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  • Bas den Hond, for Trouw, the Netherlands

The same hills, two Americas

America is deeply divided on the way to the Congressional elections of 6 November. Supporters and opponents of Donald Trump do not understand what inspires the other side. A small town in the left Massachusetts wants to close that gap and found hearing in the right-wing Kentucky. Their project is called Hands Across the Hills. Part 1 of a diptych.

Please note: The following article is translated from the Dutch into English by the automatic online Google translation service. You will see that some of the translation is awkward, and some is incorrect (Bruges for Bridges, for instance).

A girl is in the shed with children's toys, the Kid Zone, in the recycling center of the city. © Ellen Kok

On the morning of November 9, 2016, it felt in Leverett, Massachusetts, as if a natural disaster had taken place. "For us, and for a progressive town like ours, Donald Trump's election was ...", poet Sharon Dunn hesitates, thinks, then concludes: "It can not be compared to any other experience in my life."

To get to her house, you enter Leverett via Route 63, a small town between the hills that are yellow and red in this season. You turn off and take a serpentine road up such a hill. After ten curves, with just as many houses, you come to a wooden villa that has been washed out. From the outside, the house looks like a modern block box, inside it is stylishly furnished and full of souvenirs from distant travels.

And so you can describe every visit to Leverett. It is called a town , but does not have a village center. The town hall, a church and the library are located at a crossroads about in the middle. The residents - many of whom work at one of the five universities in West Massachusetts - live on their own, with around a few hectares of forest keeping the neighbors at bay.

Donald Trump changed that, Sharon's husband, novelist and emeritus professor of English literature, John Clayton, recalls: "We spoke to many more people than we had until then. First we mourned together. And then we set up committees to do something, to take action. And one of them was the bridge building committee. "

Mobile homes

Over a thousand kilometers to the south, at Kings Creek in Letcher County, Kentucky, Nell Fields had watched the results with the same amount of surprise on the election night. Her house is not halfway up a hill, but in a hollow , or as they pronounce it in Kentucky a 'holler': the narrow valley of a creek, wedged between steep slopes. Letcher County has a main town, Whitesburg, but most people live in hollers, half of them in large mobile homes. "I did not intend to follow it, I had to go to work the next day, but I stayed up anyway. At any moment the votes could come in and let the results change, but they did not come. And it was shocking. How could this happen?"

After-school care in the library of Whitesburg, Kentucky. © Ellen Kok

Fields, which maintains contact between researchers and small communities for the University of Kentucky, was not a Trumpstemmer. But as large as in Leverett, the majority was for Hillary Clinton, so big was that here for the current president. And she knew exactly who those Trumpstemmers were. "My family and friends. It was difficult to face them. In George W. Bush's time, I would have said to my brother: Bill, how can you vote for him? But I could not talk about Trump. I could not even imagine that I would start over it. Until the letter came. "

It was an e-mail from Leverett, addressed to the Appalshop, a cultural institution in Whitesburg. The question was whether it was possible to start an exchange between the district in Kentucky, where 79.8 percent of the residents voted for Trump, and the small town in Massachusetts where 84 percent wanted Clinton.

Leverett was looking for it so far away, because it did not work very close. "We were looking for local Republicans, Trumpstemmers, but nobody wanted to talk to us," says Paula Green from Leverett. "They had just won an election, they were high on horseback. And I think they did not want to be apprehended by a bunch of progressives. "

Not that Green could just speak to such people. She did not know anyone of the other party in Leverett well enough. "Acquaintances, no friends. We sometimes had a chat, but that was never about politics. "

Bruges head

Green led the bridge building committee, she was the logical choice for this as a psychologist and former professor of conflict management. She asked the pastor of the big church in the center of Leverett to talk to the colleague of the smaller, more conservative church. But he did not even want to present the idea to his congregation members. "Then we went searching in the area, in old factory towns where Trumpstemmers were in the majority. But just knocking on doors is not working, it is too sensitive. "

What was missing was a human bridgehead: someone who is at home in both cultures. And at the end of 2016, when the group had almost given up hope, one of the members on the internet found an article about bridging political differences, written by exactly such a person: Ben Fink, project manager at the Appalshop in Whitesburg.

Green: "Ben is not a Kentuckian. He grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, graduated from the University of Minnesota, a highly educated New Englander. But he had been there for a year or two, and he is very charismatic and trusted with the Kentuckians. "

That charisma uses Fink for his work at the Appalshop, which wants to preserve and stimulate the culture of Appalachia, the mountain area where East Kentucky is part.

In Letcher County, Nell Fields saw up close how Fink stood up as a northerly. "He asked if I could organize a meeting with the Kings Creek voluntary fire brigade that my brothers set up and saw her subsidy fall away. I thought, "Oh, Ben, darling, you do not know where you end up. But after a few tough political jokes back and forth, they were fine. Ben introduced himself as 'that little Jewish communist from the Northeast'. What my brother said, I do not know anymore, but it was something with a rabbi, a priest and a Baptist minister. "


Thanks to the confidence that Fink enjoyed, it was possible to find 12 residents of Letcher County, some of whom were Trumpstemmers and some of them, who were prepared to exchange with Leverett. In October 2017 they climbed into a van and made the fifteen-hour drive to Massachusetts.

