LEVERETT — Nearly a year after a group of local residents met with a contingent of decidedly more conservative Kentucky residents for three days of trying to bridge political and cultural differences in the aftermath of Donald Trump's election, 15 Hands Across the Hills members reflected this week on what difference their efforts have made, if any.
The discussion came even as their project was poised to win an award next week from the national Alliance for Peacebuilding.
Their gathering came this week in response to a question posed by John Clayton, a member who wasn't among the nearly 20 who traveled to Letcher County, Ky., in April for a reciprocal cultural exchange, but who has heard criticism as he's spoken with the public about the project born of frustrations with the last election.
"Of what political value has Hands Across the Hills been?" Clayton asked in conveying the sense of those critics. "Very nice, they say, very nice. 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?"
Clayton said the process itself "models openness, respect, mutual support, compassion … (and) breaks down stereotypes and makes emotional rigidity less likely. How likely are you, if you've gone through this process of dialogue and mutual understanding ... to support the separation of children from parents at the border or see refugees as parasites and animals?"
For much of Monday's two-hour session, members seated around a living room wrestled with value of their project, started to better understand people who voted for Donald Trump rather than trying to change their minds. After meeting the group from eastern Kentucky's coal-mining country and struggling to engage them in deep political dialogue during hours of closed sessions, they backed down, emphasizing cultural similarities instead.
"We gave up on that early on," Tom Wolff told fellow group members. "If we measure ourselves by political change, we're in trouble."
Others said that being part of the project – which has involved theater, art and days of social interaction as well as structured, in-depth discussions – has helped them think differently, to have more compassion and be less judgmental about people who've had different experiences or different ways of thinking.
"I just see things differently now," said Barbara Tiner. "I have more of an understanding of the other, why they may be thinking a certain way. We have no idea. That's the frustrating thing. We don't know what difference we made down there for them in terms of their politics."
Group facilitator Paula Green agreed that the country has become much more divided than it was even six months ago, when the group traveled to Letcher County.
She acknowledged being questioned repeatedly about political outcomes of the group that was modeled on her conflict reconciliation work around the world. She said she'd discarded questions some of the 200 audience members had written out for Kentucky guests at last October's meeting.
"They were all about the votes," she said. " 'Why did you vote for him?' 'Have you changed your mind now?' 'Will it be different next time?' We knew that's not what we were doing."
Green said the "bridging" efforts that have been springing up around the country in the face of increasing polarization are not meant to replace political action like protests or getting out the vote efforts, but are an important complement.
Doing reconciliation work internationally or domestically, she said, the question persists: "How far out do these ripples go, and how sustainable are they? Dialogue is a social change process. … We know you can bring all these people into a room and have these wonderful Kumbaya moments and we can all be very tender with each other and very hopeful. So what? If you work only at the structural change level and you don't bring the people along with you, the change won't hold. And if you work only with the people and not at the structural level, then the unjust structures continue. So there's always this balance."
The group spent nearly half of the meeting making plans for another gathering with the Kentuckians.
Stacey Lennard, who recently received a "nasty" group email from a pro Donald Trump organization, told the group, "I'm in a mushy, messy bad space. I feel what brought us together was the election – the anger and all the other emotions, and we got to this place of beauty. But I'm feeling just riled up again. We're about to come to another election, and everything is so polarized. … How do we take this reconciliation that we experienced and spread it more or bring it to the powers that be, because they're not going there by themselves? ... What is the common ground that we can move forward on?"
"It's like the rules have changed," added Tiner. "Cheating is OK, and lying. And I think … they've lost the moral compass. That a group of people can say they don't care that (the president) cheated on his income tax to make his money, and it doesn't matter, that's what I'm really struggling with. Those are different values and rules than I grew up with. "
Member Judy Fonsh said, "I'm just as angry, or angrier, than I was. I have more disdain for people who have lost values and clearly just care about winning. The Kavanaugh thing, probably, just brought me down even further …. I don't feel this made a difference in changing the world in any way."
Her husband, Kip, sitting quietly until called on to participate, voiced deeper disillusionment.
"The system is corrupt, and purposely so, to benefit a certain group of people. I think Trump is the personification of the most evil elements of that … and I don't have any respect for anyone who's voted for him, because I'm tired of saying, 'Well, people are ignorant, they don't know what they're doing. You have a right to get educated about people you voted for ... We can talk nicey-nicey all we want, but the bottom line is changing one person at a time isn't going to save those 13,000 kids who were incarcerated. … I'm tired of making excuses for people who put these people in power."
Green responded, "Our hearts are collectively shattered by what's going on in the country. We live at multiple different levels, and on the level you're talking about, I think we're in pure agreement with you. Yet, there's this other level where we're trying to make something else happen."
View from Kentucky
Although they weren't in the room, Kentucky group members reached by phone expressed many of the same feelings to the Recorder.
"When you hear the other side of the aisle expound on their thoughts on things," said Gwen Johnson, "a lot of times it's easy to have tunnel vision, a narrow focus. The bridge that has been built across that aisle, because you can't ignore the other argument anymore, when you care about the one making the argument … You have to consider it more deeply."
That's been the case, she said, as she's had deep conversations visiting with a Leverett woman during the Kavanaugh hearings.
"I looked on Facebook, where I've seen friends on the opposite side of the argument. … I would have been totally surrounded by folks who thought 100 percent that Kavanaugh should be a Supreme Court justice."
Nell Fields said she's noticed profound changes in Letcher County, where Trump won nearly 80 percent of the vote, compared to under 14.5 percent in Leverett. But they weren't necessarily dramatic political changes.
"I don't know how anybody could have thought 30 people would change the politics of this country like that," Fields said. "The good we did do was we helped people learn to dialogue. That really helped us. We all need that. I know something has to change to change the horrible destructive political position we're in."
And Ben Fink, whose online essay after the election helped bring the communities together, said, "If we're going to make the world different, where we recognize that we've been divided, where we set out to defeat the culture wars, where these sides no longer exist, the work has got to be done in a whole lot of different ways, where we don't see each other as enemies."