LEVERETT — Letcher County, Ky., has an estimated population of about 23,000 — about one-third that of Franklin County, with a per capita income of $17,194 and about one-third of its residents live in poverty, compared to a $30,584 per capita income and 11.8 percent poverty in Franklin County.
There, 79.8 percent of voters last November voted Donald Trump, compared to 26.7 percent in Franklin County.
But a group in Leverett, the county’s wealthiest town where only 14.4 percent of voters backed Trump, has reached out to counterparts in extreme southeastern Kentucky to find common ground. They have arranged a “Hands Across the Hills” cultural exchange with socio-political overtones.
The exchange launches with an evening of films Monday and will culminate in a visit by Letcher County residents Oct. 28 and 29.
“Hands Across the Hills,” involving 15 people — including three teens — driving 13 hours from Kentucky’s coal country for a weekend of music, dancing, presentations and some frank discussions with their 18 Leverett counterparts, who plan to visit Letcher County next spring.
It grew out of last December’s formation of the Leverett Alliance, an outgrowth of a dormant Leverett Peace Committee created a dozen years earlier. In the aftermath of last November’s election, 60 town residents turned out to foster dialogue and take action “to act on our commonalities.”
Of six Leverett Alliance subcommittees that formed, a “bridging divides” effort began searching for ways to reach out to groups with different social and political views, trying to find some common ground to build some solidarity.
“I’ve never been politically active, but I wanted to do something,” says Jay Frost, a retired freelance writer who showed up at the first meeting “with no plans in mind,” but suggested reaching out to a community ‘out in the heartland.’ …We didn’t know what we were going to find. I really wanted to connect with somebody out there, though. Find someplace totally polar opposites of us and find a way we can find some common ground, move ahead without all this shouting and ranting.”
The group thought about finding a Trump-leaning community closer to home, perhaps, and along the way, encountered difficulty finding anyone who would want to share stark political differences. In late March, Frost found an article, “Building Democracy in ‘Trump Country’ on Salon.com.
In it, Ben Fink, a Connecticut-raised recent transplant in Letcher County, wrote, “Yes, some people fly Confederate flags. One of them, down the road, used to share a front lawn with an anarchist environmentalist, and they got along fine. Yes, my Northeastern accent sticks out. And as long as I’m open about who I am and interested in who they are, I’ve found almost everyone here is ready to open up, take me in and work together. … The bigotry and violence of the Trump campaign wasn’t the product of our people, money or ideas. My neighbors may not be up on the latest social justice lingo, but they are not hateful. No, the organizing took place far away. What we get, on both sides, are the bumper stickers, the prefab identities sold by the people with power to make us feel powerful — even as they use our power for their own benefit.”
Fink — a community development project director at a media nonprofit, Appalshop — describes community organizing efforts with “the longest-running square dance in the state,” county fire departments holding an annual bluegrass festival and an effort to train young people in tech and media skills to help the community provide for its own future.”
The invitation at the end of his article got Frost to respond with an invitation of his own, for the two communities to launch some kind of cultural exchange.
“We’re all shouting at each other right now. The Trump people hate the liberals, the progressives; Massachusetts hates Missouri,” says Frost. “But we all have common interests, it doesn’t matter what our political views are. Whether it’s good public schools, a clean environment, no war, (dealing with) opioid addiction, social justice, jobs. Cut out the noise and find out where we can work together. And move forward. Cut out the politicians. Do it ourselves. That’s my motivation: I wanted to do something positive because there was a lot negativity floating around.”
Leverett peace activist Paula Green says say it’s the visitors who are taking the greatest risk.
“They’re taking a leap,” said Green, who has worked around the world as founder of Amherst-based Karuna Center trying to heal differences in Israel and Palestine, in Cambodia and Burma, in Rwanda and Barundi but last did similar work in this country over racial tensions in New York in the 1970s. “I think it takes lot of courage for them to come here, taking the first step. We honor their courage … They don’t know us. They have stereotypes about us, just as we have.”
The Leverett residents will be hosting the rural Kentucky guests in their homes during a weekend that will include open-to-the-public Saturday morning community forum, a Leverett Community Chorus concert and a pot-luck lunch and a dinner and contradance — along with closed sessions for the two groups to share freely their feelings.
Frost, too, admits “a little tinge of fear,” as he prepares to host a 74-year-old former strip miner who still advocates for strip mining.
“It takes finding courage in myself,” he says. “I’m a staunch environmentalist. How’s this going to play out?”
Frost, who voted for Bernie Sanders, and who like other group members has been reading books and articles to learn more about life in conservative America, admits that he, like many others, has harbored stereotypes: “‘How could these idiots vote for Mitch McConnell?’ I don’t feel that way anymore. These people have a totally different framework, because they have a totally different life experience. We have to understand that.”
‘Count me in’
Bill Meade, the fire chief Frost is hosting along with a lawyer/owner of The Thirsty Heifer restaurant, said, “I’ve been in 42 states in this great nation of ours and I’ve seen a lot of our country. I’ve never met a person I really couldn’t get along with or couldn’t talk to. I can listen to both sides of any issue. I told Ben, if it’s something you think is beneficial, count me in, I’ll go.”
Fink, the Culture Hub project manager who received Frost’s first email and brought it to people who had joined the effort to rebuild the local economy from its own strengths, says, “Like every place, it’s a whole lot more complicated than a lot of descriptions give it credit for. The people here are really open-minded and curious. It’s not every day some strangers you’ve never met, in the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts, say they want to know us better, put us up and want to understand what’s gone on with you. Most people in area with the kind of history of exploitation and stereotyping that’s been here for a long time, these people really want to get to know us?”
He says he found a diverse group of volunteers from around his county, which has a population that’s 98.3 percent white — including three teens.
And he adds, “It’s not that people here are ignorant or Pollyanna-ish about the real challenges we face, because we face them every day. But we want to be addressed, as most self-respecting people want to be addressed, as people who can work together to build and address these problems, as opposed to people who are helpless and need to have things done unto them.”
While some people in the community were “gung-ho,” he says, others were afraid this would be another exploitive “let’s look at the hillbillies exercise,” like the national media that descended on the community sticking microphones in people’s faces, asking, “Did you vote for Trump?”
Fink, who says he’s been amazed to see how many similarities exist between these North and South outposts, from shape-note singing and traditional music to an emphasis on local food and traditions and grassroots efforts to get broadband, emphasizes, “Divide and conquer has a long history in coal country. This area’s had such tremendous wealth. How is it that people here are so poor? A small group of people has been able to set this community against that community, this religion against that religion, this political division against that political division. We’re too busy fighting each other, and they make off with all the money.”
Meade, one of 17 brothers and sisters, says, “In the last four years of the Obama administration, we went from, I believe, 1,395 miners down to 28 miners in this county. Now we’re down to 13. It just wiped out the mining industry in this area. It is just what I would call dead. Mining has been the mainstay, and the jobs were well-paying jobs, most men averaged $28 to $30 an hour. When you go from that down to McDonald’s pay, it’s tough.”
The thing that really hurts,” says Meade, who regularly organizes efforts to help feed the needy and raise money for fire departments and other aspects of the community, is that businesses that supply explosives, belt lines and other mining equipment, all disappeared as well. “I’m 74 years old, and I’ve never seen it this bad in my lifetime.”
‘A lot to learn from them’
Back in Leverett, another of the Bridging Divides group, Sharon Dunn, says it wasn’t until she began reading intensely about the cultural divide that she realized “what a bubble I live in. I’m happy to have my son go away to college, and he lives across the country in California. But their children stay close to to home, the family stays together. It’s dimensions like that I began to appreciate more. Something that seems so natural to me seems so foreign to people from a different locale, with a different history. The more I’ve begun to appreciate that, the more I’ve felt a kind of understanding.”
Although both groups realize there are risks in oversimplifying the meetings next month, and next spring, and what may come of them, they also express hope this may inspire similar efforts elsewhere, and lead to lasting understandings as they come to terms with the deeper meanings by truly listening.
“I’d like to learn from them,” says Leverett group member Jim Perkins, who is Green’s husband. “They’ve experienced the destructive side of the American economic and cultural system more than we have. And they’ve gotten much further than we have in trying to figure out how to resist the destructive tendencies and how to build something all their own, depending on their own strength and own resources, their own regionality. And I think we have lot to learn from them in terms of how we perceive our own region and its potential and take control of our own future. “That’s what they’re looking at,” he says: “How do we stop accepting whatever’s being dished out to us and make something that’s authentically ours?”
Green adds, “We want to examine the differences but act on the common ground. We want to shift from demonizing each other to humanizing each other. And if we make that shift with this small group and they make that shift with us, hopefully that carries over to other people that we meet ... and (we can all) reduce the enmity that exists in our communities and has been so exacerbated since the election.”
Film night kicks off meeting prep
Leverett Alliance will present a free Appalachian Film Night on Monday from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at the Leverett Library with a pair of one-hour Appalshop documentaries as it prepares for visitors from Letcher County, Ky., on Oct. 28.
“Strangers with a Camera,” about a 1967 documentary filming about Appalachian poverty, explores how the media affects the communities it chronicles.
“Strangers & Kin” traces the evolution of the “hillbilly” image through history and demonstrates how stereotypes are created, reinforced and often used to rationalize exploitation.
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