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Shepherdstown, West Virginia is the lead role in a recent film, and it goes deeper than just entertainment value.
The film, From the Ashes, produced by Bloomberg Philanthropies and RadicalMedia and directed by Mike Bonfiglio, traces the coal industries’ pernicious influence on the United States’s landscape, health, and economy.
'It’s a small, quaint college town of around 3,500 students and 1,500 full-timers; the buildings lining the main corridor, German Street, date from the town’s founding in the 18th century, though the storefronts now advertise bubble tea and organic wares.
But perhaps nowhere has the reach of the coal industry been more pervasive or damaging than in West Virginia, where 200 years of relentless mining by a (now-faltering) industry that single-handedly monopolized the state’s economy has left the landscape devastated and many of its residents without a reliable source of income.
Dennison, 30, is a central character in the film. His nonprofit, which he founded in 2010 after leaving Shepherdstown and returning to Wayne, is taking on the overwhelming mission of preparing West Virginia and its residents to transition to a post-coal economy. Called the Coalfield Development Corporation, Dennison’s organization trains and employs young people and former mine workers across five social enterprises, which focus on construction (especially affordable housing), minefield remediation, arts and culture projects, sustainable agriculture, and solar energy initiatives.
“We’re in a situation that feels like a race against time,” Conant says. Even though life in Shepherdstown, he says, can feel isolated from the rest of the state, the economic struggles—particularly cuts to the state education department, which is planning to lay off 50 people—are universally felt in West Virginia. “We’ve got to act now to build up other industries, and it can’t just be one thing because that’s what got us here in the first place.”
In Shepherdstown, where the personal connections to these organizations run deep, the concern is particularly palpable. In anticipation of this concern, Michael Bloomberg has pledged to personally match every donation made through the From the Ashes website to such coal transition initiatives.