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 become an engineer, but after graduation she managed to find a job in her hometown, working in child protective services. Although she loved serving her community, the hours were grueling and making time was difficult.
After a decade, she was unhappy. Crittenden remembers wondering, “If this is life, why am I working?” When she heard about an opportunity to learn computer coding through a program offered by West Virginia Generationa nonprofit organization that helps improve access to employment and educational opportunities statewide, she jumped at the chance.
Generation West Virginia is one of many organizations currently working to revitalize the state’s economy, which has historically relied heavily on the coal industry. As industry declines in Appalachia, it has left dire economic voids. President Biden’s Build Back Better program has recently provided much-needed support for regional transitions away from fossil fuel industries. Yet advocates worry despite the new funding, small communities may still be left behind.
“There were times (past) when a lot of federal money flowed into the area, but the real roots of our problems haven’t really been addressed,” says Brandon Dennison, the nonprofit organization’s founder. non-profit Development of the coal basinwho works to rebuild local industries around Appalachia.
Born and raised in West Virginia, Dennison sees a strong connection between the region’s current hardships and its past reliance on coal as the sole engine of the economy, a cautionary tale that has shaped Dennison’s vision to create pathways to more resilient future. Coalfield Development began 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 local unemployed workers to build green, affordable housing – they started with a team of just three people in one county.
It took Coalfield Development three years to secure its first grant to support its efforts, which have since scaled up to provide a combination of paid on-the-job training, higher education opportunities and other personal development for residents of Appalachia. With teams now working in multiple counties, Dennison says their ultimate goal is to give workers the skills they need to start their own businesses across the state.
In addition to launching the first solar business in the region, which now employs over 80 people and now operates as an independent and profitable business, Coalfield Development supports agricultural projects, local artisans and ecotourism through efforts to restoration on the top of the mountains. “We want everything we do to benefit people here to be environmentally sustainable, but also financially sustainable,” says Dennison.
To achieve this objective, it ensures that significant funds flow to other local organizations, which are often the best placed to set in motion projects adapted to the needs of their communities. This is a different strategy than many federal programs, which often provide funds to the state. “They just assume the state government is going to distribute it in the hills and howl where it’s needed, and that never really seems to happen,” Dennison says.
Reinforcing the organization’s bottom-up approach, Coalfield Development recently led a successful bid through collaboration with Generation West Virginia and other groups they call the ACT Now Coalition. The consortium recently received $63 million federal grants as part of the regional Build Back Better challenge. The coalition of West Virginia organizations that will benefit from the funding includes a diverse set of community groups, universities, businesses and nonprofits.
But even so expansive Federation of Legislation supports established projects and launches new ones, many small organizations foresee major hurdles ahead. Alex Weld, the executive director of Generation West Virginia, says, “Because federal funding allows us to expand our work, it also means that the operational costs of our work increase exponentially” – an expense that grants often don’t take. not in charge.
Weld says just having the administrative capacity to ensure grant documents are filed accurately — and that every dollar is accounted for — is one of the biggest challenges for small organizations. That’s why, if you look at who receives grants, it’s often states or large universities with existing administrative capacity, rather than grassroots organizations. “We’re all very, very conscious about making sure all the implementation procedures are done correctly,” Weld says, especially since grants are usually given as reimbursement, rather than upfront payments.
Generation West Virginia leads the workforce development portion of the ACT Now coalition, which means it will help ensure that four more grantees all meet these repayment requirements.
They have experience dealing with these kinds of challenges. “We’ve always been small and nimble,” says Weld, which helped shape their local approach. Whether it’s their crash course in computer coding or helping young people translate their lived experience onto a resume, Weld says their mission is to help West Virginia attract and retain young people with good jobs and giving them the means to grow.
Weld says it’s a misconception that only this round of funding will solve the region’s problems. Without sustained support for the organizations’ projects and administrative frameworks, Weld asks, “How can we ensure that the work continues?” »
Heidi Binko, executive director and co-founder of Just Transition Fund, a national organization that helps communities impacted by the legacy of coal power and mining, says it’s critical to help successful projects like Generation West Virginia grow. Infrastructure legislation provides unprecedented opportunities, she says, but “we keep hearing that the burden of grant writing and matching fund requirements excludes people who could greatly benefit from federal funding.”
The Just Transition Fund raises funds and distributes them to partners across the country, including through the organization’s recently launched Federal Access Center. This center offers grants and technical assistance to help communities and small organizations overcome some of these types of logistical obstacles. “We want to break down these barriers and get resources to the people and places that need them the most,” Binko says.
Forced to weather the early impacts of coal decline, Appalachian communities have developed what Binko calls “a robust transitional ecosystem” and are poised to take advantage of federal investments in infrastructure projects like broadband connectivity, or the recovery and cleanup of abandoned coal mines. This could be a moment of transformative and lasting growth, Binko says, “for the people who have fueled generations of economic growth from coast to coast.”
The direct correlation between opportunity and quality of life is emblematic of what these types of organizations hope to achieve. During a reforestation project at an old mountaintop mine run by former coal miners, Dennison remembers watching an active mine with a crew member who said, “ I was the one who blew up the mountains. And now it’s me who reconstructs the mountains.
“It’s been the greatest blessing of my professional life,” says Dennison, “I can witness real positive transformations.”
For Lindsey Crittendon, working nights while on the Generation West Virginia program was worth it. Like almost all participants in the program, Crittendon quickly found a job with his newfound coding skills, a job that allowed him to live in his hometown and work remotely. As a technical manager for an international company, Crittendon now has weekends off, a more substantial salary and an ever-engaging job. “I’m not in survival mode anymore,” she says.
“The West Virginia generation really changed my life.”
The Just Transition Fund is on a mission to create economic opportunity for frontline communities and workers hardest hit by the transition away from coal. JTF is guided by a belief in the power of communities, supporting local solutions and helping to elevate the voices of transition leaders.