Once a year, the Babcock Foundation travels to a location within our funding footprint to learn from our grantee partners where they work. I always look forward to these trips because they afford us the opportunity to engage with our partners on the ground and meet with some of their constituents and other local residents. To be in their communities, to hear their stories, to see the lay of the land is so helpful to me as I try to learn as much as possible about the context, culture and history of their home.
Whitesville, West Virginia
This month, we traveled to West Virginia and kicked off our learning tour with a panel discussion designed to give us a sense of Central Appalachia’s history, culture, political and economic climate, and emerging vision for the future. Tim Marema, Editor of the Daily Yonder and Vice President of the Center for Rural Strategies, took us through some of the history and false assumptions about the region. Ivy Brashear, Appalachian Transition and Communications Associate at the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, outlined today’s political and economic realities, federal development initiatives and bottom-up strategies for building on Appalachia’s assets. Natalie Roper, Executive Director of Generation West Virginia, described efforts to attract and retain young talent and build a “talent pipeline.”
Our first site visit was to Whitesville, a two-light town an hour’s drive from Charleston. We stopped at a memorial for the victims of the 2010 Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion. Seeing the 29 miners’ names etched in granite and reflecting on the sacrifices places like Whitesville have made to power our country was a very powerful experience. I could not stop thinking about the disaster’s impact on such a small town. And yet, they move ahead.
Upper Big Branch Miners' Memorial
Stephanie Tyree, Executive Director of the West Virginia Community Development Hub, introduced us to community leaders from nearby towns. Though the entire region has been devastated by the demise of the coal industry, you would not know it from the attitudes of the folks at the table. We heard stories about small communities rallying to take charge of their futures. I was so impressed by their energy, creativity and drive to succeed. It was a great feeling to know some of our grant dollars are helping these people and their communities improve and move forward. Listening to their stories of community and civic engagement, I was convinced progress is underway. The region has a long way to go, but small victories are happening and being celebrated.
Over lunch, we heard about the challenging policy climate and hurdles to a more just society in a conversation moderated by Ted Boettner, Executive Director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. I was encouraged by the panelists working on issues like education opportunities, health, childcare, affordable housing and workforce development initiatives. I was especially struck by one conversation centered on the incarceration rate among African-American men, the lifelong impacts on those who’ve completed their sentences, and the ripple effects on entire communities and economies.
Our afternoon site visit took us to the Coalfield Development Corporation in Huntington. CDC is a community-based organization with a mission of providing quality affordable homes, creating quality jobs and generating opportunities for low-income families in southern West Virginia. CDC recently purchased an old 96,000-square-foot factory building and is building out several training areas that offer participants the opportunity to earn associate degrees, certifications and job placement without incurring student debt. Construction trainees performed almost all the upgrades on the new West Edge Factory while working on other projects in surrounding towns. CDC has an interesting training model: 33 hours of direct work, six hours of school work at a local community college, and three hours of life skills training, including managing finances, culture, physical health, etc. We had the chance to meet with some of the trainees and ask them about their experiences. I enjoyed hearing their wide range of answers and I found it interesting that many found the life skills classes to be the most challenging part of the program.
Woodworking at Coalfield Development Corporation
In addition to the construction track, CDC has an active woodshop and training program as well as a sustainable agriculture program. We visited a greenhouse designed and built by CDC trainees, and we met with some farming trainees who told us about their passions and how they plan to use their new skills after completing the program. All CDC participants are actively engaged and developing skills that will lead them to good paying jobs and a brighter future. I was struck by the determination and pride demonstrated by all the trainees and proud Babcock resources are helping them build a brighter future for themselves and their communities.
We wrapped up the day hearing from a few of our colleagues in the Appalachia Funders Network, comprised of dozens of local, regional and national funders working to align strategies for the region. MRBF was one of the network's founders, and our participation is another way we’re helping effect an equitable transition beyond grantmaking and program-related investments.
So much work remains to be done, but the incredible partners, community leaders and indomitable spirit I witnessed last week left me optimistic. Seeing so many creative, passionate young people leading these efforts instilled confidence in the real possibility of a just, sustainable, vibrant Appalachian region.