Without opportunity, without willpower, without spirit a full life feels unattainable. Generational poverty, entrenched by structural barriers, feels impossible to overcome. It is Coalfield Development’s (Coalfield) belief that the cause of so many woes in Appalachia is the lack of full lives being lived – the emptiness, the despair built up over generations (symbolized by so many dilapidated buildings or strip mine scars), which leads to a lack of gumption, an inability to dream. Simply building a new home for a person or giving them a job or putting them in college is not sufficient for reversing poverty cycles. Real opportunities for full life must be not just provided but patiently cultivated.
Broken promises contribute greatly to this sense of despair. Deep cynicism sets in. “Nothing ever changes around here,” is a phrase we hear a lot. Elected leaders and well-intentioned volunteers come with fancy words and grant awards promising to change things. But nothing ever seems to change. This is why the foundational strategy in our effort to make things better is speedy, tangible work. We listen to the community, make big plans, and then follow through on our commitments, usually with small milestones along the pathway to a big plan made real – a kind of patient speed. We never go it alone, and we don’t work where we’re not welcome. We collaborate, and we do so in a deep, patient way. If the local capacity isn’t there then we build it ourselves, but always insisting there be local social capital to outlive our presence.
Because we intentionally work in socio-economically distressed communities with broken, failed markets and institutions much experimentation is necessary to re-configure community and economic development interventions to be more effective; think of our enterprises like entrepreneurial laboratories. Also because of the economic brokenness of the places we serve, direct employment is a key strategy. There simply aren’t many jobs available to train people for, certainly not sustainable jobs, and so we must simultaneously create new markets and the trained workforce to employ those markets. The main hook of our job training programs is that the work is paid, putting real wages in pockets.
In attracting people to our model through direct employment, we don’t stop at just creating entry-level jobs. We push people and places toward their full potential, power, and purpose in life. We insist on higher education because we value life-long-learning, we respect research and peer evaluation, and we pragmatically acknowledge this modern employment reality: more and more, the available jobs, and certainly the good paying jobs, require degrees of higher education. Our focus on higher education is not about elitist gowns and 4.0’s. Our focus on higher education is about critical thinking, well-rounded thoughtfulness, and a skilled workforce.
We nurture in ourselves a sense of what is possible for our lives, and we provide accountability and structure to actually realize such possibilities. Full participation is what we require of our crew members, our partners, and ourselves. So long as we are fully participating and fully committed to the vision, mission, and values, we will work through and learn from mistakes and challenges. A primary strategy of this organization is mentorship. Mentorship, to us, means creating a professional space that encourages learning and growing. We expose ourselves to new, varied, and empowering experiences – often outside our comfort zones. In doing so, we’re intentional about including all different types of people (different ages, races, cultures etc.), recognizing how diversity always makes a community stronger (just as the most diverse ecosystems in the world are the most vibrant).
A mentor is not a buddy. A mentor does not replace a parent. Mentorship is a special relationship, professional in nature, in which we do not coddle, but we do not boss either. We lead: first in front, then beside, then moving behind as the individual develops her own capacities. We provide accountability, and we truly measure if a person is learning and growing or not. We best learn new skills by doing them, on-the-job, as real employees of real businesses. We are not preparing people for the real world; we do real business in the real world.
Although these are not just any business, these are social enterprises. By directly creating jobs, we ensure that our crew members can develop the entrepreneurial mind-set in the real world rather than in a simulated training. Each enterprise has sales and revenue goals it must hit to be viable. This way, we’re not entirely grant-dependent and therefore are built to last. These enterprises innovate new approaches to commerce. They grow the economic pie rather than fight for small slices. They take on opportunities not quite ripe for strictly for-profit ventures, converting perceived liabilities (like dilapidated buildings, former strip mines, disconnected workers, or untested business ideas) in to assets.
Our formally unemployed or underemployed crew members staff these enterprises according to the 33-6-3 model: 33 hours of paid work just like for any other business, 6 hours of time in a higher education class room working toward degrees of higher education, and 3 hours of personal development (so called “soft skills” such as time management, money management, planning, communication, etc.)
