WHITESBURG, Ky. — Many of the questions are left unanswered, on both sides of the Leverett-Letcher County, Kentucky, divide that members of each community brought to their recent conversations.
“When will you feel safe letting go of coal?”
“Is there a way of overcoming the stigma of feeling like white trash?”
“Why can’t we overlook Trump’s questions of character and focus on the good things?”
“Why did you trust us as your guests in your homes in Leverett?”
Their discussions, begun following the November 2016 election, were never meant to change anyone’s behavior, say members of the Leverett Bridging Subcommittee who invited the Kentucky delegation to town last fall as an exercise in cultural understanding.
“The way people vote is a small measure of their humanity,” said Paula Green of Leverett, who facilitated close to 10 hours of structured dialogue between the two groups, using an approach she developed over decades of working in conflict zones around the world. “What’s surprised me most is how quickly and deeply we’ve shifted from pro- and anti-Trump voters to a community of people struggling together to understand each other. It wasn’t a matter of obliterating and ignoring the differences, but in some way transcending them for their common humanity.”
Green, who’s spent more than 25 years bridging differences in conflict zones around the world, said, “This is about finding common ground and trying to dispel the stereotypes and demonization of each other, because that threatens our country and our democracy. There was a tremendous amount of transformation and understanding on either side, of the other, and a great deal of respect for the struggle each of us goes through and what that does to our behavior, and our voting behavior. And there was the sense our Kentucky friends, as we are, are really open to learning.”
Still, tensions arose at the first Kentucky dialogue on the first full day, after an initial “story circle” in which one Leverett woman described the “powerlessness” of Clinton voters after the election, and the “cardboard” stereotypes that Kentuckians said they’d felt from outsiders.
One Kentucky woman told two Massachusetts counterparts that she feared Muslims are trying to take over this country and impose Sharia law, leaving one Leverett man shaken about how to respond — just as some in the Massachusetts group were surprised to learn some of the Kentuckians had concealed weapons with them.
“You guys in Hands Across the Hills are onto something most people are not doing,” said Amy Brooks, a University of Massachusetts theater graduate who works with Whitesburg-based Appalshop’s Roadside Theatre. “Online dialogue might not be enough, trying to see something from someone else’s point of view isn’t necessarily enough. Actually physically sharing space, sharing food, sharing stories is really important in this work. We can communicate and connect face-to-face and have some kind of sustained conversation in ways we never can in more a disconnected way.”
Brooks, who believes naturally occurring differences between people and communities are “absolutely being exploited by people in power (because) it benefits them to have working-class communities pitted against each other,” added, “We’ve lost our nuance, our ability to make fine distinctions. We share the same needs, but have very different ideas about how to get those.”
The two groups found common ground hearing concerns raised about the opioid epidemic in rural Kentucky and its mental health effects on broken families and teens, many of whom feel the need to leave Appalachia for jobs and for greater acceptance at home.
But when talk turned to Trump, it struck a nerve.
“I think he has appealed to the working-class people who have not had a voice,” said Gwen Johnson of Letcher County “and somehow, in all his rich-man, ivory tower lifestyle, is able to articulate in a way they can understand and agree.”
That drew questions from the Leverett group for specifics, and moderator Green acknowledged, “We sit in very different places. We have different lives. What we have to hold is that there are real differences.”
Tom Wolff, responding to an explanation that Trump’s election was an attempt to return decision-making to the states and local officials, said, “You think people are over-regulated, I’m right with you. But when they start to wipe out regulation and let it go, I’m worried about the money, because it’s in fewer and fewer hands. And that’s how both of our communities are suffering … I think we have to find some middle ground.”
As the discussion continued, some Leverett residents in the group felt the question over Trump still hadn’t been fully resolved.
“Our country is having a national conversation that’s one of the most difficult conversations to have,” said Green. “It’s happening in living rooms and schoolrooms and meeting rooms and community centers all over this country. It’s a question about Trump and a question larger than Trump. It’s about our history, about our direction, about our values, about our electoral process. We’re part of a large conversation on where we are and how we bridge the divide. We’re trying to do it in a learning way. ”
Barbara Tiner of Leverett was among those who pressed the question, right down to the final structured conversation the last night of the Kentucky visit: “Are you still supporting him? That’s still a question for me.”
Kentuckian Velda Fraley responded, “I’m for him all the way.” Pressed for her reasons, she answered, “Because I think he’s for the better good of the country. I think we should just forget about the stuff in the past. That’s irrelevant now.”
