24th Heinz Awards Honors Brandon Dennison

Dennison’s unique approach incubates sustainable new businesses, equips individuals for a lifetime of employment.

PITTSBURGH – The Heinz Family Foundation today named Brandon Dennison, founder and CEO of Coalfield Development Corp., whose transformative model of employment-based social enterprise is helping to end generational poverty and create a new, diverse and environmentally sustainable economy for West Virginia, as the recipient of the prestigious 24th Heinz Award in the Technology, the Economy and Employment category.

As part of the accolade, Mr. Dennison will receive an unrestricted cash award of $250,000.

Recognizing that a historic over-dependence on the coal industry and the distress caused by that industry’s decline have wrought an economic, social and environmental crisis for the people of southern West Virginia, Mr. Dennison has developed a unique workforce model focused on transforming communities. Coalfield puts low-income young adults and laid-off coal miners back to work and sets them up for a lifetime of employment by providing jobs with training, paid college tuition and technical certification, and life skills support. At the same time, Coalfield is incubating new businesses that provide a place for those job skills to be put to work in a way that is healing to communities and to land in Appalachia left ravaged by the mining industry.

Coalfield Development owns a family of social enterprises that are staffed by people facing barriers to employment. It launched Revitalize Appalachia in 2012, developing the green-collar workforce on projects that include rejuvenating empty buildings. It helped start southern West Virginia’s first solar installation company in 2013, Solar Holler, as well as an enterprise designed to produce fresh, healthy, local food called Refresh Appalachia. Since 2013, the organization has incubated two wood shops, a coffee shop, and an antique mall. The newest social enterprise is SustainU, which makes shirts out of recycled material and holds a license with Major League Baseball.

In addition to starting new enterprises, Coalfield is part of region-wide coalitions to address systematic challenges. Reintegrate Appalachia is a collaborative effort to support people in recovery from drug addiction in finding employment, and the Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition is a three -state network exploring more innovative, sustainable approaches to mine land reclamation.

“Most job training is designed to meet the needs of existing employers, but in Appalachia we have a whole economy that needs to be rebuilt and redesigned,” says Mr. Dennison. “In the long run , what benefits employees is to have a healthy economy that is diversified, not dependent on a single industry, and has lots of different opportunities for lots of different kinds of people.”

Coalfield’s approach follows a 33-6-3 model: 33 hours a week spent in on-the-job training, along with participation in workshops and trainings; six hours a week devoted to community college and business classes for an associate degree in applied sciences; and three hours a week committed to personal development coaching and life skills.

“We hired our first crew in 2012; we quickly saw the deep complexity of the poverty we were dealing with,” says Mr. Dennison. “There are very real differences between generational poverty and circumstantial poverty. The work ethic of our crew was tremendous. They were showing up early and would work for as long as we’d let them. They had a ton of creativity and energy. What was tripping us up was not so much on the job site, but on the home front. Our crew members were faced with a cascade of never-ending challenges – transportation challenges with a car breaking down; financial challenges with debt piling up and bad credit scores; health and emotional challenges; the ability to find childcare. Some were even dealing with food insecurity. All of these interrelate and compound over time, and it just gets harder and harder to get ahead. We added life skills training to help address and provide support for those kinds of issues.”

“The Heinz Awards recognizes Brandon for his thoughtful, holistic approach to addressing the trauma long afflicting the people, communities and land of southern West Virginia in the wake of coal’s decline,” said Teresa Heinz, Chairman of the Heinz Family Foundation. “Brandon has not stopped at simply identifying need and equipping individuals with employable skills. He has developed a model that harnesses the tremendous potential, talent and courage of Appalachia’s people while also creating new, sustainable jobs in emerging fields and addressing the social barriers that have hindered opportunity in an area that for decades powered the economic growth of our country. In presenting Brandon with this year’s Heinz Award, we are not only recognizing what has been achieved, we are also celebrating the bright future that is being created for the communities of Appalachia.”

Established to honor the memory of U.S. Senator John Heinz, the Heinz Awards this year recognize s those who have made significant contributions in five distinct areas of great importance to Senator Heinz: Arts and Humanities; Environment; Human Condition; Public Policy; and Technology, the Economy and Employment. Now in its 24th year, the Heinz Awards has recognized 144 individuals and awarded more than $28.75 million to the honorees. For more information about the awardees visit www.heinzawards.net/2019.

In addition to Mr. Dennison, the 24th Heinz Awards honored the following individuals, who will receive their awards in Pittsburgh on October 17, 2019:

  • Arts and Humanities: Kevin Jerome Everson, a prolific independent filmmaker and visual artist who draws from original and found footage to create experimental films that explore the lives and communities of working-class African Americans, and the nature of work;

  • Environment: Rue Mapp, founder of Outdoor Afro, for developing and training a national network of African American conservation leaders, building a more diverse voice for natural resource stewardship and inspiring African Americans to explore their historic connections to the outdoors.

  • Human Condition: Sarah Szanton, Ph.D., ANP, a leader in the development of the Community Aging in Place Advancing Better Living for Elders (CAPABLE) program, an intervention that uses older adults’ own goals to guide the provision of home repair services along with in -home nursing and occupational therapy to improve mobility and independence, and decrease healthcare costs; and

  • Public Policy: Amanda Nguyen, founder of Rise, whose courage in sharing her personal story of sexual assault and perseverance in securing protections for victims of sexual violence has resulted in the enactment of the national Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights of 2016 and the introduction and passage of similar legislation in more than 25 states across the country and internationally.

Featured Photo of Brandon Dennison by Annie O’Neill

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