A Conflict-Resolution Expert on Whether Political and Racial Dialogue Have Value in the Trump Era
Paula Green has worked in peace-building and conflict resolution for three decades, often in places torn apart by war and ethnic violence. After the 2016 election, she took on an assignment closer to home, as lead organizer for Hands Across the Hills, a group that tries to create dialogue among Americans of varying political beliefs. In 2017 and 2018, Hands Across the Hills brought together progressives from western Massachusetts and conservatives from eastern Kentucky’s coal country for two meetings, one in each of their communities, so that they could speak to Americans with different points of view and work together on common projects. This week, the Times reported on several conflict-resolution groups that are doing similar work, amid fears that the U.S. is becoming dangerously divided.
I recently spoke with Green by phone. During our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what her work abroad made her think about the U.S., why she thinks the stereotyping of Trump voters is a problem, and whether more dialogue can really heal our politics and society.
Paula Green, the founder of Hands Across the Hills, says that, if Americans—liberals and Trump voters alike—learn to listen to each other, it will help heal society.
Photograph by Dina Litovsky / Redux
What did you learn in your work overseas that you thought would be useful in today’s America?
The demonization that comes when war is imminent is very dangerous and a very common practice in many conflicts around the world. It creates a downward spiral that becomes harder and harder to stop. What we’re seeing in this country is a tremendous amount of dehumanization and deteriorating intergroup relationships across all lines of race, class, religion, culture, geography, etc. I have become very concerned about those kinds of attitudes deteriorating further and further, and stepping into this work, for me, in the United States, is a way to respond to that fear.
Did your previous work generally occur after conflict or during it or before it?
The ideal is before conflict, but nobody wants to pay the bills. It’s very difficult to get in until the barn has burned down. Then suddenly there’s a rush to bring in N.G.O.s to do this kind of work. Most of it occurs after conflict. In the middle of conflict, if it’s a hot conflict and an actual war going on, [it’s] not a good time to do peace-building. The time to do peace-building is after the war, when people are looking at the wreckage of their lives and communities and feeling the imperatives to rebuild.
It seems like we haven’t had that yet in America. We still have a situation where half the country is really angry and upset about things but wants to unseat the President in an election. Another forty per cent of the country basically still thinks Trump is doing a really good job and wants to see him reëlected. Is now actually the time when people want to come together?
Yes, it is, because people in this country are very aware of the dangers. There’s a tremendous need now for the kind of work that we’re doing to bring together divided communities. What we are doing with Hands Across the Hills is unique in terms of the form that I’ve devised, but there are many other organizations also attempting to bridge divides through dialogue. It’s a growing movement because it’s a necessary movement.
Why do you think that people want to bring this all to a stop now?
I think that people on the left are very aware of the deterioration of our government and don’t want to see further damage and are very eager for a shift. People on the right, as you just said, are disgruntled and, in many cases, desperate for attention, for job creation, for sustenance in their lives, for an end to the struggles they’ve been feeling. They also want to move on with it, and they just have different ideas on how to do that. They’re expecting that Trump will do it for them.
They’re also supporting someone who seems to be the single biggest cause of a lot of these things.
From our point of view, yes. When I was in Kentucky, their point of view was very different.
Sure, but maybe we should come to some judgment about whether their point of view is correct. That seems valuable, no?
Yeah, I don’t want to say, for me, whether it’s correct or incorrect. It’s just their point of view. I may not agree with it.
Right, but it’s a lot of people’s point of view that global warming isn’t happening.
That’s right. There are many misconstructions of facts. Many.
Is it more helpful to listen to them or to try to provide them with facts that are more correct?
A leads to B, Isaac. What I’m learning—and this is really significant—is that in the interaction with people, in the learning to listen, in the learning to be respectful, in the learning to not be judgmental of them, the listening can happen. If we try to do the shifting without any listening, it doesn’t work. It’s not possible for people to suddenly wake up and change their minds. Change happens through gradual shifts, and those shifts happen in human relationships across the divides.
Do they also happen with political victories?
Of course. One doesn’t negate the other.
You told the Times, “People are making up stories about ‘the other’ — Muslims, Trump voters, whoever ‘the other’ is. ‘They don’t have the values that we have. They don’t behave like we do. They are not nice. They are evil.’ ” Is there a danger with making an equivalence between people who have negative feelings toward Trump voters and people who have negative feelings toward, say, Muslims?
