Outreach ending: Leverett-Kentucky ‘Hands Across the Hills’ built bridges across political divide
By Scott Merzbach, Daily Hampshire Gazette
LEVERETT — One of the folks in the first delegation from Letcher County, Kentucky in 2017 to come to Leverett to share her worldviews, Gwen Johnson, found the Hands Across the Hills project a successful way to bridge the country’s political divide and better understand the perspectives of people with diametrically opposed beliefs.
“I feel like we’ve made lasting friendships, and some of us will stay in touch for the rest of our lives,” says Johnson, who oversees the Black Sheep Brick Oven Bakery at the Hemphill Community Center in Kentucky. “All of us have become fast friends. I’m really thankful for the relationships.”
Now, after more than six years of bringing people together across the “blue state” and “red state” divide, receiving national and international attention, the Hands Across the Hills dialogue and exchange project will draw to a close later this year. “It was an experiment that worked, in my thinking,” Johnson said.
“We’ve accomplished a huge amount in the past six years,” said Ben Fink, who helped co-found Letcher County’s Culture Hub and chairs the Hands Across the Hills board. “And the work will continue, in many different ways and through many different projects.”
Originally conceived after the 2016 election that pitted Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, Hands Across the Hills sought to foster understanding and collaboration between regions of the country that differ significantly on many political and cultural issues. Through it, organizers found ways to set aside differences and serve as an example, using some of the same techniques that the late Paula Green used as founder of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding when heading to post-conflict hot spots around the globe.
In May, the Hands Across the Hills board sent a message to members and friends about organizations having a life cycle and that they should be proud of the work done and the inspiration that was offered. “We experienced intense and rich in-person long weekends in each other’s states, time that is indelibly impressed on each of us,” the board wrote. “The dialogue work encouraged us to listen to each other, to try to understand each other.”
During its existence, Hands Across the Hills sponsored several three-day gatherings in both communities. Visits consisted of small-group dialogue and story-sharing sessions and public forums attended by hundreds of residents, as well as home stays, potluck meals, jam sessions, hikes and visits to centers of local culture.
Paula Green explained in a news story at the project's outset about its purpose. “We’re not here to change each other — we’re here to learn from each other and accept the differences and acting on the commonalities,” she said. “We talk about politics, we talk about religion, we talk about class,” Green said. “We’re not here to convert each other, we’re here to understand each other.” The project shared its work through the media and public events, Zoom programs and the HATH website, and conducted two Dialogue Across Divides trainings in Leverett, in October 2021 and April 2023. It was impacted by the COVID pandemic, but Hands Across the Hills went virtual, hosting ongoing Zoom dialogues, musical exchanges, and public discussions of challenging topics including guns, coal and vaccinations. When east Kentucky was ravaged by floods last summer, Hands Across the Hills participants in Massachusetts worked with neighbors to raise more than $10,000 for Kentucky community organizations, through the benefit concert Bands Across the Hills. “The outpouring of love from up there was pretty amazing,” Johnson said.
Leverett resident Sharon Dunn, a poet and nonfiction writer who serves on the organization’s board, called the project a deep learning experience and said friendships have given hope that can be shared with the community, region and beyond. “I worked closely with fellow Leverett residents I never would have encountered, I met women and men from eastern Kentucky coal country, whose lives and stories both inspired me and broke my heart,” Dunn said. “I was witness to the dialogue process as practiced by Paula Green, opening our eyes to each other’s humanity despite differences in politics, class and geography. From Ben Fink I learned community organizing.” Even though Hands Across the Hills will conclude formally, participants emphasized it should not be seen as its end, as its website and resources will continue to be available. In addition, projects begun will continue. Those include the Black Sheep Brick Oven Bakery, inspired by the Black Sheep Deli in Amherst; the multiracial dialogue project Bridge 4 Unity, which has joined together residents of Massachusetts, Kentucky and South Carolina; and several agricultural and agroforestry collaborations between growers in Kentucky and Massachusetts. Hands Across the Hills participants are also among the leaders of the Southern Arts and Culture Coalition, to be launched this fall.
Concluding events for Hands Across the Hills are being planned for the coming months. These will be open to all who are interested in continuing the work of finding common ground and collaborating across cultural and political divides. One is tentatively set for Leverett for the weekend of Oct. 14 and 15, with a public celebration the first day and a more intimate gathering the second day.
Gwen Johnson said the ripple effects continue to be felt and those who participated in the exchanges will carry the experience forward. “These techniques should be privy to the whole world,” Johnson said. “If folks take the time to get to know someone and hear their story, there can’t be divisions.”
October 2017 The first gathering and dialogue circle of Hands Across the Hills
at Mt. Toby Meeting House In Leverett, Massachusetts