LEVERETT — As a followup to a late October visit to Leverett by a group of Kentucky counterparts to bridge cultural and political differences, the sponsoring Leverett Bridging Committee has scheduled a public meeting for Dec. 11 at 7 p.m. in the Mount Toby Friends Meetinghouse on Route 63.
The program, “Reflections: What We Learned from Our Kentucky Guests,” is planned to share observations from the Kentuckians’ weekend visit. In Letcher County, Donald Trump won 79.8 percent of the vote last year, compared to 26.7 percent in Franklin County and 14.4 percent in Leverett.
The “hands across the hills” effort was mostly spent in closed sessions between the 11 Letcher County visitors and 18 members of the local Bridging Committee, part of a Leverett Alliance group that formed in the aftermath of last November’s national elections.
More than 200 people from Franklin County and beyond attended an Oct. 28 public meeting to air some of the similarities and differences of the “Red State — Blue State” groups, and the event was followed by community potlucks and a contradance. Yet most of the weekend’s interactions included group dialogues as well as exercises to build trust between the two groups.
Paula Green, who coordinated the Leverett portion of the visit, said the upcoming meeting is in response to public requests for “a first-hand assessment of what we learned about Kentucky politics and culture,” and said the structure of the session will depend on how many people turn out but will allow for discussion.
Green wrote in an op-ed column following the visit, “We started our closed dialogues with what connected us — talking about our family histories. … 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.”
The Leverett committee members, she said, learned about “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.”
Over the course of the visit, she added, “I began to appreciate how entire life circumstances can convince someone in Kentucky to vote for a candidate who promises jobs in coal. How can I hang on to my stereotypes in the face of that history? … 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.”
Jay Frost, another committee member, wrote of the visit, “We learned that while some of our guests may have checked 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. … 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.”
He added, “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.”
As a second part of their effort, Bridging Committee members plan to visit Letcher County in the spring.
Photo: Amherst Regional High School students and three teenage visitors from Letcher County Central High School in Kentucky, talk with each other after a community forum was held for a cultural exchange and dialogue project hosted by the Leverett Alliance's Bridging Committee on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017 at Leverett Elementary School. Clockwise from left, Alyssa Helton, 17, Katelyn Caudill, 18, Alex Sciaruto, 17, Piper Lacy, 17, Dominik Spangler, 18, Sam Brainin, 16, and Abigail Morris, 17. Helton, Caudill and Spangler are the visitors from Kentucky. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLEDan Little, Greenfield Recorder