Kentuckian Alyssa Helton, 17, speaks to a packed house at the Leverett Elementary School gymnasium during a community forum with 11 visitors from Letcher County, Ky., for a cultural exchange and dialogue project hosted by the Leverett Alliance's Bridging Group on Oct. 28. RECORDER FILE PHOTO
Last November, as many of us in Leverett despaired over the 2016 presidential election, little did we imagine that a year later we ourselves would successfully fan the embers of hope. But that is exactly what we did.
The Leverett Alliance’s Bridging Group created a container of care, respect, and openness into which we invited folks from Eastern Kentucky coal country to spend the weekend of Oct. 27 to 29 in our homes, in our circles of dialogue, at our potluck tables, on the contra dance floor, and at a community forum to meet the Valley.
This project called Hands Across the Hills took many months of creative planning here and with folks from Kentucky. All along we felt the Kentuckians demonstrated their bravery by agreeing to partner with us and embrace our vision. They drove 15 hours to meet us, we who were strangers whose political leanings, backgrounds and attitudes are so different from theirs.
We started our closed dialogues with what connected us — talking about our family histories.
Kentuckians were surprised at our many immigration stories: family members lost in the Holocaust or great-grandparents who fled Ireland, Poland, Italy and elsewhere due to famine or oppression. One of our guests acknowledged that she had never spoken to an immigrant or refugee, but after hearing the pain of exile and exclusion, she would no longer tolerate refugee denigration.
We, on the other hand, learned of their losses in pursuit of labor: fathers, husbands, brothers, sons dead from coal-mining accidents and black lung disease.
Increasingly, as we spent time together in dialogue, we grew closer and closer. We listened with empathy as we absorbed many stories about Appalachia’s struggles. After intense, intimate sharing of experiences, our differences faded into the background.
As the weekend evolved, I began to appreciate how entire life circumstances can convince someone in Kentucky to vote for a candidate who promises jobs in coal. While we in the Northeast are well aware of more than a century of resource extraction, subsistence wages, exploitation, and environmental degradation in Appalachia, folks from Kentucky see work they’ve known for a century, work that was once heroic. As one Kentuckian said, coal has “put shoes on our children’s feet and food in their bellies.” How can I hang on to my stereotypes in the face of that history?
Where did we go on that weekend’s journey? To a place of empathy, perhaps even love. Everyone agreed that we need to do our own connecting, people to people, and leave aside the discordant voices of the media and politicians. We are not campaigning to change votes; we are building the more fully inclusive and compassionate society that we wish to live in. As people grow in solidarity and concern, voting preferences may take a new turn.
Hands Across the Hills has touched a chord of longing here in the Valley, affirmed by the hundreds who flocked to the public community forum to meet our guests. The size of the Valley audience astounded our Kentucky friends and the standing ovations in response to their presentation warmed their hearts to Massachusetts and brought tears to their eyes.
This project and similar dialogue events that arise around the country allow us to say “no” to divisive identity politics and “yes” to a society that responds to the sustenance, security and recognition needs of all, while expanding our notion of community in the process.
As a next step we will host a discussion at 7 p.m. Dec. 11, at Mount Toby Friends Meeting House in Leverett where Bridging Group members will share reflections, insights, and plans for our trip to Kentucky in April.
We encourage other communities to learn with us and spread the process. Together we can turn up the heat on hope.
As one of the Kentucky participants so effectively summed up the weekend: “We came in curiosity and left in love.”
Paula Green, of Leverett, is founder of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding in Amherst and professor emerita of the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont. She has worked extensively on conflict transformation in Asia, Africa, the Mideast and Eastern Europe. In 2009 she received an award from the Dalai Lama as an “unsung hero of compassion.”