A culture-crossing project borne of the 2016 election met for the third time this past weekend in Leverett, Massachusetts.
Hands Across the Hills includes a small group from Letcher County, Kentucky — a Trump stronghold — and another group from mostly-liberal Leverett.
The project launched shortly after Donald Trump was elected as a way to understand the reasons behind the political divide.
Over two years, they've met in both states. Now back in Leverett, about 20 participants told a packed auditorium they understand better the cultural forces that shape why people vote the way they do.
But Mike Gover of Kentucky wondered: while this group has learned to feel less hostility towards each other, "Would it be possible to create a model or something that you could actually start using to do it on a bigger scale?" he said. "And I have no idea what the answer to that is."
The project aims to avoid the most obviously divisive issues, like how each person votes, but several people admitted the upcoming presidential election is likely to test that goal.
One of the lead organizers, Paula Green of Leverett, said their private group discussions have gotten easier over the past two years, as people get to know each other in person, over Skype, and email.
"We had much less fear [at the recent gathering], much more a sense of the possibility of being able to find the humanity in each other without having to go through a lot of barriers," Green said.
Gwen Johnson, a career counselor in Kentucky who comes from a long line of coal miners, has been involved with Hands Across the Hills since the beginning.
"I now have a lot more friends on what I consider the far left. And so I get perspectives that I never had before," she said.
For instance, when controversial issues come across the news — most recently, about the closing of a large coal mine — she'll send the link to her new friends up in Leverett.
"We just bat it back and forth," she said. "And I never had that before."
Johnson said she voted for Trump in 2016, but she's not sure if she'll vote for him again.
"I just keep hoping that somebody is selected to run against Trump who won't insult us," she said.
Retired social studies teacher Kip Fonsh of Leverett said he's conscious of not appearing elitist, which is one stereotype of northern liberals.
"We can't appear to be condescending [to the Kentucky group], those of us up here," he said. "You know, 'What can we do for you? What do you want us to do?' We have to find a way to work with each other, to help each other in a way that doesn't create a hierarchical partition between the two places."
Fonsh said his goal is not to change people's minds, but to understand them.
"This isn't about beating someone overhead and saying, you know, 'You better vote for candidate X and not Trump next time,'" he said. "We can't do that. People are going to push back on us even if we tried."
Fonsh added he's still furious about the election of Donald Trump, but even if Trump wins again, he plans to stay involved with Hands Across the Hills.
"I'm very proud to be a part of this, even if I still hold the views [from 2016] that have only been intensified," he said.
Photos by Karen Brown/WFCR. Top: About 20 members of "Hands Across the Hills" speak at public forum in Leverett, Massachusetts. Bottom: Gwen Johnson, left, a Kentucky-based member of "Hands Across The Hills," meets Leverett residents.