Without spirit, without willpower, without opportunities for overcoming structural barriers, a full life feels unattainable. It is the Coalfield Development Corporation’s (Coalfield) belief that the cause of so many woes in Southern West Virginia is the lack of full lives being lived — the emptiness, the despair built up over generations, which leads to a lack of ambition, gumption, and an inability to dream. Therefore, simply building a new home for a person or giving them a two-year job is not sufficient for smashing down structural barriers and ending generational cycles of poverty. Rather, opportunities for full lives must be provided. As such, the primary strategy of this program and of Coalfield overall is to provide valuable, varied, and empowering opportunities for low-income young adults in Southern West Virginia.
Our responsibility is to create opportunity, then to provide encouragement and build the self-confidence necessary for pursuing opportunity. When given true opportunities (not just charity or any minimum wage job) and when self-confidence is restored, which requires patience, people will better their own lives and discover what a full life means for them personally. Full lives must be chosen. They cannot be given. Coalfield most certainly cannot tell a person what a full life would be like for them. Full lives mean different things for different people. What we can do is offer complete and creative support for two years while our participants are given the chance to experience new opportunities, to learn, to serve their community, and to work hard. We can be mentors, the nurturer’s of possibilities. As more Southern West Virginian individuals discover what full lives mean for them — as hope is restored — the impact is profound. Structural barriers of all kinds — political, cultural, economic, psychological — begin crumbling. We have seen this first hand with those we work with. More and more Southern West Virginians will flourish.
Convincing team members that taking the risk of pursuing new opportunities is wise will first mean earning their trust and building their self-confidence. Experience teaches us that the only way trust is earned and confidence is built is through relationships. Thus, relationship building is a central organizational focus. Relationship building takes much time, effort, and emotional investment. We are willing to make the necessary investments required to create opportunities for full life.
Coalfield has closely studied past community development efforts in Southern West Virginia. The list of failures is long. For this reason, our intention is not simply retrying traditional strategies, but rather innovating entirely new approaches to community development and synthesizing existing resources and approaches in entirely new ways. However, innovation does not mean rushed, scattered, or uncalculated action. We have taken our time in developing our programs years, in fact. We have done our due diligence, which, after all, is central to effective innovation. This is why we engage in design thinking processes and keep an organizational “refrigerator” for bold ideas, which we may like, but understand cannot happen immediately. The ideas are kept in the “refrigerator file” to preserve them and come back to them when organizational capacity may allow implementation. And we engage the community in our innovation, especially low-income people, because we know community development can only be real and powerful if it comes from the bottom up where deep understanding of one’s community really exists. We pay much more than lip service to community engagement. For each development project we hold community design “charrettes” whereby the community itself designs its projects. And we’ve designed a Quality Lives Initiative to involve low-income housing tenants and their neighbors in day-to-day engagement activities.
Trust is central to all our efforts. The biggest challenge to breaking down structural barriers in any community development effort is lack of trust. Let us count the ways mistrust infiltrates community development. There is mistrust between tenants and housing providers, between community organizers and politicians, between locals and outsiders, among organizations, among counties, among towns, among rival public officials, among rival families, among employees, among neighborhoods, among races, between genders, among different age groups, among people of differing religious beliefs, among professions, among sectors (private, non-profit, public), among people of different income levels, among people of varying education levels. Of course, there is a lack of trust in government.
But just as trust can be broken down, it can be built up. Building trust begins with believing in one another, sometimes even despite the evidence before us. It begins with respecting and valuing people, no matter what their conditions. Coalfield has established a vitally important infrastructure of trust, and this is a special asset for successfully moving the people of Southern West Virginia out of poverty.
There is a brilliant woman named Eleanor Ostrom. She was a professor at our Executive Director’s program at Indiana University who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics. Dr. Ostrom is the first-ever female recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics. Her research boils down to this — community development depends primarily on people trusting one another. Now simple as that sounds, Dr. Ostrom proves this concept empirically in her research. She traveled to Asia and Africa to show its universality. There are elaborate economic and political models that evolve out of this simple idea. But at the core of her life’s work is one simple word: trust. The infrastructure of trust already in place in the coalfields of West Virginia is our biggest asset.