Well, that’s why I’m asking, because you’re making a comparison between people making up stories about Trump voters and people making up stories about Muslims and both of them being the other.
It’s dangerous to other anybody, because it’s based on ignorance. Making up serious stereotypes about people or believing serious stereotypes about people are not based on the knowledge of those people. What happened for me when I met the people from the coal country in Kentucky is I learned about them. I learned about their struggles. I learned to care about them and their struggles. Not to agree with them. Not to support their political points of view, but to understand why they made those choices. All the circumstances in their lifetimes that have led them to those [choices]. They’ve been hard circumstances. They’ve had very tough lives. Trump promised them pie in the sky, and they’re looking for pie because there’s nothing else there anymore.
O.K. It seems to me that there are a lot of Republicans who have more money and are better-educated and not suffering at all. Many of them support Trump for the same reasons that these people in Kentucky who are struggling do, which suggests to me that maybe it’s something other than just their struggle that is causing them to support the President.
Well, I’m sure it is. Isaac, in some ways, I think we’re still fighting the Civil War, and we’re certainly still fighting the wars of the nineteen-sixties. We have very unresolved cultural issues in the country.
Are you hinting something there?
Hinting something? What do you mean?
Bringing up the Civil War. I’m just curious how you think things like race and so on play into this.
They play into this very deeply. I just started a second project, actually, a second dialogue project, and it’s on race and racism. Two weeks ago, I had thirty people in Beaufort, South Carolina, from South Carolina, Massachusetts, and Kentucky. A very mixed group: black, white, and a few indigenous. That will continue when they all come to Massachusetts in June. We’re using the same model as we used for the Kentucky project for this new project, which we called Bridge4Unity. It is about race. It is a fundamentally tragic four-hundred-year-old problem in this country that hasn’t gone away.
I didn’t hear any people in the videos of your organization that I watched say that race was the reason that they voted for Trump, even though, obviously, we can agree that that’s a giant, giant part of his appeal. [Hands Across the Hills has posted videos of the encounters between the Massachusetts and Kentucky groups.] It makes me wonder how much their self-professed reasons for voting for Trump should be taken at face value.
I don’t know how to answer that.
Because I can’t speak for them.
You agree that race had a huge role in Trump’s election.
If, then, we’re talking to people, and everyone we talk to doesn’t mention something like race at all, it makes me wonder how much value there is in talking to them.
Well, we talked about many things. We didn’t talk about race, but some of those people are now in this new dialogue, and they’re talking about race.
What are they saying?
They’re learning. They were listening to African-Americans for three days and learning a lot. Really shifting. One of the African-American women was talking about having a teen-age son and the terror she feels every day of her life when her son leaves home and goes out on the streets. She was speaking very emotionally about this, and one of the white women from Kentucky said, “Well, I have an eighteen-year-old grandson, and I worry about him, but I understand, listening to you, that what I have to worry about is not nearly as significant as what you have to worry about, because I don’t worry about my grandson being killed every day when he goes out on the street, and that’s your worry, possibly being killed or harassed.” There was a shift.
I should say that the videos are very moving, and it is nice to see people with different points of view talk. I don’t want to sound overly glib about that. In one of the videos, there’s a woman from Kentucky who says that deep down, both groups want the same things for their families and their children. That’s a nice sentiment, but do we think it’s true?
At the basic level of core human needs, I think it’s very much true, Isaac. I think everybody wants safety, security, health, health coverage, education, education coverage for the children. Those things are the same. Every human being wants those, all of us in our society.
I could be an Iranian-American in San Francisco and want all those things, and a Trump voter in Kentucky might also want those things, but for a Trump voter in Kentucky, keeping Muslims out of the country might be part of what is meant by safety and security. To say that both people want the same exact same things seems to me, at some level, to miss larger dynamics.
Well, they want the same thing. They don’t go about them in the same way. One interesting example of that was that we talked about guns. The question I asked was, “What makes you safe?” The Kentuckians said, “Everybody having guns,” and the Massachusetts people said, “Nobody having guns.” They both want safety. The question is, how do you achieve it?
Is talking going to get us to that point?
Talking is going to get us started and help us get to the actions.
What do you think those actions are?
