WHITESBURG, Ky — Last week’s meeting of hearts and minds in this Appalachian city of about 2,200 represented the coming together of vastly different political, economic and cultural perspectives of Letcher County and Leverett, Massachusetts, residents.
The local group — which came in search of a better understanding of how nearly 80 percent of Letcher County voters could have voted for Donald Trump for president — was led by Paula Green, who has traveled the world fostering conflict reconciliation.
As the conservative Kentuckians met with the Leverett liberals at a Saturday morning breakfast program at the Mountain Shriners Club, Green noted they were trying to reach “other people across the hills ... across religious differences, racial differences, social-identity differences and say to each other, ‘We’re in this together.’”
“We are part of a very large chain of hearts that extends beyond Kentucky, beyond Massachusetts, around the world, where people of goodwill everywhere are seeking peace. So you’re part of something very large,” said Green.
Letcher County resident Ben Fink, whose online essay following the November 2016 election caught the attention of the Leverett group, manages Appalshop, the nearly 50-year-old initiative to help Appalachia tell its own story and develop its economy and community connections through filmmaking, theater, radio and other initiatives.
Several of the dozen Kentuckians who participated in last week’s exchange here and last October’s mirror visit to Leverett were associated with Appalshop’s 2-year-old Culture Hub, connecting more than a dozen community organizations around this county of roughly 24,500 residents, where unemployment and the poverty run deep.
“There’s always been a sense here of, call it solidarity, call it interdependence of leaning on each other,” said Fink. “We’ve got to stick together if we’re gonna survive. It’s been 125 years of systemic exploitation, and we can’t undo it in year or two.”
Rather than hoping for a return of the coal industry, which now employs about 100 residents, a fraction of what it used to, or putting all of their hopes in a new $400 million federal prison that was recently announced, “We’re trying to build that alternative ourselves, with large numbers of ordinary citizens of Letcher County as the fulcrum,” explained Fink.
Fink, a community organizer, said there are people all around the country facing similar issues where corporations have disinvested in places thought of as throwaway places. “How can we all work more intentionally together?” he asked.
In the aftermath of an election that seemed to turn on voters who saw Trump as their only alternative for creating an economic future, Fink explained before last week’s visit, Leverett’s “Hands Across the Hills is part of that conversation,” and its collaboration with Letcher County Culture Hub “has a lot potential to grow in ways that are not immediately obvious.”
The Hands Across the Hills project will be discussed in a public meeting planned for May 15 at 7 p.m. in Leverett Elementary School.
Leverett group member Jim Perkins, pointing out that his town was fortunate enough to have the University of Massachusetts as an economic driver next door, said of Letcher County: “They’ve experienced the destructive side of the American economic and cultural system more than we have. And they’ve gotten much further than we have in trying to figure out how to resist the destructive tendencies and how to build something all their own, depending on their own strength and own resources, their own regionality. And I think we have lot to learn from them in terms of how we perceive our own region and its potential and take control of our own future.
That’s what they’re looking at: How do we stop accepting whatever’s being dished out to us and make something that’s authentically ours?”
As one member of the audience said in feedback after a reading Saturday of the Roadside Theatre play, “The Future of Letcher County”: “A place like this can serve as a canary in the coal mine for what’s going on in the world.”
A class divide?
The connection between the two economies may not have been as obvious for residents attending the Shriners’ breakfast, where the grand prize was a Henry Golden Boy .44-Magnum rifle, and the questions for Leverett residents included: “Do you think wealthier places like Massachusetts have responsibility to support cash-poor communities in places like eastern Kentucky?”
The question got its real answer at the closing session Sunday night, as the two groups’ members brainstormed ideas for follow-ups to their four-day Kentucky visit, including financial support to help Culture Hub’s community development programs.
But, with the economic differences between Leverett — “the richest town in the poorest county of Massachusetts,” as one resident put it — and Letcher County simmering beneath the surface, the issue broke in an emotional exchange as part of the groups’ structured discussion Sunday.
“The social structure is so different: The Massachusetts people were up here, and we were down here,” Kendall Ison told one combined group session, pointing to different levels with his extended right hand. “I wondered, what was the intent of the Massachusetts people? Were they going to look down on us and try to bring us up by the hair of our head, or were they just going to do a study of eastern Kentucky and rural Appalachia? You know, we’ve been studied since 1964 … I don’t understand why so many experts have come in, but were not able to really make our economy grow. Why can’t they teach us to make our economy grow and be successful like you folks in Massachusetts?”
“We came because we wanted to talk with people face to face and talk with them and really get to know them,” Sharon Dunn of Leverett responded, “We didn’t come to study or do any kind of ‘elevating’ … we thought of many ways we might be able to partner, but the basic, basic idea was we really wanted to understand more about your lives.”
And Deborah Roth-Howe added, “After the election, it was ‘us and them,’ it was really polarized. In my life, it’s never been as polarized as it is now. And that really frightens me when we make people ‘the other’ … I’m the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and Jews were labeled ‘the other’ — and we knew where that went. And it really frightens me. And I also learned in my family it’s not OK to be a bystander … to be quiet. … I live in a liberal bubble, and I was so bewildered that so much of America thought Trump was a good idea that I needed to come and better understand, and I needed to not let you be made ‘the other or for me to be made ‘the other’ for you.”
Questions and stories
But why, members of the Leverett group asked, did the Kentuckians have so few questions for them about how they felt?
Reflecting on why, after asking so many questions about economic and social conditions in Kentucky, Green said, “People from Kentucky didn’t ask us to talk about why we voted for Hillary. And then we realized that people didn’t ask us a lot of questions about anything about our lives. And we didn’t know what that was about, either.
“We understand that people hold onto things because we each have a self that needs to feel good about things. We need to feel good about our choices, about our lives, about our voting, about our families and the place we live. I think it’s a sort of psychological piece here, (are) people not really sure anymore, but they can’t say so?”
The answer — and a pivotal piece for understanding the dynamic between the Leverett group, many of whom are therapists or are used to therapy, and the Kentuckians, who are not— came from Nell Fields, a Letcher County resident.
“Asking somebody how much money they make, who they voted for, is such an awful thing to do in Appalachian culture,” she said. “Especially my daddy. The one time that my daddy gave me a spankin’ we asked him that question of who he had voted for. Voting was a big deal in our household. But it was a sacred thing. That was your obligation to the people in your life, and because your ancestors had died crossing the water to give you that right. … and you were to keep it secret. He never told us who to vote for, and we were never to ask him who he voted for.”
People from Kentucky “ask more gentle questions,” remarked Danielle Barshak of Leverett.
Letcher County resident Gwen Johnson, explained, “A lot of us didn’t ask you those questions because we knew what you were going to say, and I didn’t really feel the right to really pointedly ask you guys anything, and that is a cultural thing.”
“I don’t feel like I need to have questions about your opinions answered,” said Barbara D’Arthenay of Leverett, “Just being in our presence, I feel like I’m getting to know you more and more deeply.”
Photo: Velda Fraley of Letcher County, Ky. and Danielle Barshak of Leverett share a moment together at last weekend’s Hands Across the Hills reunion.. Recorder Staff/Richie Davis
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.