OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

Appalachian Transition Fellowship: Supporting emerging leaders & cross-sector collaboration toward a just economic transition in the region

We support coal-impacted communities in Appalachia by building leadership, collaboration, & connectivity toward a just, sustainable economy.

Photo of Elizabeth

Written by

What is your organization name? Explain your organization in one sentence.

Highlander Research and Education Center builds broad-based movement in the South and Appalachia

Is this project idea new for you or your organization? If no, how much have you already executed on?

We are in the middle of our second fellowship cohort.

What do you need the most support with in this project idea?

  • Exposure

What is your primary goal over the next 6 weeks of Refinement?

  • Iterate or improve on my product/service

How do you currently measure (or plan to measure) results for this project?

We contract with Rural Support Partners to conduct a formal evaluation with all fellows and host organizations. We also gather qualitative evidence through host and fellow one-on-one check-ins and are constantly incorporating feedback and adjustments to meet needs. Formal Evaluation takes place quarterly, using Community Wealth indices, and the results are reported in a final evaluation report that is shared widely.

How has your project proposal changed due to your user research during the Beneficiary Feedback Phase?

The feedback about reporting outcomes using stories was very useful.

The Appalachian Transition Fellowship program supports a just, sustainable economic transition from exploitative, extractive industries by connecting young and emerging leaders in Central Appalachia with coal-impacted communities throughout the region to build leadership and boost capacity, collaboration, and connectivity across sectors, issues, and geography.

Fellows are placed in host communities for one year in a full-time, paid fellowship to support new or expanding community-led projects to advance a just regional transition. Host communities are comprised of 2-3 cross-sector partnerships that builds a network with a strong foundation of varied resources, skills, ideas, and relationships to scale up local efforts and support regional shifts that build community health and wealth. 

In the first cohort of the fellowship, for example, AppFellow Carol Davey joined the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACENet), Athens City Government, American Electric Power and Rural Action to support locally owned businesses in Athens, Ohio, as they shift behaviors toward zero waste, green energy and energy efficiency practices through an exploratory “Green Your Business” initiative. The fellowship resulted in an organized system providing local businesses access to information, resources, and capital needed to incorporate zero waste and supports businesses in reducing their carbon footprint and increasing profitability by implementing energy efficient procedures and utilizing renewable energy sources.

A federal REAP grant written by Carol awarded $10,000 to Village Bakery to install a solar panel, and is now a finalist in Upgrade Athens!, a $5 million funding opportunity coordinated by Carol to advance sustainable energy in the city. Following the fellowship, Carol said, “I have been able to stay in my host community, Athens Ohio, and am continuing to work on Energy Economy and Efficiency. Currently I serve as the Community Director for Empower Athens, supervising a team of ten and shaping the messaging and programming to supplement our work in residential, commercial, municipal, and rental efficiency. My role with Empower allows me to continue to assist UpGrade Athens County in educating the public about energy usage and the new energy economy emerging in Athens.”

First-cohort App Fellow Eric Dixon worked with Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) to create sustainable opportunities targeting skilled workers, including out-of-work coal miners, in Whitesburg, KY. Through policy research and documentation of projects like stream cleanups and reforestation plantings, the project sought to increase access to funds for environmental restoration projects in central Appalachia, decreasing outmigration, increasing jobs and improving the environment.

Eric also established a partnership with fellow Kendall Bilbrey and their hosts Appalachian Citizens Law Center, Virginia Tech, and Alliance for Appalachia that led to the formation of an Abandoned Mine Land Policies and Priorities working group, including the development of a white paper and a custom-made presentation on AML Funds that can be readily presented to various groups across the region to meet individual needs and interests. Kendall and Eric also embarked on a regional educational tour in April 2015 to spark community dialogue and understanding about the opportunities surrounding AML funds. As a result of that tour, 24 communities across Central Appalachia passed unanimous resolutions seeking federal support for a just economic transition in the region.

Upon completion of the program, Eric joined ACLC’s staff in June 2015, coordinating ACLC’s policy analysis and engagement efforts, particularly around abandoned mine land reclamation, renewable energy, electric utility issues, and the proposed POWER+ Plan. Kendall became the first paid staff coordinator of the Stay Together Appalachian Youth (STAY) program.

An increase in organizational capacity and outreach is strengthened by network opportunities within AppFellows. Host organizations not only have increased capacity for a specific project, but also have an opportunity to increase their connectivity and capacity to collaborate across the region. For example, in the 2014-15 fellowship year, a project with CAMC, The Corey Brothers (distributor), and Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation in Charleston, WV has helped improve distribution routes between WV and VA by making truck routes more efficient in overall costs and mileage. As a result of fellows on the ground in both states, pick-up routes have been rerouted to decrease mileage while including new stops, farmers are making new connections with distributors and aggregators allowing them to share truck space more often, and educational tools for farmers, distributors, aggregators, restaurant entrepreneurs, and community foundations have greatly expanded beyond just one sector.

New relationships are forming, existing organizations are learning from emerging talents, and people from a variety of sectors are educating each other in new ways because of the networks AppFellows has helped strengthen. AppFellows is a dynamic opportunity to impact a collective understanding of complex issues surrounding poverty that will help create a collaborative agenda to advance the economic transition of the region.