I want to give you a quote from James Baldwin. James Baldwin said [that] some things that are named cannot be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is named. We were doing the naming. Now people are doing the actions. The Kentucky group has been meeting regularly. They have felt shifts in their lives. The race groups are each meeting once a month now to do their own dialogues on race and also to do actions in their communities, to bring people together to talk more about racial justice.
That is excellent.
The dialogue is not an end in itself, Isaac. Dialogue is a means toward people being able to act together and have more sensitivity around the issues they’re acting on. It’s not an end point; it’s a step towards social justice and social change.
The gun thing is very interesting. I feel like I’ve listened to a lot of people explain why guns are important to them in the last ten years of my life, and I’m not sure why that knowledge is getting me any closer to solving the problem of guns in America.
Well, it gets me a little bit closer, if I can get to the point where they begin to open up their views about guns. For example, one of the conversations that I was having with a couple of the Kentucky women came right after the Parkland shooting. We were on a radio program together, being interviewed by NPR. We had a chance to chat for a while. Parkland had just happened. They said, “Oh, we’re really against assault rifles.” I thought, “This is a very good crack.” We have started to do some work together to oppose assault rifles. That’s only the first step on guns, but I thought it was very significant that it was something we could do together. We had an agreement on this. I wouldn’t have known that had I not known them.
If a liberal person said to you, “I like this dialogue idea. I think we need healing. I hate the direction our country is going in, but the only way I’m willing to have this dialogue is when Trump is out of office and is repudiated, in part, by his own voters. Only then can we have healing again.” What would be your response to that?
I would prefer not to wait. I think it’s very important to do this now. I think it’s part of a process of rebuilding our country. Part of that process will determine what happens with the elections. Now is the time.
Forget the practical for a minute. I’m just curious about what you think of that as a sentiment.
I don’t agree with it.
Do you understand it?
Not from a dialogue point of view, because a dialogue point of view is to bring the controversial issues to the table and share them—not to wait until we have a change before we talk to each other, especially in this country, which is so fragile now and could get much worse.
Do you think liberals have done a bad job, by stigmatizing Trump voters?
I think the othering is unskillful in any direction. I think all of us liberals benefit from listening and learning from people rather than demonizing them. It’s a much better way to go. Part of what’s missing for people is the feeling of being respected. Part of what’s driving the vote is this feeling of being disrespected and dismissed and called the flyover zone. Those are human struggles. The more we listen, the more we can empathize, the more we can work together. The more we stereotype and demonize and other and belittle, the more people we lose.
Should we fake respect if we don’t have it?
No, but you can learn to have it by listening. Not respect for the political views, but respect for the person. A person is larger than their political views.
Do you respect the President as a person?
I guess my feeling is that there’s been a lot of listening from a lot of people about Trump and his voters and what they want. I just don’t think that’s the problem, the lack of listening. I think there’s endless listening on both sides, and there’s different ends and different ideas of how to get to those ends. It’s really hard to figure that out.
It’s true. It’s very hard to figure it out.
Maybe that’s the core of the disagreement.
I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying.
I’m saying that, if people have different ends in mind, different ideas, then listening, it seems, has less value—because no matter how much you listen, you’re always going to have conflict, because you want different things. The value of listening, to me, seems to increase if people have the same ends, because then you talk, and you figure out how to get to those ends.
Yeah. I guess what I’m struggling with right now is I don't know how you’re going to write about this if you have no belief in it.
It’s a Q. & A. We’re talking this out.
O.K. I want to talk it out, but I’m concerned that it’s anathema to you. You have such objections to everything I’m saying that it’s a concern how I can talk about this.
Well, you’ve said a lot of things that I’ve found interesting.
I agree with you about the value of listening. I just think that it’s very hard when it’s different ends. I worry that listening has less value than it does otherwise. That’s all.
That may be true, but it still seems to me that, in the choice between listening and building relationships and demonizing, the dehumanization of others harms us all. Living and breathing our stereotypes and our prejudice about the other is not good for us. It’s not good for us as a country. It’s not good for me as an individual human being or for you as an individual human being, and that’s the work I’m trying to focus on. That’s the piece of this that I’m working on.
No, I hear you. I hear you. This is really interesting conversation. I really appreciate you taking the time.
Yes. I’m hoping you’re understanding what I’m saying.
Maybe this gets to the core of our disagreement. I understand what you’re saying, but we disagree. This is getting very meta, but you see what I mean.