WHITESBURG, KY — In the heart of coal country, about a dozen Leverett, Mass. residents and about as many of their counterparts from Letcher County filled the Kentucky hills and hollers with some hope of bridging a longstanding cultural divide.
The differences between the two groups were obvious for participants from Leverett, where 14.4 percent of the 2016 presidential vote favored Donald Trump. In Letcher County, 80 percent of voters favored Trump and the median household income is half what it is back in the Pioneer Valley.
But what seemed to matter most were overarching cultural similarities they found during the Hands Across the Hills project’s four-day visit to this city of 3,000. Here, a former autobody shop has been converted into a boutique distillery, a collection of health and community development initiatives have blossomed downtown and large red ribbons supporting striking Kentucky teachers are affixed to business doors.
“We’re trying so hard to reach out for understanding, because we love this country, which belongs to all of us,” group member Paula Green told an audience of about 50 people at a Saturday breakfast sponsored by the Mountain Shrine Club.
“If we don’t reach out, we let the media define us,” she added.
She described structured dialogue sessions that took place among members of the two groups.
“People begin to stop the shouting, begin to drop into deeper listening, begin to talk to each other from our hearts instead of from the media propaganda to find out … that there’s not much that divides us. There’s so much more that unites us.”
The audience, about half of whom included Kentuckians and other visitors attending as part of a Letcher County Culture Hub celebration, also heard from Leverett member Debbie Roth-Howe. She described her town as consisting largely of immigrants, like her own German Jewish family, some of whose members managed to escape the Holocaust.
“The rest of my family was gassed and killed, because the United States and countries all around the world had quotas, and didn’t want refugees, just like we’re saying now (in the U.S). … We are ignoring their plight and their persecution, their desperate needs. … If we’re not aware of these things, if we don’t remember how recently they happened, they’re going to happen again. I’m not talking about people who really are criminals, but the people who are being deported out of our country and refused entry, the vast majority are just innocent people who happen to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The Letcher County families have largely remained in place for generations and have put a premium on keeping their children living nearby.
In stark ghost cities like Fleming-Neon, through which the group passed, some still cling to hope that hundreds of coal jobs will return, or that a planned $400 million prison nearby can deliver 400 jobs to boost the economy in a place where April unemployment was 10.5 percent.
“Do you think wealthier places like Massachusetts have responsibility to support cash-poor communities in places like Eastern Kentucky?” one questioner asked the Leverett group members.
“We also have rich and poor everywhere,” responded Green. “What I believe, is that we need to be supporting people everywhere from inequality. The top 1 percent has wealth that no human being in the world needs or should have, and the bottom is getting bigger, and you’re struggling with that here. The world that I want to see is a world of justice.”
Tom Wolff of Leverett recalled the Athol-Orange area, where he worked for more than 15 years, “where a major plant had closed and half the people lost their jobs. Their situation is very similar to that here because when the economics tipped one way the state said, ‘Too bad — figure it out on your own,’ and for a number of years they sat around waiting for somebody to buy the factory.
The same thing sits here with coal. The question is, what is the country doing for areas that are especially badly hit?”
Posing a question
Sparks flew, though, between the two groups after Jim Perkins of Leverett asked, “What did the Democratic Party do to lose Kentucky?”
“I alternate between wanting to pat him on the back and punch him in the mouth,” one Kentucky coal miner’s daughter who’d voted for Trump said. “I just think we’d gotten so far that the world had lost respect for us. He’s done some things that, I think that Obama had let some things go too far in the other direction. … I think (Trump) has appealed to the working-class people who have not had a voice, and somehow, in all his rich-man, ivory tower lifestyle, is able to articulate in a way they can understand and agree. There’s coal miners around here who love him, that really love him. There’s a lot of our elders here who really love him. I don’t really love him.”
Among Trump’s actions that she agreed with was Trump’s decision to move the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem — a decision she said “we agree with in the Bible Belt,” although several Jewish members of the group voiced strong disagreement. “Maybe that’s just the way we’ve been taught,” she acknowledged.
Another Kentuckian said he supported Trump’s perceived efforts “to sort of have a self-sufficiency and self-reliance, by deconstructing the administrative state. … I guess it comes down, ultimately, to more local decision-making.”
“What it seems like to me is that Trump is doing things by fiat,” responded a Leverett woman, “if he’s signing executive orders, getting rid of things that the majority of the country, if you believe polls, don’t want lifting. … When it comes to clean water or the environment and all the things we’re grappling with, we know that 60, 70, 80 percent of the country is behind things that others were trying to do, and Trump feels to us like he’s signing his pen to things that we in our part of the world worked on for generations, to get to a point where we can have clean water in the country… How do you reconcile those things?”
Another Leverett woman in the closed group added, “I feel there’s so much ‘fake news’ and division and ‘Who do we believe? What do we believe? I have a real concern that when (Robert) Mueller and all of these investigations are completed, I just wonder who’s going to believe what. And I worry about what’s that going to do to our country? And where do we come together?”
The harsh reality — along with shared concerns by the Kentuckians and Leverett residents alike over the opioid crisis and the stresses facing young people — hung heavy over a visit that also included activities like a community center square dance, an on-air radio studio tour and visits to an exhibition coal mine and to a Baptist Church to hear a rarely heard “lined-out Gospel” singing tradition.
“We have to hold each other through these things that make it rough,” Green told the combined group, pointing to uncertainty about who to believe. “Because it may get a lot rougher. Where does this take us? Where does this go? And if we in this room, with all of the good feelings we have toward each other, if we have all these projections, what about outside of this room?”
And yet, offered Susan Lynton of Leverett, “What are the issues that we all want that aren’t being reflected in the policies that are getting passed right now? It’s not a matter of whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or in power or out of power. … Let’s move forward, then. … Our differences could be our strength.”
Photo by Richie Davis: Hands Across the Hills participants from Leverett, Mass., and Letcher County share a focused discussion of issues.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was written with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. It is one of several to appear in the Recorder over the next several days about the Hands Across the Hills visit by Leverett activists to more conservative Letcher County, KY.