Be the economy you want to see in West Virginia
Trust is foundational to all our work. It is the grease that keeps our collaborative gears churning. Community collaboration is how we grow our impact. Our one organization can only do so much; we’re always aware of the bigger movement happening to realize Appalachia’s full potential, and our relatively small role as one piece of it. The biggest challenge to effective community collaboration anywhere is a lack of trust, which rots away the community infrastructure necessary for lasting change. Let us count the ways mistrust infiltrates community development. There is mistrust between tenants and property owners, between community organizers and politicians, between locals and outsiders, between employees and management; among different organizations, among hollows, among counties, among states, among rival politicians, among rival families, among businesses; between different races, different ages, different religions, different genders, different cultures, different vocations, and different sectors of the economy (government, nonprofit, for profit); across people of different income levels, across urban and rural areas, across people of different education levels, across personality types; and of course there is lack of trust in institutions and government.
But just as trust can be broken down, it can also be built up (though it’s much easier to break than to build). A systems approach to leadership is what has the potential to guide transformation, much more so than command-and-control, top-down, red-tape hierarchy. Trust is built by genuinely listening to those with a real stake in the problem, then following through on any and all promises made. Building trust begins with believing in one another, sometimes, even despite the evidence before us. Trust must be first given in order to be received. It begins with valuing people, no matter their present station in life. Always, we seek more and more sincere engagement with communities in which we work, especially with low-income people and minorities. We know community development can only be real if it comes from the bottom up. Coalfield has established a vital infrastructure of trust in southern West Virginia. This trust is the firm foundation for anything else good we would ever hope to do, including convincing our crew members that the risk of pursuing new opportunities is worth it.
Our responsibility is to create opportunity for those most needing it, including those left out of past efforts to improve the quality of life here in Appalachia. We meet people where they are. More than just creating an opportunity, though, we must provide the encouragement and support needed to build the self-confidence needed for seizing opportunity. None of us are able to grow more than one step at a time.
When provided with and supported through true opportunity (not just a minimum-wage job or charity), people will tap in to their own special personal power to better their own life and realize their own unique potential. Full lives must be chosen. They cannot be given. Full life means different things to different people. Coalfield most certainly will not tell a person what their purpose is in life. What we can do is create a space where that can be figured out. We can offer creative, challenging support for two and a half years while our crew members work our 33-6-3 model, improving their community in tangible ways. We can develop big, bold, community-based real-estate projects that spur new investment and business. We can support grassroots organizations that know their community best and that support people from cradle to grave.
Coalfield has closely studied past community development efforts in southern West Virginia. We move fast, but we also perform due-diligence and value planning. We seek to avoid the mistakes of past failed efforts, of which there are many. Our approach is not to re-try old strategies but to create new combinations and configurations of social change models. Yet we’re humble about the daunting challenges we face as a region, and we know that innovation does not mean rushed, scattered, or uncalculated action. We seek to constantly measure and evaluate our real impact, to do so honestly. This is why we do a one-on-one evaluation with every crew member every two weeks. Intentionally, we are trying to develop scalable and replicable models that can have a transformative impact in our region, even if we aren’t the ones to directly do the work in other places.
As more and more Appalachians discover what full life means for them, the impact becomes profound. Structural barriers of all kinds (political, cultural, economic, psychological) begin crumbling. We have seen this first hand: we have seen crew members who are the first in their family not only to earn a degree of higher education, but the first to even consider trying to earn a degree of higher education, walk across the graduation stage; we have seen unemployed and homeless young people become homeowners; we have seen people go from needing public assistance for survival promoted to supervisor; we have seen new businesses started in some of the most economically distressed census tracts in America.
Ultimately, we know that Appalachia reaching its full potential depends on much more than what this one organization can do. So we seek to be systems leaders, shaping whole new markets, fitting in to bigger patterns, and influencing these patterns to be more courageous, creative, and community-based. We don’t want our success to depend on us. We want to be part of a deep-rooted movement that permanently takes hold here, making Appalachia a place where fuller lives are lived. This can only happen with an entrepreneurial mind-set, using what we have now to get where we want to go rather than wishing for a white knight (like an outside corporation or the government) to swoop in and save us.
In helping shape a new place-based family of entrepreneurs, we see whole new markets emerging that can finally and actually diversify our local economy: something many leaders have talked a big game about for many years but have failed to actually accomplish. We know our region can be more than just one thing to one industry. We prove this through our family of social enterprises, through our creative place-making development projects, through our support for new businesses. We believe in this place and its people.