Noble experiment built bridge across political divide
My Turn: op ed by Richie Davis, Greenfield Recorder, June 13, 2023
Coming together immediately after the pivotal 2016 election, 60 residents of Leverett — where nearly three-quarters of voters rejected Donald Trump for president — gathered to consider how to respond to the obvious chasm in political and cultural values in the town and the nation.
Of six committees formed, including one aimed at fostering greater town cohesion, a “bridging divides” group was most successful, searching far and wide for divergent communities willing to engage in dialogue to understand other viewpoints. They found one in Letcher County, Kentucky, in the heart of coal country, where the presidential vote had been completely opposite Leverett’s. Hands Across the Hills was born.
The effort led to a visit to Leverett by a delegation of 11 Letcher County residents for a weekend of intense theater, art creation, storytelling and dialogues with 18 Leverett counterparts in October 2017. Those dialogues were facilitated by Leverett resident Paula Green, who’d led conflict reconciliation efforts in Africa, Asia and Europe as founding director of Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, and World Learning’s Conflict Transformation Across Cultures program. Green, who died in February 2022, carefully guided the group's members in listening to each other respectfully to learn how similar their needs were, despite attempts by politicians and media to drive wedges. “We want to examine the differences but act on the common ground,” said Green before that first encounter. “We want to shift from demonizing each other to humanizing each other. And if we make that shift with this small group and they make that shift with us, hopefully that carries over to other people that we meet ... and reduce the enmity that exists in our communities and has been so exacerbated since the election.”
Hands Across the Hills resulted in two visits by the Letcher delegation to Leverett and a reciprocal 2018 visit by the Leverett group, listening to each other’s stories about economic issues, class distinctions, addictions and guns, as well as the cultural legacies of the Appalachians, New England and the roots of both communities. The bridging effort, which garnered media attention across the nation and globally, led to three training sessions for people across the country craving to learn how to foster such deep dialogues. But after almost seven years, Hands Across the Hills is ending its work. “Increasingly and for well over a year, the active membership, energy and leadership needed to run this organization are not adequate to sustain us,” board members wrote in a call for the project to enter a concluding phase culminating in public events. A Leverett gathering is planned in late October; a Kentucky meeting is planned for July.
Over the years, Hands Across the Hills was criticized by those who mistakenly saw the red/blue dialogue as a failed, idealistic attempt to convert the political stances of “opposing” groups. But members from Kentucky and Massachusetts agreed it succeeded, as one woman put it, “humanizing people we thought were ‘the other,’ to be able to empathize better.” Several members said they had formed lasting bonds across the regions, as well as with people they’d never known locally, because of ongoing interactions. Several made it clear, though, that political differences remain and that deep-seated underlying class issues also remain for future conversations.
A Leverett member acknowledged, “The monsters that prowl our land are still there, and the problems our country faces are far more severe” than when the groups first met. A Letcher County member agreed, adding that participants would still probably see different causes of those problems.
“As divided as we were and still are, we can come together,” he acknowledged. “Once we get to know each other on a human basis, we find out we’re not as different as we thought we were. We don’t have to agree, and we can still love each other.”
Organizers in Leverett and Kentucky conducted a Dialogue Across Divides training session before Green’s death and again this spring. As a result of the April training in Leverett, a presentation by Hands Across the Hills will be included in a July conference of American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL). The effort also won a “U.S. Peacebuilding Award of Excellence” from the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Peacebuilding in 2018.
With Hands Across the Hills ending work at the start of an election cycle seemingly as polarizing as the 2016 one that led to its creation, there’s more need than ever for grassroots work to truly listen to, understand and respect our differences so we can come together.
Richie Davis, who retired in 2019 after more than 40 years as a reporter and editor for the Greenfield Recorder, covered Hands Across the Hills extensively from its start in 2017.
Fishbowl Dialogue, third Hands Across the Hills gathering, in Leverett's Mt. Toby Meeting House, 2019