Paula Green addresses dozens of people at Monday’s “Reflections: What We Learned from Our Kentucky Guests” event. GAZETTE STAFF/SCOTT MERZBACH
LEVERETT — As he listened to a recap Monday of a discussion that took place earlier this fall in which Kentucky residents talked about the hardships faced in the coal industry, Amherst’s Rob Robertson was on the verge of tears.
“I had trouble keeping a dry eye tonight,” Robertson said. “This is amazing work.”
Robertson was referring to Hands Across the Hills, a project of the Leverett Bridging Committee that brought 11 people from Letcher County, Kentucky, to Leverett in October to have structured interactions with 18 residents.
The discussion revolved around why these people from rural Kentucky voted for Republican Donald J. Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton during the last presidential election. Many of the Kentucky residents said that economic challenges caused by closed coal operations, and disasters that have befallen coal miners, are tragedies that prompted them to vote for Trump.
Robertson joined 100 or so people from throughout the region at the Mount Toby Friends Meetinghouse Monday evening. Many in attendance described the Hands Across the Hills project as both uplifting and inspiring. Robertson, as founder of a local chapter of Better Angels that aims to have conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats seek common ground through workshops, would like to expand the concept to local communities.
Monday’s event offered a chance for organizers to reflect on the project and how it bridged cultural and political differences between Letcher County, where Trump won 79.8 percent of the vote last year, compared to just 26.7 percent in Franklin County and 14.4 percent in Leverett.
But having people come together was also a way to inspire others to pursue similar discussions in their own communities on a range of topics.
Paula Green, a Leverett resident and lead organizer, will offer three, four-hour long trainings on consecutive weekends in January, explaining that there is significant interest in Amherst, Northampton and Greenfield to have similar dialogues.
Even in smaller communities dialogue is important. For instance, in Colrain an organizer hopes to talk with residents about adopting the stretch energy code that would mandate new buildings meet certain energy standards.
“Dialogue is structured conversation,” Green said. “I thought very carefully about the design of the weekend from the moment of arrival to the moment of departure.”
Green said it was critical to show everyone respect and love, which happened during the event. “They were so thrilled to have been here,” Green said.
Having the right partner, in this case, brought credibility. “It’s hard to find the partners, it was hard to find people who want to talk to us,” Green said.
For those who took part in the October event, it was valuable to get perspectives.
“We learned that the metric of who you voted for was irrelevant,” said Leverett resident Fred Bashour.
“I think we were trying to form relationships with people who have different values and belief systems,” said Leverett resident Judi Fonsh.
The Leverett contingent anticipates heading to Kentucky in April to continue the dialogue.
The Rev. Sarah Pirtle, of Shelburne Falls. said there was excitement upon meeting those who traveled 15 hours by van. “It felt euphoric,” Pirtle said.
Pirtle said she hopes to have the same “rush of gladness” when she goes to Kentucky in the spring.
Scott Merzbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org