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  • Aired on NPR's Here and Now, Robin Young

Conservatives in Kentucky, Liberals in Massachusetts Try to Bridge Political Divide

Listen to the podcast of Paula Green and Gwen Johnson on NPR's Here and Now

After the 2016 presidential election, conflict resolution expert Paula Green and a group of liberal voters in Leverett, Massachusetts, met in the town's library to discuss how they would move forward as a community — and as a divided country.

"We didn't know where we would reach out or how we would reach out, but we felt that it was very important to increase as many connectors as we could between people and reduce the dividers," Green tells Here & Now’s Robin Young, "because the deep divides become chasms, and then they become cataclysms, and before long, we can't talk to each other at all."

Taking a break during the dialogue session in Leverett, Massachusetts, October 2017. (Garrison Greenleaf/Courtesy of Hands Across the Hills)

The group, Hands Across the Hills — Green's brainchild that would later win her an Alliance for Peace award — wound up reaching across the political spectrum to the coal-country town of Whitesburg, Kentucky, nearly 850 miles away, in order to spark a dialogue.

"I was a little apprehensive — afraid it was another 'save the dumb hillbillies' project," says Gwen Johnson, a Whitesburg resident. Despite her trepidation, Johnson says she "knew it was a conversation that needed to be had."

"So I just got my courage up and said, 'OK, I'll be one of the ones who stands out and speaks

up,' " she says.

Two years later and after many home visits, emails, Skype sessions and cultural events, members of the two groups say they not only have a profound understanding of what motivates one another, but also friendships they anticipate will last a lifetime.

Interview Highlights

On how residents in Whitesburg KY initially responded to Green's group reaching out to them

Gwen Johnson: "We've really been exploited many times by the media, who come and look at the very worst of the worst, and we decided to draft an email in response, just asking what the motivation was."

On Trump's promise to revive the coal industry being a major reason why so many Whitesburg residents voted for him

Johnson: "Our people in our county voted almost the exact same percentage for Trump that Leverett, Massachusetts, voted for Hillary.

"[The coal industry is] very important, because our people don't want handouts. We want an economy that works for all of us. We want to feed the children and put shoes on their feet, and the coal miners here were the benevolent ones, who spent their money and [kept] the civic organizations and the churches [going]. And all the people who don't have a revenue stream, it was the coal miners who always funded that."

"We didn't know what was going to transpire between us, and although we don't agree politically, we've come to love and care about each other a great deal."

Paula Green

On what Johnson feared about Green and her group visiting Whitesburg

Johnson: "That we would not be heard and that we would not be accepted. And the thing that I kept worrying about was that maybe they wouldn't be able to forgive us for voting for President Trump."

On the preparation that went into the first visit

Paula Green: "We spent six months preparing for this meeting. This was no casual meeting. We had endless correspondence and Skypes and phone calls. We had prepared all sorts of community events, we had music and dance and drama and art, and so we had a very full and rich and safe agenda prepared for everybody, and we know how much fear there was even with all that."

On what the two groups discovered through their trips

Green: "The biggest puzzle I think for many progressives is: Why did people vote for this president? Were they voting against their own interests? Which we hear over and over again. And I learned that they were voting for their interests, because their interest was coal, and Trump promised to bring back coal when Hillary talked about shutting down the mines. So it became very clear to me that these folks were voting for a very important interest: their survival.

"What was astounding for us [was] we didn't know what was going to transpire between us, and although we don't agree politically, we've come to love and care about each other a great deal."

Residents of western Massachusetts and Whitesburg, Kentucky, play theater games in the Hands Across the Hills location in Leverett, Mass., in October 2017. (Roswell Angier/Courtesy of Hands Across the Hills)

Johnson: "They are worried about climate change, just as we are. We're not blind to that, and we're not denying that, but basic human needs overshadow that when you have a mono-economy that's built on coal. They don't live in that mono-economy that we live in. And so, when we heard what they had to say, it was easier to understand how the divides came about. … So we were enlightened on a lot of points that we were rather blind to."

Green: "I think what happened in the end was that we humanized each other, because the Kentuckian stereotypes of us as liberal elites who didn't care about them, these walls of stereotypes and prejudices came down, and what we felt for each other was a very shared humanity at the deepest level."

On the topics they found common ground on through this dialogue

Green: "One interesting example was talking about guns. The question that I asked is: 'What helps you feel safe?' And the people in Massachusetts said, 'When nobody has guns,' and the people in Kentucky said, 'When everybody has guns.' But the common thing is how do we get our safety.

"And the immigration story was very important, because we live in a community that's fairly porous, with people coming and going and lots of immigration in the area. I think that people in Kentucky have had much less exposure to that, and they're listening to stories from Holocaust descendants and others whose parents came from various places in Europe and around the world. They learned that the suffering that comes from migration and refugee status and persecution is different than the suffering that comes from lack of jobs in the coal mines, but it's nonetheless acute suffering."

Johnson: "I've always been aware of the Holocaust, but didn't have a family connection to that. And so, I could really sympathize when they began to talk about the family experiences around that. It was rich to be among them. It was rich.

"In the early days, the coalfields were a melting pot of all nationalities who came here to work. They learned to live side by side and developed a brotherhood, and the United Mine Workers of America was never segregated. We've not had a lot of racial divides here, and so, just to meet the ones who had that history from the Holocaust, it was a rich, rich experience of compassion and love that just prevailed over all the differences."

A facilitated dialogue session at the Hands Across the Hills location in Leverett, MA, in October 2017. (Chana Rose Rabinovitz/Courtesy of Hands Across the Hills)

Green: "Two things came for us: One is the tremendous pride that people had in mining. [During] World War II, the miners were heroes. They couldn't even be drafted, because they had to stay home and keep mining coal for the war effort.

"And the other thing we heard was a tremendous danger and death. People talk about husbands, fathers, brothers, sons dying in the mines, either from black lung or from boulders that fall. So I think the compassion builds up on both sides, and my mission with this is to encourage people to try it. They don't have to try a big three-day marathon that we try, but even to try an afternoon together and to discover the humanity of the other."

On what other Whitesburg residents thought about Johnson and her group's decision to visit Leverett

Johnson: "A lot of them thought we shouldn't make the trip, and they ask, 'What in the world are you thinking?' But I felt that these conversations needed to be had, and how could we not try to bridge this divide, when someone was receptive and reaching out to us for that very thing?"

On the future of Hands Across the Hills

Green: "We are continuing. In fact, I was back in Kentucky again in August, and we had a circle with all our Kentucky friends, and in that dialogue circle, they said, 'We want to come back.' So something very profound and transformative has happened for all of us."

Johnson: "We didn't want to let them leave. We wanted to keep them."

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