Gwen Johnson from Hemphill in Kentucky was surprised when she saw Leverett for the first time on that Thursday evening in October 2017. "It was very picturesque. We arrived at the town hall at half past ten in the evening, a beautiful old wooden building right in front of a typical New England church. And more city did not seem to be there. "

Johnson also works at the University of Kentucky, supervising teachers who teach special projects for children from poor families. But her heart work, as she calls it, is to be a baker in the Hemphill community center, in the building of a closed primary school. There you can get pizzas three evenings a week, baked by people who are just out of prison. There is banjo music on Friday evening. Recently Johnson also baked baguettes, for which she has been baking in France this month. "I have always wanted to go abroad. This was my first time. "

Nell Fields from Kings Creek had also not thought to end up in the New England countryside. "We apparently feel so opposite to the rest of the country that we expect everything to look like New York, or Boston. But we drove miles and miles without seeing a city. Just like with us. "

In the three days that followed, the Kentuckians also saw enough differences. Paula Green had created a program in which sociability was alternated with round table discussions, a technique she developed when she tried to bring people closer together in extreme conflict areas such as Bosnia and Rwanda.

The Friday morning started with an art project about origin: the group made a tapestry of pieces of paper on which everyone put a text or drawing about his or her ancestors. That made stories about everyone's family history. And what Green had thought in advance, that there would be a lot in common, turned out to be wrong.

Leverett, Massachusetts. Left the town hall, right the library and the church. © Ellen Kok

"Here in Leverett are all immigration stories. Everyone here comes from New York, New Jersey, Boston, not from Leverett, nobody was born here. And because we are people off the coast, you come across immigrants for two or three generations. The parents survived the destruction of Jews from two of us. We have Irish, Poland, Sweden.

"That does not apply to Kentucky. That is isolated, closed, people did not come and did not go. They are of Scottish or Irish origin, but that is hundreds of years ago. They just call themselves Americans. One of them even said: "We are the native Americans. She did not realize that this term is already occupied, for the real original inhabitants of America. "

Coal mines

The stories from Kentucky were instead about coal, and that in a way that the people from Leverett had not expected. The hamlet where Gwen Johnson bakes her bread, Hemphill, is originally a coal camp. The small houses were owned by the mine, which they rented to the miners. They received part of their wages in the form of vouchers, which were only worth something in the camp store. In the eyes of the people in Leverett, coal extraction is for exploitation, environmental pollution and climate change.

But for Johnson that is not the whole story. "My mother, she is now 83, tells how when she was ten years old, people came over the mountain, to what they saw as the promised land. For a hundred years our economy has turned completely on coal. My grandfather, my father and my brother all worked in the mines. And I am no longer married, but I also married a miner. My mother had three brothers, all three were killed in the mine. And in 1990 I lost my only brother. That is our way of life: you worked in that sector, or you ran into support. That was not all. "

Coal ultimately determined her voice, as did many people in Letcher County. "I wanted Bernie Sanders to become president. And when he failed, I thought I'd vote for Hillary Clinton. But Clinton went to West Virginia and said something that I could not let go: "I do not want miners to have work anymore."

"Our economy is coal. Should it always remain that way? The environment, the emissions, the ash. We are not anti-science here, we know the research results. But we want to keep working and stay here. So many facilities have already been closed because mines have no longer paid mineral taxes. So when she said that, it was about our garbage collection, our parks, restaurants, there is no sector with us where that money did not end up. I did not want to vote for Trump and I did not, but he said the coal would come back and that sounded a lot better. "

The people from Leverett heard that in a multitude when Paula Green put the dangerous topic on the agenda. "I knew: it's time to talk about Trump. It was a hot topic and we would burn ourselves if we did not discuss this. Gwen Johnson said: coal provided food in the stomach of our babies and shoes on their feet. And they talked proudly about how coal helped win the two world wars. We could never have imagined that. They say: coal has always gone up and down, now it is down, but there is another good time and they expect that time from Trump. We also talked about firearms. I asked: what makes you feel safe? We all said that no one has a firearm. And they said that everyone has a firearm. "

They also talked about abortion and about all the tough topics that visitors from Kentucky believe it is true what Trump says about it. That the African-Americans, the Latinos, the Muslims, the immigrants, the refugees all forcing, and that they themselves do not get the chance to flourish. Paula Green: "There is a banner here for Black Lives Matter, which they did not like to see. They want their lives to count. But you can not see a banner called Appalachian Lives Matter. We were all tense, because not a person in our group believed just a shred of what they believe, about Trump or abortion or immigrants or whatever. We could talk about it well because in the days before so much goodwill had been cultivated.

"But if the genocide in Rwanda is a 10 on the scale of conflicts and Bosnia is a 10, then we are a 5.

The difference in the Senate is small

On 6 November, America goes to the polls. The entire House of Representatives (the American House of Representatives) is re-elected. In the Senate (the American Senate) 35 of the 100 seats are at stake in these elections.

The Republican Party of President Donald Trump now has a majority in both houses, allowing Trump to rule comfortably. In the Senate the difference is small, 51 seats for the Republicans against 49 for the Democrats. The difference is much greater in the House of Representatives. The Democrats have to conquer at least 25 additional seats to get a majority there.

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