The last weekend of October proved to be powerful and emotional for many of us in Leverett and surrounding communities. That was when 11 brave residents of Appalachian coal country traveled over 600 miles to join us in the Hands Across the Hills project, a three-day dialogue and cultural exchange.
Weekend activities included home stays, closed dialogue sessions, a public forum, community potluck meals, contra dancing, shape-note singing, and a bluegrass jam.
The purpose of this ongoing project is to directly address political differences that severely divide our country, to eliminate crippling stereotypes, and to find common ground while cutting through all the noise served up daily by politicians and the media.
Our visitors hailed from Letcher County, deep in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. Our group here in Leverett consisted of 18 members of the Leverett Alliance Bridging Committee, in which I am a participant. And yes, many of the visiting Kentuckians voted for Donald Trump, while nearly all of us voted for Clinton last November.
What I’d like to do here is identify three key takeaways from the weekend’s events. These are my own observations, but I think participants from both groups would agree with them.
1. Defining who we are. About half-way through our closed dialogue sessions, a member of the Kentucky group observed, “You know, if you define us strictly by how we vote, that is a very narrow way to look at us.”
How true. In our dialogues, we learned that while some of our guests may have checked off Trump’s name on the ballot, they are not politically uninformed; they have deep concerns about the environment; they don’t rail against immigration; and they are ambivalent about the future of coal.
In the same light, the Kentuckians discovered that we eastern liberals (at least here in the Pioneer Valley) are not arrogant, closed-minded, unfriendly or “elitists” — tropes often applied to us by other parts of the country.
2. It’s not that simple. Many of the Kentuckians agonized over their presidential voting decisions. The bottom line is that coal, in spite of its inherent problems, was the deciding factor for many.
At the time, Trump’s promises at least offered an ounce of hope. Regardless of Hillary Clinton’s context and later walk-backs, her pledge to “put a lot of coal companies and coal miners out of business” offered no hope at all. Her reference to Trump supporters as “deplorables” didn’t help.
In Appalachia, coal has been a way of life and a source of economic survival for generations. As one of our guests asserted, “I could not betray my people.”
3. Dialogue works. Our more than six hours of facilitated dialogue proved that individuals with vastly different life experiences and worldviews can exchange thoughts and opinions in a respectful and empathic manner.
Discussions of this nature are so much more effective than deferring to the insufferable twaddle served up to us by politicians and the media. This incessant banter serves only to raise the tenor of the rhetoric and deepen our divides.
Of course, 11 Kentuckians represent a microscopic sample of red state voters. Is meaningful dialogue possible between progressives and Trump-leaning citizens in affluent Orange County, California — or in nearby Orange, for that matter?
Perhaps we’ll find out as we move ahead. For now, we are looking forward to continuing dialogue with our new friends from Kentucky when we make a reciprocal visit to Letcher County in April. When that concludes, we hope to identify one or two specific issues that will allow us to work together to achieve shared goals in 2018 and beyond.
My three takeaways are only part of what we learned during our remarkable October weekend. To learn more, come to a public forum where our bridging group, including project coordinator Paula Green, will share experiences and address your questions: “Reflections and What We Learned,” Monday, Dec. 11, 7 p.m., at Mount Toby Friends Meeting House, Route 63, Leverett.
Jay Frost, of Leverett, is a retired freelance writer. He first proposed a Leverett/red state exchange concept in November 2016 at a post-election meeting of concerned Leverett citizens. He later initiated the contact with Letcher County, K.Y., that led to Hands Across the Hills.