Upstanders: Planting Hope in a Coalfield
Editor’s note: This is one of the episodes in the second season of Upstanders, a collection of short stories that asks what it means to have courage in today’s America. Produced by Howard Schultz and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Upstanders help inspire us to be better citizens.
In the fall of 2013, when Tracy Spaulding was a high school sophomore, the coal mine in his West Virginia town closed. And with it, he assumed, went his path to a well-paying job, to buying a house and raising a family, to the American Dream.
His father worked at the mine, and so did one of his older brothers. Cousins, uncles, neighbors – all had toiled in the deep, serpentine tunnels under the verdant hills of Dunlow, their blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Appalachian hamlet. It was dangerous, backbreaking work, but the men performed it with pride: They knew the black rock they extracted powered factories and lit cities far from West Virginia.
The pay wasn’t bad, either. The starting wage was at least $22 an hour, more than enough to sustain a comfortable life in rural America. The mine was also the only place to work in town.
Spaulding, a beefy kid who didn’t care much for school, had been planning to work there. His lackluster grades didn’t matter. He possessed ox-like strength – he could squat 600 pounds – and he had connections. His father, who had worked at the mine his entire adult life, was one of the superintendents.
With the mine shuttered and more than 200 workers pink-slipped, Spaulding had no idea how he would make a living. Some of the guys who had been at the mine set off for Kentucky, where they hoped to work in an automobile-manufacturing plant. Others headed to North Dakota, where they planned to seek jobs in the shale-oil industry. But Spaulding wanted to stay close to the hollers of Wayne County, where he fished for bass on Twelvepole Creek and walked the woods, gun in hand, to hunt turkey, deer and squirrel.
“It’s a hard thing realizing that everything you thought you were going to do with your life just got flipped upside down,” he says. “It was rough.”
His strategy was to “roll with the punches.” But everywhere he looked, he saw a lack of opportunity and an abundance of hopelessness. The coal industry, which had been the backbone of the region’s economy, was no longer a reliable employer. Utilities were switching to cleaner energy sources, government regulators were cracking down on mine operators, and automation was reducing the need for workers in the mines that still were operating.
He steeled himself for reality.
Hope for the best, he thought. But expect the worst.
Brandon Dennison, a sixth-generation West Virginian, grew up 25 miles north of Dunlow, in a small town called Ona, known for its stock-car racetrack. Although he never experienced Spaulding’s despair about the future – he was a kid who enjoyed school and knew he would go away to college – he witnessed plenty of poverty amid the Appalachian coalfields. And what he saw fueled a desire to do something, anything, to help his neighbors.
His years in college in Shepherdstown, on the other side of the state, cemented that feeling. He became involved in a local Presbyterian church, which organized community service projects across the state and the country.
On a trip to southern West Virginia to repair an elderly woman’s house, he was approached by two young men with tool belts slung over their shoulders. They asked if he could offer them work. Dennison told them that his team was there on an unpaid service project. The men went on their way, but the interaction stuck with him, so much so that it played back in his dreams.
“It represented so much of the problem in southern West Virginia,” he says. “We have smart, energetic people who want to work, who want to be a part of something, but because the economy has become so distressed, the communities have become so depressed, there’s no place for that gumption to really be applied.”
With college degrees in history and political science, Dennison could have gone off to work in a more modern and prosperous part of the country, especially as he found himself the brunt of hillbilly jokes on out-of-state church trips.
“How long does it take to brush your tooth?” he was asked once.
His response wasn’t to punch the guy, but to commit to his state, his people.
“I just wanted to put people to work,” he says.
So, seven years ago, when he was 24 years old and fresh out of graduate school, he moved back in with his parents, raised $100,000 from socially conscious donors, and started a nonprofit company called the Coalfield Development Corporation. His initial goal was to hire eager-to-work people, like the two men he saw with the tool belts, to build energy-efficient affordable housing.
Instead of the enthusiasm he expected, he encountered skepticism from community and business leaders. West Virginia has the lowest rate of labor participation of any state in the country. Many former miners are too injured to work; others have simply given up trying to find a job. And the nation’s opioid crisis, which has sidelined legions of people from the workforce, has ravaged the state.
“The hardest part was trying to overcome the pessimism that a new idea could work,” he recalls. One contractor whom Dennison pitched scoffed at the concept. “You’re not going to find any unemployed people who want to work,” he told Dennison.
The trim, energetic Dennison was undaunted. He put out the call for applications, and was flooded with responses.
One day during his senior year of high school, Spaulding’s welding teacher gave him an order: “You’re going to do an interview.”
A representative from Coalfield Development had come to his school looking for new trainees. Spaulding said he was ready to work and learn.
Now 20 years old, he is starting his second year of Coalfield’s two-year job-training program, which involves 33 hours of paid work, six hours of community-college classes and three hours of life-skills training each week. He is working in a furniture-manufacturing shop that Dennison has established inside a 100,000-square-foot factory building in Huntington, the largest city in the western part of the state.
Once, the brick-sided factory was filled with rows of sewing machines, where 1,000 seamstresses working in shifts churned out men’s clothing. It shuttered in 2002 because of foreign competition. The building remains dark and empty, save for one corner, where Spaulding and a half-dozen other men painstakingly saw, sand and stain pieces of oak and cherry wood to craft tables, desks and bookshelves.
“I never thought I’d be able to build something, and see it there, and feel so proud of it,” he says.
In the evenings, Spaulding attends a local community college. This fall, he is taking English and psychology classes. Higher education also is something he never expected to pursue. “It seems unreal,” he says.
