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West Virginia: A National Leader in Sustainable Communities

Joesph Mathis, founder and director of the Jobs Project, works on Sustainable Williamson -- a template for economic revitalization -- and is at the forefront of developing a comprehensive model that not only aids in “greening” the City of Williamson, but also pushes "the boundaries of sustainability by placing health and wellness at the center of the strategy."

 Joesph Mathis is being recognized as a Champion of Change for his innovative energy priorities and sustainable living practices making a greener community a possibility in any American city or town.

In a comprehensive study performed by Rupert Vance, an American sociologist, in 1962, he stated that “if the problem of Appalachia is to be met, it must be interpreted in the context of national development.” Yet in the same decade contemporary historian Thomas Kiffmeyer noted in his recent book Reformers to Radicals: The Appalachian Volunteers and the War on Poverty that “the trajectory of activism – the self-serving nature of many of the participants and their attitudes toward those they came to help – reveals the shortcomings of America’s reform tradition.” He went on to critique a model that sought to interpret Appalachia in the context of a 60’s version of community development by stating that the “War on Poverty planners and participants adopted, as did many of their civil rights counterparts, a reform philosophy that saw victims as the source of poverty and ignored attempts to better their own conditions.”

I, however, have had the privilege of seeing a different Appalachia where local residents are alive and well! Together, we have begun to collaboratively engineer a radically new approach to what some have called “Sustainable Development.” In an attempt to lead the nation by building some of the most innovative approaches to Greening our Cities and Towns, Sustainable Williamson is at the forefront of developing a comprehensive model that is not limited to simply “greening” the City of Williamson but pushing the boundaries of sustainability by placing health and wellness at the center of our strategy.  

To this end, this award could not have come at a better time as a new Appalachian story is beginning to unfold. Here in the heart of coal country we have seen the recent installation of the largest RE system in the Southern coalfields, the construction of one of the nation’s most advanced community gardens, the planning and implementation of a Federally Qualified Health Center, the development of a preventative health and wellness program in the heart of the “Diabetes Belt,”  the initial construction of one of the most sustainable offices in the country,  and most importantly, all this is emerging with the collaboration and support of community stakeholders, elected officials, state and federal agencies, regional and national experts, and now the President of the United States of America. My gratitude is complex and far reaching but can be captured by simply stating that this award reflects the will of the people, a will that will come to define a new national development founded upon the ideals of this great republic, that is, to collaboratively construct a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

J. Eric Mathis is the founder and director of The JOBS Project. His organization has been at the forefront of initiatives to bridge the gap between the fossil fuel and renewable energy industries through the development and implementation of innovative finance and business models.