Creative Ways to Help a Community in Crisis

March 30, 2020

By: ArtPlace America with Brandon Dennison, Founder and CEO of the Coalfield Development Corporation

Back in 2014 we partnered with The Coalfield Development Corporation in Huntington, WV. This area functions as a quasi-urban center of opportunity for this rural Appalachian region. The organization started out by repurposing an abandoned factory as a creative hub for community gathering and engagement, on-the-job training in craft work utilizing reclaimed materials, and live-work space for artists, artisans, and creative small business incubation. In the time of the COVID-19 crisis, they are repurposing it again. Brandon Dennison, Founder and CEO of the Coalfield Development Corporation spoke with us about their swift pivot to be helpful in this unsettling time.

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COVID-19 is a time to be careful, a time to hunker down and stay safe, but it’s also a time to learn and re-orient ourselves toward a better way. This moment will pass, yes, but there will be more like it in this rapidly changing climate and globalized economy. More than ever, we need to quickly mobilize to rebuild our communities and our economies to be more resilient. Coalfield Development is an organization working to rebuild the Appalachian economy from the ground up. We envision this new economy being more diversified and more sustainable than our coal-based economy has been. We incubate and grow new businesses (we call them social enterprises) and then use these enterprises to create new jobs and development opportunities for people facing barriers to employment. Coalfield Development was created 10 years ago in the depths of the Great Recession, a creative response to the pain and suffering of that time. Now, we aim to innovate anew in this most recent COVID-19 downturn.


What We’re Doing About What We’re Seeing: 

To protect our worker’s health and prevent the spread of the virus we have shut down our normal operations. However, we’re using smaller crews (working at least six feet apart) to help our community deal with the crisis. Our sustainable agriculture company (Refresh Appalachia) is shifting to a fresh-food  mobile pick-up model to keep healthy food available. Our t-shirt company (SustainU) is sewing masks for health-care workers and donating its extra inventory of clothing to local hospitals. Our woodshop (Saw’s Edge) is designing and prototyping emergency beds in case of overflow. These are but small measures to help. However, they signal the kinds of resilient businesses our modern crisis-ridden world will need if it is to thrive in these uncertain times. 


Just Transition Fund and Partners Push For Support For Hard-Hit Coal Communities in COVID-19 Relief Legislation

We have also co-sponsored a letter to congress to explain that the pain felt in coal communities during #COVID-19 will be exacted on those who are already in turmoil...They supported our country when we needed it most, and now they deserve our support when they need it most.”

Here’s where Congress can invest NOW to help:

  • Rural Health Care

  • Black Lung Benefits

  • Economic Development

  • Rural Small Businesses

  • Broadband Connectivity


Here in Appalachia, we’ve been in an economic crisis for decades now as the coal industry continues bleeding jobs and investment. Some of the resulting health effects of our economic challenges make us particularly vulnerable to COVID-19: an elderly population left behind from out-migration of younger families, high rates of underlying health conditions such as asthma, and an on-going addiction crisis. But there’s also a remarkable resilience that’s grown from the ground up here. Coalfield Development is just one small example of such strength. We in Appalachia are resilient because we have to be resilient, and we have for generations now. Rather than complain about what we don’t have, we do what we can for as many as we can with what we have. Appalachia continues to need our country’s investment in the rebuilding of our local economy, but we also have a lot of offer. And now more so than ever.

Let’s rebuild a resilient economy together, not just here in Appalachia but across the country! Join us however you can: Donations are most helpful.

But we also ask what entrepreneurial ideas do you have to address COVID-19? What resource can you creatively bring to bear?