Brandon Dennison

SPEA alum works to provide housing, jobs in Appalachia

Brandon Dennison, MPA’11, was recently honored as one of Chronicle of Philanthropy’s “40 Under 40” for his work as executive director of the Coalfield Development Corporation.

The decline of the coal industry has hit Dennison’s home state of West Virginia especially hard, leaving many people trapped inside a cycle of poverty that persists across generations. Coalfield’s mission is to break that cycle by providing quality housing, jobs, and educational opportunities to young people in the southern part of the state.

In 2009, a group of concerned citizens in Wayne County, W.Va., established Coalfield as a volunteer-run organization to respond to the lack of affordable housing options in their community. Dennison stepped in as executive director a year later.

Coalfield is now a not-for-profit social enterprise, blending charity with revenue-generating construction work. As a licensed general contractor, Coalfield takes on unemployed or underemployed trainees, called “crew members,” and offers them 33 hours of on-the-job training and paid work per week. They work on construction projects that revitalize downtown areas, preserve historic buildings, and build low-income housing units. They also deconstruct dilapidated housing and build and sell furniture from reclaimed building materials. This work generates about 40 percent of Coalfield’s revenue – and their innovative green-collar approach has also kept a significant amount of usable building material out of landfills while improving energy efficiency in the region. Examples of recent projects include installing the first solar panels in Wayne County on one of Coalfield’s apartment complexes and converting a vacant warehouse that had formerly been a clothing factory into a community center with gallery, retail, event, and satellite office space.

Part of Coalfield’s organizational philosophy is that overcoming poverty requires more than removing structural barriers; providing housing and jobs is important but insufficient for creating lasting change. In addition to their paid work, Coalfield’s crew members take classes from a local community college and receive training on topics like financial literacy and physical and emotional health.

Community engagement is also central to Coalfield’s mission. Before starting a new development project, Coalfield hosts a public charrette to gather input from the community on the project design. Dennison also encourages his staff to immerse themselves in their community by volunteering and participating in Appalachian culture. He even hosts a book club that explores Appalachian history and fiction.

Whereas some may look at a rundown building and see nothing more than an eyesore, Dennison sees hardwood lumber waiting to be reclaimed. Likewise, he sees past West Virginia’s unemployment rate to a region rich with cultural history and thick with trust, ripe to be reimagined.

Dennison lives in Wayne with his wife, Ashley, and their three cats.