Explain your idea

Central Appalachia is engaged in a period of economic transition. Industries that have historically provided the region's economic base, such as manufacturing and the coal industry, are experiencing unprecedented declines as the natural gas industry is burgeoning into the region. Meanwhile, new economic sectors such as clean energy and local food production are emerging. This time of transition offers an amazing opportunity to those interested in the long-term well-being of the people and communities of Appalachia; while the decline of previously stable industries brings with it significant economic instability, it also opens a window of opportunity to replace them with regionally-based industries that provide economic benefits while also protecting and supporting the environmental and social well-being of the region. Central Appalachia is a region of incredible strengths and assets, of rich natural resources, strong cultural traditions, and diverse and talented people, and by building upon these assets we will be able to create an economy and a region that is successful, sustainable, and equitable. Our ability, however, to make this transition a reality depends upon increasing the capacity of organizations and stakeholders working to address the systemic problems of the region so that they can better focus on solutions. Leaders and organizations within Central Appalachia struggle with challenges that make it harder to address bigger structural issues around poverty and economic opportunity. Specifically, they struggle with building capacity and connectivity to do meaningful and sustainable work with limited resources. Many organizations lack the staffing and resources to be innovative, because organizational staff are trying to balance administrative responsibilities with reaching organizational goals, which often leaves little time or energy for collaboration. This means that many organizations are left working in isolation. Emerging leaders from the region often struggle to find opportunities to put their talents to use; many lack the networks, education, and skills necessary to take advantage of opportunities that do exist, and leave the region in search of further education and training. The Appalachian Transition Fellowship (AppFellows) program pairs emerging talents with organizations and enterprises working toward a more resilient and sustainable economy. AppFellows is an opportunity to immediately increase the region's capacity to accelerate a just economic transition, while simultaneously fostering the next generation of leaders who will carry that work forward in real and lasting ways. To do this, we must expand our assets by moving talented people into organizations that are working toward the common goal of moving people out of poverty while creating new alternative economic structures that facilitate more equitable and sustainable job opportunities for the people of this region.

Who Benefits?

For this project, our primary constituencies are the host organizations/institutions and fellows within Appalachia that are participating directly in the AppFellows program. The secondary constituencies are the communities in which the fellows and organizations are located. Our tertiary constituencies are all of the communities, networks, organizations, and individuals in the Central Appalachian region that the program is working to help transform and thrive. The AppFellows program's main goals are to boost the capacity of existing organizations and networks, to build the next generation of leaders, and to enhance a common strategy to foster economic transition, cross-sector collaboration and network development. In that vein, those organizations, networks and next-generation leaders are our constituency. We also understand that for economic and generational transition to happen, y'all means ALL, and an inclusive, intersectional, anti-racist, anti-colonialist framework is essential.

How is your idea unique?

AppFellows was conceived by the region, in the region. It begins with local communities and leaders, but provides a way to bolster regional connections and efforts to address poverty. Fellows are from Central Appalachia and are committed to stay in the region. AppFellows is unique in that formal education is not a requirement or a consideration in defining leadership - fellows are directly impacted by the issues their work addresses, and much of their leadership and learning goals are driven by lived experience. Projects completed by fellows and cross-sector partners are developed from within low-wealth communities, strengthen existing efforts, and address needs identified by people and groups working and living in the host communities. Skill trainings and mentoring throughout the fellowship support low-wealth individuals and community institutions from distressed counties as selected fellows, host communities, and/or via community-based regional gatherings.

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Full-scale roll-out: I have completed a pilot and analyzed the impact of that pilot on the users I am trying to reach with my idea. I am ready to expand the pilot significantly.

Tell us more about you

The Highlander Research and Education Center serves as a catalyst for grassroots organizing and movement building in Appalachia and the South. We work with people fighting for justice, equality and sustainability, supporting their efforts to take collective action to shape their own destiny. Through popular education, participatory research, and cultural work, we help create spaces - at Highlander in New Market, TN, and in local communities - where people gain knowledge, skills, hope and courage, expanding their ideas of what is possible. We develop leadership and help create and support strong, democratic organizations that work for justice, equality and sustainability in their own communities and that join with others to build broad movements for social, economic and restorative environmental change. Since 1932, Highlander’s work has supported movement building in the South and Appalachia. The purpose of all our efforts is to equip grassroots organizers with the tools, skills, knowledge, hope, courage, creativity, relationships and inspiration necessary to work effectively to transform systemic, unjust conditions in their communities, statewide and nationally to one of equity, opportunity, sustainability and prosperity. Doing our work right means dealing with root causes and connecting across issues that are artificially separated, environment from economic justice, for example, and conducting this work for policy shifts in a way that builds skills of leaders and capacity of organizations and institutions for the long haul. To that end, Highlander efforts are designed to strengthen the region’s movement infrastructure. Our current programs continue that work, with a focus on youth organizing, and intergenerational leadership development and strengthening solidarity economies. Highlander has focused on working with low-wealth constituencies across the South and Appalachia, including work with African Americans, immigrants and low-income white people and communities, with an emphasis on supporting people from these communities to work within their communities and in broader networks to find ways to change their economic and social reality. We are now helping to lead efforts to build infrastructure in Appalachia to support new generational leadership and to find ways for young people to survive and thrive in low-wealth communities that face many challenges. Many of these young people face educational challenges, little economic opportunity, and end up leaving the region. Our work towards an economic transition for Appalachia comprehensively addresses ways to reduce poverty, build education and economic infrastructure, and provide living wage jobs that can support people and families, on local, state and regional levels. Our partners in the AppFellows program include the host organizations, the fellows, our funders, and evaluation support organization Rural Support Partners.

Expertise in sector

  • 7+ years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Anne Evans

Thanks for your summary of the synergies! We'll reach out for a talk over the next couple of weeks.

View all comments