Born and raised in West Virginia, Brandon Dennison has always loved Appalachia and its people. It was painful to see unemployment raising but he knew one thing: “West Virginians love to make stuff, grow stuff, fix stuff.” So he started from there and conceived of a new kind of workforce development program that is part social enterprise incubator, part training, and has a key principle: it creates a work schedule for the participants that is a mix of paid work, classes and personal development. His vision: to unlock the courage and creativity of the region and turn job-seekers into job-creators. Ashoka’s Simon Stumpf caught up with Dennison to learn more.
Q: You’re from central Appalachia, coal country. Can you tell us how you see the challenge you’re working on?
A: We’re addressing generational poverty caused by an over-reliance on one industry — coal in our case. We have some of the higher unemployment rates in the country. What worries me more, though, is our labor participation rates. Fewer than 50% of working age adults are in the workforce.
Q: How does Coalfield Development, the organization you started and run, step in?
A: We’re trying to create opportunity in a rural place that’s become very, very distressed…