggest challenge to breaking down structural barriers in any community development effort is lack of trust.” In addition to physically restoring southern West Virginia one building and one worker at a time, Dennison’s efforts are focused on rebuilding trust and self-esteem. “Our responsibility is to create opportunity, then to provide encouragement and build the self-confidence necessary for pursuing opportunity,” he said. You can see more of Dennison in From the Ashes, a documentary that will air June 25 on the National Geographic Channel.
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