What does sustainability look like in the heart of coal country?

Authors: Maritza Martinez

A new report from Central Appalachia Sustainability Economies (CASE) [report] details how one group is defining sustainability within a region dominated by coalmining. I had the pleasure of joining two Green For All Fellows at the first gathering of CASE in November. The CASE network was convened by Green For All Fellow Eric Mathis, founder of the JOBS Project, to coordinate sustainability efforts in the coal regions of West Virginia and Kentucky. The purpose of the gathering was to bring together people and organizations working toward health and sustainability to reduce organizational silos and begin developing a regional approach to sustainable economic development. It was clear that this network is building a space for much-needed collaboration, resource-sharing and mutual support.

Working For Communities, Not Against the Status Quo

"It’s okay to be against something, unless it’s against the workers," said Terry Sammons of the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority. Coexisting with the coal industry, the area’s main provider of jobs, is a central theme of the group’s work. Speakers discussed the region’s economic development through this lens, including reclaiming land from mountaintop removal sites and improving mining techniques to keep streams in tact. Many innovative solutions have already been implemented or being developed locally, such as solar energy installations, reforestation projects, and building community spaces, such as schools, on post-mining sites.

Meeting Community Health Needs

Coal-mining communities suffer from a host of health problems that can be addressed through comprehensive sustainability work that puts community health at the center. GFA Fellow Selim Sandoval and Monica Niess from The Write Choice Network shared their vision for a baseline community health survey. They are working in collaboration with leaders in Williamson to acquire federal funds to build a Federally Qualified Health Center in the area. Teaming up with Eric and local organizations, they will be implementing a public survey to assess the needs of the community and build a health clinic that can address them. The health clinic will serve as a regional anchor for achieving sustainable and healthy communities.

Developing Local Leadership and Business Opportunities

Sustainable economic development in coal country represents critical opportunities to diversify an often-stagnant local economy. Daryn Dodson from Idea Village discussed his experience supporting entrepreneurs in post-Katrina New Orleans. Through investment and coaching, Idea Village is able to grow entrepreneurial ventures and help them succeed in the market. He shared success stories from the field, like Naked Pizza who set out to build the world’s healthiest pizza and is now expanding to 27 locations around the country. This model roused strong interest within the CASE network as a means of supporting the next generation of leaders and business owners by building local opportunities to prevent brain drain and create a stronger economy.

The CASE convening launched a coordinated effort at building a

sustainable local economy dedicated to healthy communities and next generation leadership. Participants showcased local solutions as well as models for success from around the country. To some, building a new economy means tearing down the old industries without regard to jobs or traditions but it is clear that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Eric Mathis and the team at CASE are creating a sustainable economy with a deep understanding of the needs of their community.

Read more about the CASE convening here.

Check out photos from the CASE convening here.

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