- Richie Davis, Daily Hampshire Gazette
Hands Across the Hills hosts 3-day Dialogue Across Divides workshop in Leverett
LEVERETT — A three-day training was held to help people from around the Northeast and beyond learn how to bridge widening divides in this country between conservatives and liberals, along with racial, ethnic, class and other splits.
The 30 participants came from around the Northeast and as far as Michigan for the Dialogue Across Divides workshop hosted by Hands Across the Hills leaders — building on the 4-year-old work between a group of Leverett residents and their eastern Kentucky counterparts in the aftermath of the 2016 national election.
The training held over the three-day weekend at the Mount Toby Meetinghouse was planned to “share the knowledge of what we’ve learned,” said co-organizer Paula Green of Leverett, who led the training with community organizer and Hands Across the Hills partner Ben Fink. The fact that 60 people applied for 30 available training slots “tells us there’s a need out there,” Green said.
“People are eager to learn because they’re experiencing the impact of the brokenness of our country.”
Among the participants were Native American representatives of the Boston-based Upstander Project educational collaborative and the assistant director of Amherst College’s Center for Restorative Practice, as well as representatives of museums, nonprofit organizations and universities, and individuals working independently to bring a wide range of groups together.
Several attendees came from Syracuse University, Bennington College and West Point Military Academy as part of a growing nationwide demand for “diversity, equity and inclusion” efforts, while others came to build broad consensus for high school ethnic studies training.
“The range of institutions is good for us,” said Green, who has fostered dialogue around the world as founding director of the Amherst-based Karuna Center for Peacebuilding. “We’re waking up to all of the ways we’ve been divided. And we don’t have to remain divided because we have commonalities, and in the end, all of our needs are the same.”
One of the participants, Jennifer Hall-Witt of Hadley, has volunteered for one of the proliferating gap-bridging efforts, Braver Angels, which is reviving its Pioneer Valley alliance.
“There’s a tension in this work between breadth and depth,” said Hall-Witt, a student in the Peace and Justice Leadership graduate program at the School for International Training, where Green was founding director of the Conflict Transformation Across Cultures program.
“Braver Angels is trying to figure out how to reach as many people as possible, and depth doesn’t always happen. HATH [Hands Across the Hills] is fantastic at depth. One question I keep asking myself is ‘How do you balance these two?’”
In the midst of a career change, Hall-Witt took part in the weekend training to gain skills in areas such as organizing events as she tries to decide how she can do this work locally.
“We have divides that are much more than just political,” she said. “Look at how segregated we are in where we live.”
Jennifer Albertine, climate and land justice specialist with Athol-based Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, attended the training with Mount Grace volunteer Louise Dwyer Huppert in preparation for an effort to restore land to Indigenous people in the trust’s 23-town area.
“I’m interested in being able to reach out across the divide and help people understand why it’s important in this moment of reconciliation to return land to Indigenous people,” said Albertine, who has been working with the nonprofit Nipmuk Cultural Preservation organization to write a “cultural use and respect agreement” to use the land for food, medicine, ceremony and healing. The hope is to model for the community how other public land, as well as private land, could not only guarantee access but also in some cases be returned as part of a reconciliation effort.
“It’s about educating people to come together in an understanding of this shared history of this land, figuring out how to share it and return it, if possible, moving forward,” Albertine said.
During Monday’s closing session, which followed two days of community building and sharing of participants’ stories, Fink led a series of theater-based exercises that he explained can be combined with moderated discussions to help deepen understanding of the many layers underlying issues faced by different groups, working “inside and outside of people’s comfort zones” to get at those embedded issues.
“Culture is the way we make meaning together,” he said. “We want to make it possible for a group of people, and all the groups they’re connected with, to ‘make meaning’ differently. So many of the ways we’ve been divided are because we’ve been robbed of making meaning together. There used to be in a lot of rural areas lots of support for independent media, independent theater groups, independent organizations (conveying) culture and heritage. We are offering alternative options.”
One example, cited by Upstander Project Learning Director Mishy Lesser, was when participants in a workshop she attended were asked to create a piece of art depicting “a place you love” … and then had someone rip their work up to give them a taste of what it feels like to be dispossessed of their homeland.
“You’re part of a national movement reaching across divides,” Green told the gathering.
Richie Davis, a writer and editor for more than 40 years at the Greenfield Recorder, blogs at RichieDavis.Net.