Asked whether she would accept the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, Fraley said, “I just don’t think they’re going to find anything … I don’t know what they could find, but I would want it to be really, really bad before I change my opinion of him.”
“I think it’s about our democracy,” responded Susan Lynton of Leverett. “I think it’s about what we want for our country. The question is, how do we define democracy and how do we define a country that we want?”
Still others meeting in this small city, with restaurant TVs set on Fox or CNN, raised concerns over where having different facts might lead.
Another issue left off the table was guns, at least in formal discussions.
“As a benchmark of how far I think we’ve come on this journey,” said Kip Fonsh of Leverett at the closing session, “Gwen (Johnson) and I had a knock-down, drag-out argument at lunch earlier, and we disagree about guns, big time. But at the conclusion of the conversation, Gwen approached me, and we both stuck out our hands. Then we said, ‘Nah!’ And we hugged. I think that some measure of understanding, and seeing depth in people is being able to have an argument like we did, still stand up, still talk to one another and have an engagement of physical contact, which for me is pretty important.”
After the visit, Fonsh reflected, “The initial reason for making this connection was to better understand the motivations behind people’s decision to vote for Trump. … It kind of affirmed some things I felt I already knew about why some people voted for Trump, and I realized it was much more of a complex matter than we sometimes talk about.
“People voted for Trump for a variety of reasons, and some of those reasons I do feel sympathetic to, and I’m feeling a bit closer to people from Whitesburg. But ... I’m still very, very angry with those Trump voters who, from my perspective, voted for reasons that were purely unadulterated selfishness, to protect what (they) have, to keep what they have, to increase what they have.
“It’s very, very, very hard, if not impossible, for me to see how people would continue to support an individual who in my opinion is a racist, misogynist, sexist, a serial sex abuser, who’s ignorant of how our government works… his character is just horrendous. It’s hard for me to understand how people would vote for him under those circumstances, and there’s part of me that’s still angry. … I know the people we met were wonderful people — gentle, friendly ... but I just can’t escape the deluge of horrendous decisions and actions this man takes that are putting American democracy at risk. Aside from coal, we just didn’t dig deep enough.”
The dying coal economy — the core of much of initial group discussions, especially as a reason for Letcher County’s overriding choice for president — came into clearer focus during the recent tour: There’s been a boom-bust cycle, with automation the chief reason thousands of jobs have been lost, along with the fact that coal still in the ground remains a treasured resource when alternative economic forces seem few.
Leverett member Jay Frost said, “There are many issues that are far more profound than who we voted for,” as the layers of understanding emerged through the discussions.
Hands Across the Hills was clearly successful from Green’s standpoint: “We exceeded our goals, we surpassed our expectations. The ability of people to see beyond their differences and to listen and learn from one another was phenomenal.”
And Nell Fields, who grew up in a family of 18 children in Letcher County reflected, “Politics used to be something you could debate, and talk about. (It) was such a big part of my life, and I almost mourn for it. It wasn’t just about winning an election, it was really about understanding what was happening in an election … (but) people got to the point where they didn’t want to talk with each other, because they had to choose between one of two evils. Twenty or 30 years ago, as a young adult, it was motivating and invigorating to connect with somebody who might have a little different political view, and you’d talk about it and it didn’t separate you as people.”
When she first read the Leverett group’s invitation to meet, Fields said, “a lightbulb went off in my head: ‘This is something you need.’”
And she’s felt a softening in what’s felt like a stubbornness among some kith and kin, along with a relaxing of politically-rooted tensions she’s felt.
As a community developer who’s used to going into discussions with diverse viewpoints, member Tom Wolff of Leverett said, he approached the project without high expectations. But he was amazed, he added, by subtle changes that have taken place and the passion that several members have brought to volunteering to work together on spin-off projects.
“My top priority is letting the world know that there’s hope, that we’re by no means divided, that we softened some people,” he said. “It certainly softened me. I’m quite stunned this is going on. This felt like a really spiritual end.”
Photo by Richie Davis: Leverett and Letcher County participants survey questions they had posed at their last meeting about what they still wanted to know about one another.
EDITOR’S NOTE:This article was written with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. It is the last of several about the Hands Across the Hills visit by Leverett activists to more conservative Letcher County, Kentucky. The project will be discussed in a public meeting May 15 at 7 p.m. in Leverett Elementary School.