Redefining coal country
Growing up in Huntington, West Virginia, Lindsey Crittendon always knew she might have to leave home in search of job opportunities. She went to college to be an engineer, but after graduating, managed to find a job in her hometown—working in child protective services. Though she loved serving her community, the hours were grueling, and taking time off was difficult.
After a decade, she was miserable. Crittenden recalls asking herself, “If this is life, what am I even working for?” When she heard about an opportunity to learn computer coding through a program offered by Generation West Virginia, a non-profit helping boost access to employment and educational opportunities across the state, she leapt at the chance.
Generation West Virginia is one of a number of organizations now striving to revitalize the state’s economy, which has historically relied heavily on the coal industry. As the industry declines across Appalachia, it has left glaring economic voids. President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda has recently provided much-needed support for regional transitions away from fossil fuel industries. Yet advocates worry despite the new funding, smaller communities may still get left behind.
“There have been [past] periods where lots of federal money has flowed into the region, but the real roots of our problems have not really been solved,” says Brandon Dennison, the founder of the non-profit Coalfield Development, which has been working to rebuild local industries around Appalachia.
Born and raised in West Virginia, Dennison sees a strong link between the region’s current hardships, and its past reliance on coal as the sole driver of the economy, a cautionary tale that has shaped Dennison’s vision for creating more resilient paths forward. Coalfield Development started as a volunteer effort in 2010, when Dennison started talking to a couple of friends who worked in construction. He says their initial idea was to hire unemployed locals to build green, affordable housing—they started with a crew of just three people in one county.
It took three years for Coalfield Development to get their first grant funding to support their efforts, which have since scaled up to providing a combination of paid on-the-job training, higher education opportunities, and other personal development for Appalachian residents. With teams now working in multiple counties, Dennison says their ultimate goal is to empower workers with the skills they need to establish their own businesses around the state.
In addition to starting the first solar company in the area—which now employs over 80 people and is now operating as an independent and profitable business—Coalfield Development supports agricultural projects, local craftspeople, and ecotourism through mountaintop restoration efforts. “We want everything we do to benefit people here to be environmentally sustainable, but also to be financially sustainable,” says Dennison.
To achieve that goal, he’s working to make sure that significant funding is reaching other local organizations, who are often best suited to put in motion projects tailored to their communities’ needs. It’s a different strategy than many federal programs, which often give funds to the state. “They just assume the state government’s going to give it out in the hills and hollers where it’s needed, and that never really seems to actually happen,” Dennison says.
Bolstering the organization’s bottom-up approach, Coalfield Development recently led a successful bid by a collaboration with Generation West Virginia and other groups that they are calling the ACT Now Coalition. The consortium recently received 63 million dollars of federal grant funding through the Build Back Better Regional Challenge. The coalition of West Virginia organizations who will benefit from the funding includes a diverse set of community groups, universities, businesses, and nonprofits.
But even as expansive federal legislation supports established projects and kickstarts new ones, many smaller organizations foresee major hurdles ahead. Alex Weld, the executive director of Generation West Virginia, says, “as federal funding allows us to scale our work, it also means the operational costs of our work exponentially increase”—an expense that grant funding often doesn’t support.
Weld says simply having the administrative capacity to ensure that grant paperwork is filed accurately—and every dollar is accounted for—is one of the biggest challenges for smaller organizations. That’s why if you look at who receives grant funding, it’s often states or large universities with existing administrative capacity, rather than grassroots organizations. “We’re all very, very cognizant of ensuring that all of the implementation procedures are done correctly,” Weld says, especially as grant money is typically awarded as reimbursement, rather than up-front payments.
Generation West Virginia is leading the workforce development portion of the ACT Now Coalition, which means they will be helping ensure that four other grantees all meet these reimbursement requirements.
They have experience facing these kinds of challenges. “We’ve always been small and nimble,” Weld says, which has helped shape their grassroots approach. Whether it’s their intensive computer coding course or helping young people translate their lived experience onto a resume, Weld says that their mission is to help West Virginia attract and retain young people with good jobs, and empower them to grow.
Weld says it’s a misconception to think that just this round of funding will address the region’s problems. Without sustained support for projects and organizations’ administrative frameworks, Weld asks, “How do we ensure that the work continues?”
Heidi Binko, the executive director and co-founder of Just Transition Fund, a national organization assisting communities impacted by the legacy of coal power and mining, says that helping successful projects like Generation West Virginia scale up is essential. The infrastructure legislation offers unprecedented opportunities, she says, but “we hear over and over again that cumbersome grant writing and matching fund requirements shut out people who could benefit greatly from federal funding.”
Just Transition Fund raises funding and distributes it to partners across the country, including through the organization’s recently launched Federal Access Center. This Center provides grants and technical assistance to help communities and smaller organizations overcome some of these kinds of logistical hurdles. “We want to tear down these barriers and get resources flowing to the people and places who need them most,” Binko says.
Forced to weather the early impacts of coal’s decline, Appalachian communities have developed what Binko calls “a robust transition ecosystem,” and are primed to capitalize on federal investments in infrastructure projects like broadband connectivity, or reclaiming and cleaning up abandoned coal mines. This could be a moment of transformative and sustainable growth, Binko says, “for the people who fuelled generations of economic growth from coast to coast.”
The direct correlation between opportunity and quality of life is emblematic of what these kinds of organizations are hoping to achieve. At a reforestation project of a former mountaintop mine, staffed by former coal miners, Dennison recalls looking across at an active mine with a crewmember who told him, “I used to be the one blowing up the mountains. And now I’m the one putting the mountains back together.”
“That’s the biggest blessing of my professional life,” Dennison says, “I get to bear witness to real positive transformations.”
For Lindsey Crittendon, working nights while she went through the Generation West Virginia’s program was entirely worth it. Like nearly all of the participants in the program, Crittendon quickly found a job with her new coding skills, one that enabled her to live in her hometown and work remotely. As a tech lead for an international company, Crittendon now has weekends off, a more substantial salary, and work that is consistently engaging. “I am no longer in survival mode,” she says.
“Generation West Virginia really did change my life.”
The Just Transition Fund is on a mission to create economic opportunity for the frontline communities and workers hardest hit by the transition away from coal. JTF is guided by a belief in the power of communities, supporting locally-led solutions and helping elevate the voices of transition leaders.
This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Redefining coal country on Feb 14, 2023.