Given the level of cynicism in our increasingly polarized nation, I wasn’t surprised to hear that some people have been responding to Leverett’s homegrown Hands Across the Hills initiative by asking, “What’s the point? What good will that do?”
After the daily whirlwind of political horror stories we’ve seen over the past several months, it’s understandable that some people, expecting immediate gratification, have felt pulled in what feels at times like a bottomless downward spiral.
So it almost seemed overdue when liberal Leverett “Hands” members — with whom I traveled last spring to conservative Letcher County, Ky., for a series of group discussions on hot-button topics — met for a living-room discussion recently to take stock of questions related by one member who’s faced questions from the public:
“What has this to do with politics? … How does this meeting between communities have political implications? What’s the connection between meeting a person from another community face to face and helping shape a better vision of society? How is this a new, deeper politics? Haven’t we been wasting time? Isn’t what matters getting out the vote and fighting against the racist thugs?”
I witnessed many of the exchanges that brought together some starkly different viewpoints, and could feel the frustration as some wrestled with what a tiny effect those hours seemed to make on the national split that seems to be widening day after day.
But that, as many in the living room recently said, misses the point.
Yes, even when simply trying to understand the political reasoning of those steeped in a different culture, there were times conversations may have seemed to come up short. But what were the expectations?
Clearly the economic realities and cultural differences played a role, but the guided conversations avoided pressing the issue to avoid causing too much discomfort among people who’d grown close and found plenty of common ground.
And wasn’t that the point, after all?
Those conversations, which seemed to bring the dozen or so members from either group closer together, reminded me of the interaction I was part of at Conflict Transformation Across Cultures several years ago at the School for International Training in Brattleboro. That program, like Hands Across the Hills, was led by Paula Green of Leverett, who got everyone in the room — from India and Pakistan, from Israel and Palestine, from Burma and Rwanda, — reflecting together on their own prejudices and their own projections about the other.
And healing began to happen, in a world that still seems very broken. For her healing work with Hands Across the Hills, Green was fittingly presented a domestic peacebuilding award from the international Alliance for Peacebuilding.
“The way people vote is a small measure of their humanity,” says Green, who says the painstaking work of meaningful dialogue “is giving people hope in a pretty hopeless time, when a lot of people are feeling pretty disempowered about the political situation.”
At times, I’ve have felt some misgivings about the project, which turned to the Kentucky coal-mining region after first trying unsuccessfully to engage groups closer to home that had voted very differently in the 2016 election.
My inclination would have been to have a more diverse Franklin County representation, from former milltowns like Orange or Turners Falls, or hilltowns like Colrain or Monroe, rather than simply the likeminded souls from that progressive Amherst bedroom community that is Leverett.
Yet, this was an initiative by that town’s residents in reaching out to have frank discussions in hopes of building greater understanding. For that, they deserve to be applauded.
It’s obvious that the year-long effort, which hopes to continue deepening its connections with its new Kentucky friends, has deeply affected most of those participants. And for those who look closely at the somewhat heterogeneous Letcher County community, intent on building up the regional cohesion we in Franklin County take for granted, there’s a profound impact there as well.
But political impact? That wasn’t ever the intention. Instead, group members seemed to be responding to the dramatically deepening division as what seems like a deliberate attempt by those in power to rip apart the fabric of the nation and further polarize on the basis of gender, race, national origin and political persuasion.
How frustrating to witness that exacerbation even as a grassroots effort tries to bring us together again.
As Ben Fink, who helped bring together Letcher County residents for the interchanges told me, “It’s easy to miscast this work as ‘It’s kumbaya, mushy middle, can’t we just get along?’ It’s the opposite, saying, ‘We’re going to be really frank about this.’ … We intentionally hit the hard stuff.”
“This is a long game,” said Fink, a community organizer who is working beyond the Appalachian region to empower marginalized people around the country. “We have been backed into a corner, we who believe the way forward can’t involve ordinary, normal Americans seeing each other as mortal enemies. It’s a condition we’ve been put in, not a natural condition, as the result of decades of intentional organizing work on the part of those who benefit from us being in that position. It’s classical divide and conquer.”
Dialogue is not by itself enough to bring about real change, Fink said.
Yet to those who would ask “Why bother? What good does it do?” of those trying to build bridges, I’d simply respond, “What could possibly be the alternative?”