A Brief But Spectacular take on rebuilding and diversifying the Appalachian economy

Brandon Dennison is a sixth generation West Virginian who is on a mission to revitalize Appalachia. His community based non-profit, Colefield Development, has trained over 1200 people facing barriers to employment, helping with education and personal development. Dennison gives his Brief But Spectacular take on rebuilding the Appalachian economy, and making it sustainable in the process.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now we hear from Brandon Dennison, a sixth-generation West Virginian who is on a mission to revitalize Appalachia.

    His community-based nonprofit, Coalfield Development, has trained over 1, 200, with support for employment, education, and personal development.

    Dennison gives his Brief But Spectacular take on rebuilding the Appalachian economy and making it sustainable in the process.

    Brandon Dennison, Founder and CEO, Coalfield Development: I think Appalachia holds a special place in, sort of the hearts and minds of many Americans.

    We're in touch with our landscape. We live modestly. We live within our means. And we try to take care of one another. A lot of times, maybe folks think of Appalachia culture as backwards, but, in many ways, I think we have a lot of the skills and assets and attributes that are going to be needed to thrive in a complex, modern, climate change-challenged world.

    I grew up in Ona, West Virginia. It's not technically incorporated as a town, but it is a place on a map. The burden of poverty and struggling to survive, it's a lot to overcome. And that's the kind of poverty we have to overcome here in Appalachia.

    Coal just dominates in Southern West Virginia. It's more than economically. It's politically and it's culturally. It's our sense of identity. We're proud to have powered this country's development for generations.

    But on the other hand, I think it holds us back to be told time and time again, that you're just this one thing. Being so dependent on one industry is just not a good strategy. It made me realize that we basically had to reinvent our economy here in Southern West Virginia to be diversified.

    It's not enough to just provide services for people who are in poverty. We really have to create and cultivate opportunities that can change the trajectory of a life.

    I started Coalfield Development. My best friend from high school joined me. We were completely happy to be in one county, with one construction crew, helping to break down barriers that hold people in generational poverty. We have trained over 1, 200 people now. We have helped start more than 50 new businesses.

    And it makes me realize that I think Appalachia is hungry for a newer, better, more fair economy. A job is the main hook. We pay 33 hours a week of paid work. It's a real job. But six hours a week, our folks are in the community college classroom working towards an associate's degree, and three hours a week, we do what's called personal development.

    When we think about transitioning our economy from dirty fossil fuels to clean renewable fuels, a lot of times, coal country is thought of as collateral damage in that transition. Actually, I think Appalachian people have the hands-on skills that are going to be needed to retool our economy to be truly sustainable.

    We like to make stuff and fix stuff and grow stuff. And those are the hands-on skills that are going to be needed to retrofit buildings, to be energy-efficient. So, I think Appalachia has a lot to offer, and we can actually lead the way in building a new and more fair and more just economy.

    My name is Brandon Dennison, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on rebuilding the Appalachian economy from the ground up.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Such a great program.

    And you can watch all our Brief But Spectacular episodes at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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