Over the past two years, the Hands Across the Hills cultural exchange project has created strong bonds of friendship between conservative Kentuckians from Letcher County, Kentucky, and progressives in Leverett, Massachusetts.
For providing hope in a time of divisiveness, our project has garnered national media attention, and last October, was awarded the first domestic peace building award from the Alliance for Peacebuilding in Washington, D.C.
Twenty-five of us from both regions have just finished our third long weekend together. Our first was in Leverett, the second in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and now we were back in Leverett. For three intense days, we spent hour upon hour closely listening to each other’s stories, struggles and hopes.
In one of our final dialogues, every member responded to the question: What central message comes out of the hard work we have done together? At our public forum at the Leverett Elementary School on Oct. 13 we shared our answers, which came together as a statement of belief:
“We are residents of Letcher County, Kentucky, and Leverett, Massachusetts, who came together in the aftermath of the 2016 election to understand each other better. We have gathered together in both of our places to take part in dialogue and cultural exchange. Though we hold diverse positions on many issues, we have learned how much we agree on — about ourselves, our communities, and the country we share.
“We believe our country is not divided beyond repair. We see this as a myth that’s been sold to us by politicians and mass media, to hide our nation’s all-too-real economic disparities and weaken our natural solidarity. We understand that our politics, like all other parts of our lives, are complex. They are rooted in our cultures, our families, and our stories. No matter how monolithic our communities may appear, they include people with many different beliefs. And when we took the time to listen closely, we recognized each other as friends and neighbors.
“We believe this is possible anywhere. But it takes work. It requires creating a space where everyone’s worth is recognized, everyone’s perspective counts, and everyone is ready to be challenged. It involves opening up about painful experiences, putting in the effort to understand what’s foreign to us, taking responsibility for the accuracy of the information we consume, and refusing to dehumanize anyone, even people whose views we find hateful. It means loving our neighbors as they are, without assuming we can change how they think, act, or vote.
“We will support each other’s communities. We will overcome the influence of those who benefit from dividing us. We will speak and act for ourselves. We agree our fate is bound up together, locally and nationally, and we are committed to working side by side.”
Hands Across the Hills envisions several projects — a speaker’s bureau to share our message, a youth exchange program, an oral history project, as well as collaborative community building, all of which will nurture our connections and benefit both regions.
Paula Green, who leads Hands Across the Hills, founded the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding and is Professor Emerita at the School for International Training.
Photo: Hands Across the Hills participants from Leverett and Letcher County, Ky., share a focused discussion of issues. GAzette file photo