That sense of awe is part of Dennison’s plan. He wants Coalfield’s trainees to find a new sense of self-confidence and purpose. In Spaulding’s case, he wants him to experience even more than that. This is an opportunity, Dennison says, for Spaulding to “reimagine his identity and his future.”
Spaulding’s transition to the Coalfield job hasn’t been painless. Although Huntington is home to just 49,000 people, it’s a big, noisy place compared with Dunlow, and that grates on him.
“It’s a constant commotion,” he says. “It’s not what I’m used to. I’m used to the quiet. I like being isolated.”
Every Friday after work, he gets in his car and drives for an hour and a half to get back to his family’s home. He looks forward to tucking into his mother’s food, walking in the woods and just sitting around, smoking a cigarette and listening to the cicadas.
“I’m not one to complain,” he says. “I feel blessed to have this opportunity.”
Dennison, now 31, has expanded Coalfield into a network of five social enterprises. One transforms former mine sites into sustainable farms. Another focuses on woodworking and craft-related endeavors. The others involve growing and selling agricultural goods to restaurants and supermarkets, building homes, and installing solar panels.
“Yes, we install solar panels throughout coal country on houses that were built with money from the coal industry,” he says with a smile. “I would’ve never guessed that would be happening.”
He began with three trainees in 2012. Since then, 30 have completed the two-year program and 55 are currently enrolled across the five enterprises.
Although overseeing five separate companies spreads him thin, Dennison wants to demonstrate how different enterprises can thrive in Appalachia. “As a state, we’ve been too dependent on one industry,” he says, referring to coal. “Our strategy has to be diversification. We don’t just want to be a woodshop. We don’t just want to be a construction company. We want to have a lot of different opportunities for a lot of different people in West Virginia.”
Those opportunities extend to some of Spaulding’s neighbors, and to people across the southwestern part of the state, who are not among Dennison’s trainees. Refresh Appalachia, the Coalfield business that markets agricultural goods on behalf of farmers, is helping former miners sell fruits and vegetables they grow in backyard plots and small greenhouses.
In Wayne County, which encompasses Dunlow, the produce includes shitake mushrooms, apples, berries and potatoes. If those growers, most of whom produce a fraction of what comes out of large farms in other states, couldn’t sell to Dennison’s enterprise, they likely wouldn’t have any profitable way to unload their goods.
“We have to have something that replaces coal, and one of the fastest things is agriculture,” says Patrick Fluty, a former miner and schoolteacher who serves as president of the Wayne County Farmer’s Cooperative. “It can be done in months instead of years. People say we need factories, but you have to live in the real world.”
Fluty’s cooperative has sold Refresh Appalachia more than 200 pounds of shitakes, which his members cultivate on fresh-cut oak logs. “This may not look like traditional farmland, but we have almost unlimited resources in the mountains,” he says of the hilly terrain around his property.
“Brandon has brought many jobs, but what he really brought was an attitude,” Fluty says. “He took a vision, he ran with it, and he didn’t let up.”
Dennison’s desire to birth new businesses shows no sign of ebbing. He is planning to create a business-development center in the basement of the former garment factory in Huntington. He also wants to use the building for artist studios, a theater and a workforce-training center with three-dimensional simulators. “We want to become a hub of job creation,” he says.
Although Dennison has had no shortage of applicants for the jobs he is creating, keeping his trainees on track has proved to be more complicated than he expected.
“Folks want to work, they want to be a part of something, they want to learn,” he says. “But because of the socioeconomic stress that we felt for so many generations in southern West Virginia, we just ran into this constant barrage of physical health problems, emotional health problems, mental health problems, addiction, abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, psychological abuse, depression, car problems. You line up a job, a construction job, but we can’t get our crew there because their car broke down an hour away from the job site.”
His answer was to add three hours a week of life-skills coaching for Coalfield trainees, and to nip any problems at a nascent stage. Trainees are evaluated every two weeks on a range of work-related attributes, including punctuality, safety awareness and the ability to follow instructions. Once a month, his staff checks in on every trainee’s out-of-work life.
When they discover that, say, a trainee has spent his entire paycheck in two days – several trainees are the only people in their families to have a steady job, and most don’t have bank accounts when they start – Dennison’s team counsels prudence. “We try and drive home that first we’ve got to care for ourselves, which then puts us in a better position to help other people and to become good citizens in our community,” he says.
And when his trainees question whether they can master new skills and thrive in a post-coal economy, or whether they should just sit around and wait for mines to reopen, Dennison reminds them that the long-term trend is incontrovertible: The number of coal-mining jobs in the state has been shrinking steadily. Nationally, more people are now employed by the solar-energy industry than the coal industry.
He also tells them that Appalachia wasn’t always resistant to change. In the early 1800s, it was America’s first frontier. “There’s a heritage of being the first to try something, and there’s a heritage of innovation,” he explains.
West Virginia is the only state to have fewer residents today than it did in 1950. Its population is one of the oldest in the union, and the constriction of the coal industry has led many younger people to move elsewhere.
To Dennison, creating new jobs in his state isn’t just about getting people to work. It’s about saving a part of America he loves, a place where faith and family loyalty reign supreme, where self-reliance and strength are almost prerequisites to survival, where small-town life is the way of life.
“The story of Appalachia is central to the story of America,” he says. “When people ask, ‘What does it mean to be an American? What are American values?’ In many ways, I think Appalachia is the keeper of those values and we don’t want to lose that.”