Features | February 8, 2018

Brandon Dennison: Transforming coal country, one social enterprise at a time

Jessica Pothering

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ImpactAlpha Editor

Jessica Pothering

New Revivalists is a series from ImpactAlpha and Village Capital profiling the people, places and policies reviving entrepreneurship — and the American Dream.

New Revivalist: Brandon Dennison, co-founder and executive director, Coalfield Development Corporation.
Place: Wayne, West Virginia.
Mission: Coalfield Corp. is building sustainable enterprises for Appalachia’s post-coal economy and preparing workers with steady work, education and mentorship.
Follow: Coalfield Development Corp.

Green-collar construction, agriculture, solar, arts and environmental rehabilitation. This isn’t Berkeley. It’s West Virginia – Brandon Dennison’s West Virginia.

Dennison was born and raised in West Virginia’s coal country. He’s seen what happens to communities that depend on a single sector or industry and the devastating impact on Appalachian communities as the coal industry declines.

Dennison’s Coalfield Development Corp. has built a family of social enterprises prototyping a diverse West Virginian economy. Coalfield Corp. offers steady work, training and education, mentorship and a pathway to ownership in a company that is building homes, installing solar, and growing and selling food.

“Ultimately, we want our crew members to own different business lines within each of these sectors,” Dennison told ImpactAlpha. “We’ve come up with something that is chipping away at generational poverty.”

ImpactAlpha: Give us the quick and dirty on Coalfield Development Corp.

Brandon Dennison: Coalfield Corp. is a family of five social enterprises. We are trying to diversify West Virginia’s economy. West Virginia is completely defined economically, politically and culturally by coal, and that has made us vulnerable. There are a lot of different opportunities here, so Coalfield is purposely scattered across several of them: green-collar construction, agriculture, solar, arts, and environmental rehabilitation. We want to show the possibility of diversity by being diverse ourselves.

Coalfield Corp. is the umbrella organization that supports the five enterprises. Each one starts within the umbrella and works its way to becoming an independent subsidiary. We want them to stay connected but also to become autonomous to free up our capacity to launch into new sectors of the economy, like healthcare, transportation and logistics, and technology, eventually.

ImpactAlpha: You’re a founder. How did you find your way into community development through social enterprise?

Dennison: I was born and raised in West Virginia. Even before the bottom of the coal industry fell out in 2015, West Virginia had some of the highest unemployment and poverty in the country. It’s deep generational poverty that gets passed down, [starting with] low-income people who can’t find steady employment, who are now facing mental health issues.

Ideally, we’d have this thriving economy of family enterprises, but we’re so far from that. We’ve been so dependent on one extractive industry for so long, we need a bridge strategy. Social enterprise was the one strategy I’d come across that could be a game changer for West Virginia. Generating jobs isn’t enough. We have to create holistic opportunities and build relationships.

ImpactAlpha: All we seem to hear is that rural America needs more jobs.

Dennison: When you talk to employers in West Virginia, many have jobs available and want to expand, but their number one barrier is workforce development.

When we started our construction enterprise in 2012, we realized that work ethic wasn’t the problem, and there were plenty of skills. It was life stuff that was getting in the way. Mental and emotional stress. Financial stress. Transport problems. Health problems. Legal problems. West Virginia leads the country in overdose deaths right now. It’s not like West Virginians are predisposed to doing drugs.

The economy is a mess and has been for generations. If we’re going to fix the economy and work on the overdose problem, we have to provide hope. That can’t just be a good speech or a bunch of minimum wage jobs. It has to be cultivated.

ImpactAlpha: How is Coalfield Corp. doing that?

Dennison: We hire unemployed, low-income people and developed this 33–6–3 model to organize their work week. That’s 33 hours of paid work; six hours in the classroom in community college, where people work towards an associate’s degree; and three hours of personal and professional development. We developed and refined that to address all that “life stuff” I mentioned.

We started this model with our construction business and got good feedback from the industry, so we realized that this model could be replicated in other industries. Today, there are over 70 of us at Coalfield Corp. We have 55 crew members enrolled in our 33–6–3 work model and about 20 in leadership positions, including crew chiefs. Construction and agriculture are the biggest employers. Arts and solar are smaller and more specialized.

ImpactAlpha: How does Coalfield Corp. sustain itself?

Dennison: Our social enterprise model is a colorful quilt of different revenue streams. Most is generated by contracts. Construction is our bread and butter — it’s the oldest and strongest of the five enterprises. We train our crew in green construction: LEED, energy efficiency and also solar training. About 80% of that enterprise’s revenue comes from sales and contracts. It’s the closest to spinning off into an independent subsidiary.

The solar business is also fairly self-sufficient. We work with a private solar developer and handle their installations. We were the first licensed solar installer in southern West Virginia.

Our arts and culture business is comprised of a coffee shop and a woodshop and furniture store. It builds on the culture of our community.

Our agriculture business grows and sells produce. That one probably has the biggest potential, but it will take the longest [to mature] because of how far the market has gotten from local, sustainable agriculture. It’s mostly grant-subsidized for now.

Ultimately, we want our crew members to own different business lines within each of these sectors. There are many different lines of business within construction, for example. You could raise a family on a painting business easily. What we’re trying to do is foster a culture of entrepreneurship.

ImpactAlpha: You are taking the long, slow road to community redevelopment. Does this resonate with employers? With policymakers?

Dennison: Employers and private funders automatically get it. The government struggles with our model a lot, because for them, it’s all about jobs and number of degrees. All of our crew members are working towards a degree, but many of them need remedial time. They fail a class or two. Sometimes is takes three years to get a two-year degree.

ImpactAlpha: How does Coalfield Corp. measure success?

Dennison: In 2012, we started with a small crew of three. Of the three, one of them didn’t make it, because of drugs. One came out of the foster care system and had his own struggle with drugs, but he succeeded in getting a 4.0 [in school] and now works full-time with a manufacturer and sometimes helps tutor our current members. The third came to us after he had lost his job and was homeless. (Homelessness looks different in rural America. It’s couch surfing, or living in someone’s barn.) Now, he’s a homeowner and is assistant crew chief in our woodshop. That first crew about represents our success rate. Two out of three. What we saw with them has held.

When people talk about West Virginia, there’s this attitude that we’re all dumb Trump voters. Somehow it’s still not politically incorrect to make fun of a hillbilly. On late-night shows and in pop culture, you can make a joke about trailer trash and no one blinks an eye. I want to be part of a different story.

Coalfield Corp. has launched five social enterprises, employed 60 crew members and had over 30 of them graduate [with associate’s degrees]. We see individuals go from being stressed out and unsure of what they’re going to do to support themselves and their families to having hope for a full life. We’ve come up with something that is chipping away at generational poverty.

Brandon’s recommended reads:

  1. The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, by Breece D’J Pancake. (“Pancake was born and raised in the same place I was. The stories capture the experience of disillusioned young men in southern West Virginia so well it’s haunting.”)
  2. We Were the Mulvaneys, by Joyce Carol Oates. (“It’s a novel about a family living in a small, rural town. It treats the whole family as the main character of the book.”)

More from the New Revivalists: