Do you ever wonder about people who voted for Donald Trump? Has the country become so polarized that we can’t imagine what motivates people whose life experiences and attitudes are different?
On Saturday morning, I attended an extraordinary event in Leverett, a small town six miles north of where I live. Eleven people who live in Letcher County in eastern Kentucky were visiting for three days as part of a cultural exchange. The goal was for Leverett people and Kentucky people to listen to each other and break down stereotypes they’d formed of each other.
The two places couldn’t be more different. While 79.8 percent of Letcher County voted for Trump, only 14.4 percent did in Leverett. Forty percent of children in Letcher County live in poverty, and 34 percent of residents smoke cigarettes. Leverett, a rural but wealthy town where most people commute to jobs elsewhere, is host to Buddhist, Sikh, and Quaker houses of worship, as well as Christian ones. Life expectancy in Letcher County is more than eight years lower.
“I can see better by the light in your eyes,” sang local recording artist Sarah Pirtle with two Kentucky women to open the program. They sang a song Pirtle wrote called “Hands Across the Hills,” the name of the exchange program.
Leverett resident Paula Green, who has brought together disparate groups for dialogue all over the world, praised the visitors for “the bravery it took to come here.” The goal of the weekend is to “discover each others’ cares and joys and build on our common dreams.”
She explained that after the election, many Leverett residents sought a way to respond that would be from the heart rather than from anger and frustration. They discovered Letcher County through a Connecticut-raised community organizer who has lived there for two years and wrote an article on salon.com called “Building Democracy in Trump Country.”
Green, who founded the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, said she wants to “move from demonization to humanization” and encourage other groups to accept a similar challenge. She encouraged the hundreds of local residents who came to the presentation to be curious and friendly with the Kentucky visitors, and not try to convince or change them.
The visitors introduced themselves. Letha Dollarhyde said her stereotype of New Englanders as cool and distant was totally shattered. Valerie Horn said that although Letcher County is poor, there is a program for free food at a farmers’ market. Teenager Alyssa Helton said that in Letcher County “everyone knows everyone,” and showed slides of a mountain, a waterfall, a lake and the school where she learned to play the fiddle.
They were asked about climate change and coal, which is Letcher County’s only industry. Tyler Ward responded that he and his neighbors are not averse to science, but many people are concerned more with daily existence and coal companies are among the few employers.
There were presentations about Leverett’s history and how it is now populated by longtime families, aging hippies and cosmopolitan professionals. The Leverett Community Chorus sang songs to celebrate folkways of Appalachia and New England, and there was a potluck lunch. A contradance was scheduled for the evening.
I was deeply moved by the event, even though I didn’t get a chance to talk to any of the Kentucky visitors. It made me think about how useful it would be to seek reconciliation with those I disagree with in my own town. Since the election, I have tried to understand the rural mindset better by reading books like “Hillbilly Elegy” and “Strangers in Their Own Land,” and this event helped me realize our common humanity.
It reminded me of my friendship with the head police detective in the town where I live, who I got to know through my newspaper work. He and I couldn’t be more different culturally, but we bonded over a common interest in baseball trivia. As our conversations got deeper, I came to realize that he wasn’t quite as conservative as I thought, and he realized that I wasn’t quite as liberal as he thought.
I think we could all benefit from listening to people who are different from us, and looking for common ground.