How is it possible to bridge the gulf between a group of Leverett liberals and red-state descendants of coal miners who voted for Donald Trump? Can dialogue bridge a chasm seemingly as wide as an ocean, and could the process feel worthwhile, perhaps even significant?
Dialogue is a carefully structured conversation on controversial issues designed to invite genuine inquiry, develop new insights, and expand one’s capacity to hear perspectives that might threaten long-cherished beliefs. It is decidedly not a vehicle to persuade, aggressively push points, or win an argument.
Dialogue is deliberate, authentic and respectful. “Red” and “blue” voters are not expected to change their votes, but they might shed their stereotypes and learn a great deal about what created and sustains those votes.
Hands Across the Hills arose from our post-election despair. Like many Valley progressives, residents of Leverett longed to understand how this election smashed our hopes against the rocks. We decided to find a group of Trump voters with whom we could directly explore this question. Through a long search, they emerged in Letcher County, coal-country eastern Kentucky.
As the experienced dialogue facilitator in the Leverett group, I proposed a program that would embed dialogue in a weekend of cultural exposure and community building. My counterpart in Kentucky, Ben Fink, a superb community organizer, worked to identify a mixed group who would respond positively to the strange invitation to travel north to meet the progressive and assumedly elite, overeducated, prosperous New England Yankees. The Kentuckians would arrive with lifetimes of feeling humiliated and battered by stereotypes of hillbilly, redneck, ignorant, backward men and women.
I knew that we could not spend an entire three days engaged in formal dialogue and that there are many ways to learn about one another by witnessing the context of our daily lives in home, family and community. We understood that we could best challenge stereotypes by having large numbers of Valley residents meet our Kentucky guests and by inviting these guests into the intimacy of family and neighborhood life.
Our schedules for both their visit to us in October 2017, and our visit to Kentucky in April 2018, thus included numerous community potlucks, public presentations, music, art, theater, dance and home stays.
At the heart of our experience together, we connected deeply in three hours each day of intense, private dialogue; here we tested each other, built trust, and bonded way beyond voting and positions on provocative social issues. We became fully human to each other, with our strengths, weaknesses, passions, and heartbreaks.
Red and blue voting patterns ceased to dominate our views of each other. The voting didn’t change; we and our perceptions and stereotypes changed.
I began the first dialogue in Leverett last October with a focus on family history, something common to all human beings for better or worse, with our stories of tragedy and triumph. Dialogue is personal and flows best when its topics are germane to everyone in the circle.
For the approximately 25 of us gathered in each daily dialogue in both Massachusetts and Kentucky, understanding these family of origin stories became our entry into each other’s lives and our first experiences together in developing compassion.
We heard stories of life in coal camps, both inside the mines where accidents destroyed fathers and husbands, and of black lung that took those who survived the mines. We learned about isolation, lack of opportunity, dependency on an exploitive owner-worker relationship, despair mixed with pride at working in an industry vital to growth of the United States.
They learned about immigration, which is no longer in their family lore, but figures prominently in ours, most strikingly in Holocaust stories. Many of them had never met an immigrant, although through manipulative political campaigning, had been taught to hate them.
The first political shift came as one woman acknowledged the dissonance between her negativity toward people she had never met and the reality of witnessing a dialogue partner crying in the circle as she told about her parents’ escape from Nazi Germany. This Kentucky colleague said she would never hold a pejorative stereotype about immigrants again.
Another woman remarked, “I thought you people never suffered.” Her phrase “you people” was pointed at us from Leverett: more prosperous, comfortable, educated, privileged, than our Kentucky counterparts. That generalization was also swept away on day one, replaced by acknowledging the universality of suffering and the awesome phenomenon of human resilience.
For me as facilitator, I tried to hold my own passions in check so that I could best be present for the group. However, once in Leverett and once in Letcher County, my feelings ran ahead of that commitment. In the first instance, during our first deep dive into the phenomenon of coal and their desperation for the only jobs they’ve ever known, one Kentucky person said with hope that “perhaps the U.S. will have another war and then our jobs will return.” Because I have spent the past 30 years facing the consequences of war directly by facilitating dialogues with shattered populations in war zones around the world, that remark pained me deeply.
“I feel heartbroken and upset hearing this,” I responded, perhaps more sharply than I might have otherwise, but with a passion that made one of our Leverett participants understand that we were serious here, that we were not just “making nice.” I think that gave permission for more honest responses from others on both “sides,” and probably deepened the trust that we could be real with each other.
The second time was in Whitesburg, Kentucky, during one of our many dialogues focused on current politics. One of the Kentucky participants burst out that “we must be thrilled with the fact that Trump would move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.”
This time I held my breath, knowing that someone would respond. I’ve worked in Jerusalem and throughout that region with Israelis and Palestinians for three decades and I could not have let that remark stand. Later I spoke privately and gently to this woman, someone I’ve come to have great respect for, talking about my care for both peoples and their needs for peace. Her response was remarkable. “Educate me, ” she said, “I only know what I read in the Bible and what our preacher says.”
That comment is the heart of dialogue. It is our mutual learning from each other that changes hearts and minds.
Our approach is different than argumentative confrontation on hot-button issues, which does not work, because push and shove only results in more of the same. Dialogue succeeds through patient building of trust and care, curiosity and honesty, depth and vulnerability. Therein lies our humanity.
Whether future votes change is up to each individual. What we do know is that each of us has been educated, changed our perceptions of groups previously stereotyped, and opened our hearts to identified “others.”
Most likely, that will change some votes; for certain it has significantly changed our minds and our lives.
RECORDER FILE PHOTO: Jay Frost, from left, Sharon Dunn, Jim Perkins and Paula Green of the Leverett group that participated in Hands Across the Hills look at materials from Letcher County, Kentucky.