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America's partisan gap is widening. The key to bridging it is by simply initiating conversations with the other side, says Paula Green. Photo by Joe Ybarra/Getty Images


In the days after Donald Trump emerged victorious in the 2016 presidential election, Paula Green watched as the shock and disbelief gripping her small New England community began to give way to a deep, dismal sadness.

The residents of liberal Leverett, Massachusetts, where Green lives, had overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton, and many were struggling with the same questions: What had inspired their conservative countrymen to vote the way they had? And what, if anything, could help them find common political ground in the future?

Green, a psychologist with more than 30 years of field experience as an international peacebuilder and facilitator in war-torn communities across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, wasted no time. Together with other members of the Leverett Peace Commission — the local organization she and a few friends had formed years earlier to protest America’s seemingly ceaseless wars — Green organized a get-together at the local library. Somewhere between 60 and 70 stunned residents turned out to talk and mourn, but also brainstorm a way forward.

Within a few months, the Leverett residents formed Hands Across the Hills, an organization dedicated to bridging partisan divides through structured dialogue. In October 2017, more than a dozen of them met face-to-face with a sister coalition of 11 members from Letcher County, Kentucky — a conservative coal-mining community nestled deep in the heart of Appalachia — for three days of music, potlucks and discussions. The results from that weekend, and another between the two groups in the spring of 2018, exceeded even Green’s expectations about the transformative power of compassion — especially in an America that seems more polarized now than at any time in its history.

NationSwell spoke with Green about the ways in which simply initiating a conversation can impact relationships and promote empathy, and how Hands Across the Hills plans to help bridge the deep-seated political divides that define today’s America.

NationSwell: It’s just after the 2016 election, and you’ve decided that you want to partner with a sister city to have this dialogue series — what was it like even trying to find a community willing to do that, given the political climate?

Green: We looked for conservative people in our own town or a neighboring town and discovered pretty rapidly that we couldn’t find anyone who wanted to talk to us. People’s emotions were pretty raw from the election, and polarization had set in already. That’s when one of our members found Ben Fink, who works for [the Appalachian arts nonprofit] Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and who was writing about dialogue and similar work. We reached out to him and eventually formed a partnership, and that’s how we wound up with a coal community in Kentucky as our first partner.

NationSwell: What specifically about the election was so troubling to you, besides the obvious partisanship of it?

Green: We saw immediately that people were splitting into enemy camps, and those enemy camps were demonizing each other. Because that’s been my work internationally, I recognized the danger signs of so much dehumanization happening in the country. I wanted to step in, and this provided me with the perfect vehicle to do that.

Self-identified liberals from Massachusetts met with their conservative counterparts from Eastern Kentucky for a series of discussions in April 2018. Photo courtesy of Sharon Dunn

NationSwell: What was the thinking behind having conversations as a means to bridge that divide?

Green: My international work has focused on supporting people in local contexts, in war-torn and war-recovering countries, who invited me and my organization to help them sort out how they could restore what had been before the war. That of course was extremely difficult, because there had been armed conflict in most of these places, and people were very fragile and frightened. But they also knew that unless they joined with the other side of the conflict, they would not be able to rebuild their community.

NationSwell: I’m sure some issues are bound to spur some extreme reactions. What do you do to deescalate the situation when people’s temperatures get hot?

Green: Those three-day dialogues were all very carefully designed to maximize interaction between the Kentuckians and the Massachusetts people. Each day we’d have potluck meals and music and dance and art and theater games and homestays. Each of those activities was carefully chosen to enhance relationships so that the transformation occurred not just in the dialogue but in all the activities that contributed to that feeling of goodness and well-being that emanated from the group.

Nevertheless, tempers do rise in these situations, and my role as the facilitator is to manage that anger so that it doesn’t spill over into an attack. Sometimes it calls for a moment of silence and reflection, or for people to reframe their statements in a way that is non-attacking, or it involves people going from being in a big circle to being in small groups of three or four. We make sure that nobody feels they need to withdraw from the group because they’ve been too hurt, while at the same time keeping us really honest about our feelings.

NationSwell: If you could zoom ahead into the future, what does Hands Across the Hills ultimately look like to you? Do you have plans to scale, at this point?

Green: If I could wave my magic wand, I’d want to spread these dialogues all around the country to tackle the different issues that are polarizing us. I’m actually working with an institution called the Alliance for Peacebuilding to see if we can do some spreading of dialogue around the country. We’re only in the talking stages right now — there are many organizations attempting dialogues across divides, and I’m in support of all their various efforts. But most of these groups only allot a day or two, and what I like about the model we’re working with is that it can take people deeper because it allows for more time.

NationSwell: You mentioned that you recently led a second dialogue series in South Carolina, which focused on race. What that was like?

Green: It was very challenging. Race is a fundamental divider in our country and has been a national tragedy for 400 years — it needs to be dealt with on every level. We had people from Massachusetts and South Carolina, and I also brought in some of the Kentucky people to keep them in the loop. Each group was of mixed race, and we spent three days having deep, often painful, but very, very productive dialogues. We didn’t talk about Trump or politics — the only topic was race and racism.

NationSwell: I’m impressed that you can have a dialogue like that go off without a hitch.

Green: It was beyond my expectations. This one worried me, because this is a 400-year-old history with such endless suffering. People talked about their first experiences of discovering race and racism, and the wounds of African Americans who have been at the mercy of racist attitudes in this country. We talked about racism as the water we all swim in, which we don’t even necessarily notice all the time because we are all swimming in it, and its total, pernicious effect on the members of our society.

NationSwell: More so than exacting a political agenda, is that the endgame here? Seeing and understanding diverse perspectives for what they are?

Green: What we are ultimately aiming for is for people to rehumanize the “other.” There was a tremendous gap — the people from Kentucky, their region was the opposite of ours, going 85–90 percent for Trump. We didn’t run away from the issues but had conversations in the spirit of, ‘We’re not here to change each others’ votes, or change each others’ opinions on the controversial issues of our day. We are here to listen and learn and deepen our understanding.” Everybody wants better medical care, everybody wants better schools, everybody wants safer streets. The question is, how do we talk together to find common ground on how to get them?

NationSwell: But just to push back on that a bit — you’re naming things that are pretty unambiguous in their popularity. What do you do with issues like climate change or gun control, where not everyone agrees on how or whether we should approach them?

Green: Climate change is pretty black and white at this point, of course, but we understand why people whose only livelihood has been coal for a hundred years defend the industry. Defending coal means objecting to climate change data. So we understand where they’re coming from — it’s not out of stubborness; it’s out of desperation for jobs, for work, for feeding their families.

Understanding that helps us to be compassionate toward their situation and work together to find policies that will change their situation.

People have attended our [dialogue series] in numbers far exceeding our expectations. It may look like we’re hopelessly divided, but we want to show people that there are ways to bridge that and to act together for the common good.

NationSwell: So in other words, there’s a way to change yourself without changing your worldview — or changing your mind.

Green: People change their minds. They expand their worldview, they open up to things they hadn’t seen or understood before. The way I think about it is that these encounters are a wonderful prelude to a commitment to institutional change. It’s about standing up for each other — realizing we’re in this together. We are tied together in this, we’re not separate.

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