LEVERETT — Anyone who looked at last fall’s unusual dialogue between a group of Kentucky natives and local people as a chance to erase red state/blue state political differences may have been disappointed.
But the visit by a 11-member delegation from Kentucky’s Letcher County — with its counterpart planned this spring by Leverett’s 18-member Bridging Committee — serves a deeper purpose, says committee member Paula Green, who facilitated closed-session interactions between the two groups. And this weekend, Green is working to broaden the deep intercultural discussion that she says is needed, with the first in a three-part, 12-hour training for 34 people from around western Massachusetts and southern Vermont.
The trainings, originally intended for 25, already has a waiting list of 12, along with tentative plans for a second training series in late February. The interest is based on what Green sees is an appetite in today’s polarized climate to work to bridge the cultural gap in this county.
People who approached her after a standing-room-only open forum Oct. 28 that drew a couple hundred people, as well as a follow-up meeting in December, want to learn how to conduct a “community conversation” through their churches, schools and community centers around issues of public concern, said Green, who’s had a 30-year career convening dialogues in Rwanda, Bosnia, Israel and elsewhere around the world through the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding and the School for International Training.
Although the Leverett-Kentucky dialogue project grew out of political divisions reflected in the 2016 election outcome, the training for what will likely be conversations within communities isn’t necessarily geared to that, said Green. Instead, “It’s to help communities to develop the capacity to speak to each other with respect and deepen their understanding and their capacity to work together.”
These kinds of open conversations are needed particularly now, said Green.
“There’s a different norm and ethic being promoted at the White House,” she said, “and it’s unfortunately spreading into communities, and there’s a certain lack of civility that’s making people very uncomfortable.”
Civil discourse isn’t necessarily breaking down in western Massachusetts, she said, yet “I think there is a hunger in our valley community for some positive direction through which people can build more understanding, to reduce the intolerance toward people whose political lives are different from ours. I think the motivation’s very high to be able to communicate with each other in a manner that upholds and respects differences without taking each other apart for it.”
The struggles that have always surfaced in town meetings and other political institutions seem especially pronounced now, Green said, “because this country’s feeling so deeply pulled apart. Our hope is to encourage people to feel more connected, to counteract the shredding of our national common life.”
Still, Green said, “What’s interesting is it’s repairable. People can learn these skills. It doesn’t mean anyone on any side of the political fence is going to change their opinion or vote differently, but they can learn skills of civic engagement.”
Deep conversations, deep purpose
Gail Perlman of Northampton, a retired family court judge with training as a social worker, a mediator and a lawyer, signed up for the three Sundays of training to hone her skills as part of an informal group in Northampton that’s begun discussions with people in the community with very different political perspectives, to “simply listen and learn.
“The problem is at this point in time, for some reason each group seems to think of the other side as the absolute enemy. There’s sense of hatred, of distrust: ‘You’ve got to be all wrong because I’m all right.’ I don’t think that’s a useful way for a democratic society to solve its problems. What needs to happen is that we calmly demonstrate to each other, we’re willing to listen to the deep, deep experiences each person has that’s led them to the feelings and beliefs they’ve got. That’s what we’re trying to learn to convey to each other, so we can really see each other as people and start from there.”
In Green’s work here as well as globally, bringing warring factions together after civil war and genocide, she says, “listening’s the most difficult muscle to develop in this practice.”
In every case, the hardest lesson to get across is “to listen when there’s deep difference. It’s very hard for progressive people in the valley to listen to stories of people who voted for Trump and what they believe. It’s very hard to hold the discipline, not to want to jump right back and say, ‘That’s not true.’”
The intense, closed conversations between the Leverett and Kentucky groups, which came after an array of trust-building exercises led by Green, revealed “similarities in terms of empathy and compassion for each others’ stories,” yet, “there were plenty of differences over politics, economics and education and many kinds of differences on big issues: Trump, immigration, guns, abortion — all kinds of things, we all feel very differently about.”
Clearly, Green said, “People didn’t change their minds about how they feel about these hot-button issues, but we opened up to each other. They opened up to hearing some of the concerns we have about the country and to really hear it deeply. To us, that was important.”
Green explained, “We live in silos, and these silos bump against each other with very negative stereotypes and hostility, and that hostility goes against the grain of what our country needs to move forward.”
For example, the conversations left her better able to empathize with these rural Kentuckians with very different beliefs, as well as “all kinds of other people I haven’t bothered to listen to,” because once you open up, that empathy spreads, not just for the people in the room, but for other people with similar stories.”
What’s key in the Leverett-Kentucky project, Green says, as she’s seen working with conflicting nationalities, factions and religions around the world, is “transformation of attitudes and behaviors is possible. I saw the hostility and generalizations and stereotypes we each had of each other melt away as we got more deeply into the personalities.”
That greater empathy and understanding matters, she added. “because that gets spread and transferred … ‘I’d better take another look at who these Kentuckians are, who these Mississippians are, who these black people or these immigrants are … because I’m hearing something else from someone I trust.’”