ORANGE—“Couldn’t you have picked any place closer?”
That was the obvious question when a group of Leverett residents traveled to Whitesburg, Ky., last month to continue discussions on differences that have led to diametrically opposed political choices in the last presidential election.
Instead of an 840-mile trip that translated to a 13-hour van ride northward for 15 Kentucky visitors last fall, the Leverett group could have traveled 20 miles to Orange—one of two Franklin County towns (along with tiny Monroe) that voted for Donald Trump.
“In peacebuilding, you start with who comes,” explained Paula Green just before the four-day visit to Letcher County, Ky., where Trump won by 80 percent. “You have to start with who wants to be there and build outward. ... You start with the people willing to attend, who have a certain edge of curiosity and a little tiny bit of willingness to reach out to the other ...”
Leverett’s grassroots Hands Across the Hills effort, created in response to the 2016 election, initially reached out to Orange and Athol, where roughly half the voters went for Trump, sharply contrast with Leverett’s 14.4 percent vote for Trump. (Democrat Hillary Clinton got 77.5 percent.)
Now the Leverett group has received an invitation from Orange residents Deborah Habib and Bonnie Frank to visit Orange as a first step in an undefined process that some believe could lead to further collaboration between Franklin County’s left and right.
“I’ve been knocking on these doors for a year,” said Green, who received the response not long after returning from the Appalachian trip in late April. “In the beginning, we didn’t expect to go to Kentucky. We expected to go to Orange and Athol … and we couldn’t.”
“What our region needs most is for more people to experience all that good that is here as a first step in building stronger bridges of understanding,” Habib and Frank wrote. “While we understand the great value in the dialogue process, we know it would be an important foundation prior to us approaching some potential dialogue engagers, and mean a lot to those North Quabbin raised and rooted folks to know that people took the time to visit, enjoy and support our local economy prior to talking about life experiences and world views.”
Offering to take Leverett visitors on a guided tour of various attractions, their letter says, “As you know, the North Quabbin not only suffers from economic distress, but from marginalization as people in nearby communities do not know well the small businesses, food establishments, community rooted organizations, and natural beauty that exist here.”
Because the group’s 18 members have returned from Kentucky with a list of follow-up projects, Green said she hopes a North Quabbin visit can occur this fall as “an initial exploration, maybe with some dialogue in the fall and maybe not.”
Habib’s 20-year-old Seeds of Solidarity Farm has spawned an education center with a teen gardening program, workshops, school gardens and a “grow food everywhere” initiative to teach self-sufficiency and nutrition — along with the annual North Quabbin Garlic and Arts Festival. She says, “People had no idea — nor did I — what an incredible community this is,” before she moved from Leverett and then Montague. She pointed to North Quabbin’s collaboration among grassroots social service agencies and small businesspeople — “the kind of ‘just do it attitude.’ Because the community has been marginalized, people have just learned to just make things happen on their own.”
She adds, “Because some of the bad news is often the stuff that appears, it’s really important for people to come and experience all the goodness. ... After that, the folks from Leverett will have a stronger sense of the hard work ethic as a stronger foundation for deeper dialogues.”
Frank, the administrative director of North Quabbin Citizen Advocacy, which pairs people with a mental disability with other residents, sees “several layers” of potential for a collaboration between two very different communities.
Also, said Frank, who grew up in Orange, “I think people are kind of intrigued by the idea that a community that’s geographically close but culturally quite far away is interested in finding out who we are. … (Other people) see the poverty and all the social problems, but what they don’t see is the incredible way that people care about each other and the natural beauty.”
Rather than anticipating her hopes for the communities working together, Frank says, “One of the things I’ve learned is that sometimes when there’s a need that’s identified, it’s better to work on pulling together the people who should be at the table and then step back and let it unfold. Sometimes the outcome is something that you couldn’t have foreseen in the beginning.”
Yet she’s wanted a community conversation since first hearing Green’s idea a year ago, Frank says.
“I’ve seen how critical it is for this community, and for the country in general, to bridge these kinds of gaps. Even though I don’t have the time or energy, and I can’t do it, I can’t not do it.”
Karl Bittenbender, who’s played numerous community development and economic development roles in Orange over decades and recently stepped down from the Quabbin Harvest board, says, “Getting people together is always good.”
After his involvement in other efforts “getting people to resonate with each other who didn’t think they had a chance of knowing who each other was or what they were about,” he adds, “Any time you get a group together where there’s a search for understanding, its going to be good.”
Leverett group member Tom Wolff, who works as a consultant on “coalition building for healthy communities,” helped found the North Quabbin Community Coalition in 1984, and says he’s not sure what to expect of the latest new bridging effort.
Wolff was fascinated by a 2-year-old Letcher County Culture Hub in Kentucky—a 20-plus network of community centers, local businesses and development associations, artist and artisan organizations, volunteer fire departments, public and educational organizations.
Wolff questions how a “culture hub” could work in the North Quabbin region, and how it might benefit by having one, but he says it might be worth exploring if there’s interest.
“We’re putting out feelers,” says Green, “and it’s like planting seeds: you don’t know which ones are going to come up. In the post-Kentucky visit stage, there are a number of different explorations going on. Some will grow, some will fizzle. That’s the nature of life.”