HADLEY — “I thought you people never suffered,” said a woman from Whitesburg, Kentucky, to a group of visitors from Leverett, according to a recounting by Paula Green.
Hands Across the Hills, the group led by Green, has spent dozens of hours with their Kentucky counterparts over the course of two visits, one in October 2017 in Leverett and one this past April in Whitesburg. The group formed in Leverett — which voted 85 percent in favor of Hillary Clinton — after the 2016 election with the goal of better understanding those who voted differently than them. There were about 25 total from both groups that met over the course of several days.
As Green explained at a Council of Social Agencies of Hampshire County breakfast held at the Hadley Farms Meeting House Tuesday morning, the two groups from distinctly different regions sought to gain a greater understanding of one another through several “intensive” dialogues over several days.
Green, who gave a keynote presentation at the breakfast, has over 30 years experience working with groups in war-torn nations such as Rwanda, Serbia, Croatia, and Myanmar, and is the founding director of the Karun Center for Peace Building in Amherst.
“Every family story is black lung disease, or being killed by a rock, a fall, or some hazard in the mines,” Green told about 60 COSA members at the breakfast, describing the experience of many of those her group met from Kentucky.
She displayed pictures from the trip on a projector in a large room at the meeting house, with slides from their visit to Whitesburg’s mining memorial dedicated to those who gave their lives for black coal.
“They have coal stories we couldn’t imagine,” Green said. “They are all descendants of coal miners, there’s nothing else there. Now, there’s nothing there in the absence of coal.”
She said that the residents of Whitesburg — population 1,974 — live in “modest circumstances,” with more than half of housing there being trailer homes. There are health issues such as diabetes, obesity and opioid addiction that are widespread throughout the region, and many people live in isolation from each other.
There is very little agriculture because of the area’s steep hills, she said, and the big industries there historically have been timber and then coal. Now that those are gone, there is a lack of jobs, Green said.
“It’s all extractive,” she said. “The bosses come in, the workers work, the bosses make the money and leave the mess. And without coal it’s a very deprived land … No one is coming into this area to say let’s do something creative and new.”
The nearest airport is three hours away, education levels are low, and there is very little internet and no broadband, according to Green.
Through square dancing, a quilting project, potluck meals and plenty of heart-to-heart conversations, however, the Leverett and Whitesburg residents were able to “build empathy” and develop “a king of deep caring,” Green said.
One Kentuckian had never met an immigrant before, Green said, and meeting several first-, second-, and third-generation immigrants from the Leverett group “shattered” those expectations that she got from media sources.
By sharing family of origin stories, she said, the two groups were able to gain compassion for one another. Those from Leverett shared their family’s immigration stories, some of which included families fleeing persecution from Nazi Germany. Upon hearing this story, a Kentucky woman said she would never hold a stereotype about immigrants again.
Although discussions about the election itself were still “painful” and could get “very heated,” Green said, stories about both groups’ struggles brought them together. By laying ground rules of being respectful to one another and not attacking people personally, the group could go “pretty deep” through discussions about their families and sharing meals together.
The hospitality displayed by Leverett residents when they hosted Whitesburg visitors in their homes for a few nights also changed the Kentuckians’ attitudes towards those “Northeastern liberals,” Green said.
Green said the project of connecting the Leverett and Whitesburg community has “planted the seed” for other groups to attempt to bridge sensitive divides such as race. Another meet up is in the works with a community from South Carolina, Green said, to talk about that very issue in January and June of next year.
Heidi Nortonsmith, executive director of the Northampton Survival Center, found Green’s keynote presentation “extremely inspiring.” She has followed the Hands Across Hills story over the past few months, and said it is “simply the most important kind of dialogue to be happening in an increasingly polarized country.”
“It’s lovely to think that these things can happen on such a small level and make such a big impact on people’s lives by bridging divides,” Nortonsmith said.
Lisa Goldsmith, of DIAL/SELF Youth & Community Services located in Greenfield and several other locations, called Green “the perfect person for these times” after the presentation.
“I really appreciated that she can really sit with conflict and bring people together,” Goldsmith said.
Luis Fieldman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo by Richie Davis