Q: Why does West Virginia need to diversify its economy? And why is agriculture part of the answer?
A: We have all heard the grim social and economic statistics for West Virginia. Low workforce participation. High poverty rate. Lack of living wage jobs. The opioid epidemic. These statistics are indicative of an economy in trouble, a population losing hope, and many brothers and sisters who are hurting and hungry for opportunity. There is clearly an urgent need to diversify our economy, an economy that has relied on a single industry for too long.
Folks throughout the state are working hard to strengthen promising sectors of our economy such as arts and culture, tourism, renewable energy, environmental remediation, technology, manufacturing, and more. Indeed we believe agriculture is part of the puzzle, too, but it’s not a silver bullet. A social enterprise of Coalfield Development Corporation, Refresh Appalachia provides agricultural job training, working to transform the lives of young people and those displaced from the coal mining industry by providing training in farm and food entrepreneurship while making healthy food more accessible in Southern West Virginia communities.
Q: What was your inspiration in the beginning? What brought you to this work and what keeps you here doing this day in and day out?
A: I grew up on a farm that has been in my family since the 1700s in Russell County, Virginia, about 45 minutes southwest of Bluefield. We raised tobacco, beef cattle and had plenty of other critters running around. My dad was a coal miner. Almost all of my family and friends were in the mining industry. I have watched many of these folks lose their jobs while simultaneously witnessing the decline of many coalfield communities.
I have always known that I wanted to work in Central Appalachia and play some part in helping our region realize its potential, and I am truly thankful to have an opportunity to do this work every day. This work is very close to my heart. Day in and day out I am inspired by the most courageous and creative folks I have ever been around. Folks that are investing in themselves and their communities, even while many are coming from incredibly disadvantaged circumstances. Many days I’ll learn about grit and resilience from a single parent that balances full-time work with college. Other days I’ll learn about ingenuity from a former coal miner that can fix a piece of equipment with scrap metal and a torch lying around the shed. Many days I am inspired by young adults dreaming up a clear-eyed vision for the future they want to see for their communities.
Q: Tell me something you didn’t expect to learn. Or something that surprised you after getting started with Refresh.
A: I have come to learn that one of our biggest challenges boils down to a crisis of imagination. Wisdom master (sidenote: my new life goal is to one day be called a wisdom master) Nachman of Bratzlav said that the most important thing in the world is to be willing to give up who you are for who you might become. It takes a lot of courage and, quite frankly, a lot of energy to re-imagine our lives differently than they are right now. This is understandably difficult to do when you just want your old job back so you can continue paying your mortgage or buying your kid’s diapers.
Further complicating our ability to imagine new futures for ourselves and our communities stems from folks outside the region who frame our identity around a simplified narrative that centers on “you are just coal country,” when we are so much more than that. If we’re being honest here, we also feed this coal country narrative at times, which can limit our ability to imagine futures that are different than what we have known. Lastly, I have learned that many folks have simply been disempowered to imagine, as many decisions are being made for our state by folks at the top. How many times have you heard an elected official ask “What do y’all want and how can I help you get there?” Not a lot, right? Yet the real imagination lies within our communities – our youth, our families, our elders. We all have so much to contribute toward imagining who we can become while still honoring and building on our past.
Q: Both Refresh and Coalfield’s model of providing hands-on job training in communities that need it the most is a really good example of creating value and making change from the ground up. What advice do you have for someone who wants to get involved with this kind of work?
A: As far as advice goes, I have one suggestion: Go talk with a bunch of people (including me if I can be helpful!). Ask them what’s missing from their work or their community. Ask them how you could help. Keep an open mind. Once you’ve talked to a bunch of folks and your ideas are cooking, go meet with even more folks and repeat as needed. (Be prepared for people to call you crazy but don’t let that stop you). I have found that folks are very happy to share what they’ve learned from their experiences, and they’ll often help in whatever ways they can to get you started. It doesn’t get much more West Virginian than that.
Q: You got to drink beer with Anthony Bourdain recently. What was that like?
A: He was down here filming a new episode for one of his shows. I had the pleasure of drinking a beer with him, and I skinned a few squirrels for his supper (true story). During our conversation, he shared stories about his travels while we sat on the back porch of my friend’s house in Mingo County. We talked about Libya, Iraq and various European countries, but he kept coming back to how much he loved West Virginia. I think that says a lot about our state. This man has been everywhere, and yet he thinks our state is one of the most moving places he’s ever visited. I think that makes two of us.
Ben Gilmer is president of Refresh Appalachia, a social enterprise of Coalfield Development. Ben has over 15 years of experience in the nonprofit, government, academic, and private sectors. Born and raised in a coal mining family in Russell County, Virginia, his specialties include agriculture and food systems, economic and community development, and sustainable natural resource management. He has worked on projects in the U.S., Latin America, Asia-Pacific, and the Caribbean. Ben has a master’s degree from West Virginia University and a bachelor’s degree from Radford University. When not working at Refresh, Ben enjoys exploring the hills and hollows with his family, playing music, and writing.
Like party favors, but for your brain. Enjoy these weekly goodies including viral videos, interesting articles, curated playlists, and more!
- LISTEN: You can thank Ben for this playlist
- JAM OUT: Ben is also a rock star
- SEE FOR YOURSELF: Great Big Story visits Refresh