LEVERETT — The nation's political divide may have widened, but the bond between Kentuckians and Leverett residents who met for the third time last weekend to bridge differences has deepened, members of the group said.
The Hands Across the Hills project, begun after the 2016 election to understand why "red state" and "blue state" voters saw things differently, brought seven Letcher County, Ky. residents six hours northward in a van to repeat a visit the group had here in October 2017.
"It's been a transformative experience, understanding the complexities that people experience," said Annie Jane Cotten, one of the three Kentuckians who are relatively new to the group. "There was a deep heart opening, knowing that these folks actually see us as complex. There's a growing recognition that none of our communities are monolithic. That's a false narrative that's being fed to us."
The third multi-day gathering for "dialogue sessions" between the groups "started as a reconciliation, but it's turned into more of a collaboration," said Ben Fink of Letcher County. "We started as people from two places looking to better understand each other. We're now united in looking to work with others to better understand each other."
The contrast between Leverett, where President Donald Trump won 14.4 percent of the 2016 vote, compared to 80 percent in Letcher County, is obvious to the participants. So are the income disparities.
But discussion facilitator Paula Green, of Leverett, an originator of the project, said, "Despite the political differences, there's very little personal daylight between us. 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."
Over the past two years, the groups — several of whose Kentucky members were unable to make the five-day trip — have learned not to focus on what Green called "hot-button issues" like gun control, abortion or Trump, but to focus on shared cultural and personal values.
"We talk about politics, we talk about religion, we talk about class," Green said. "We're just not here to convert each other, we're here to understand each other."
One of the weekend's closed sessions, she said, focused on "the elephants in the room," including Trump, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, gun control and climate change, but she said the bottom-line core issue in eastern Kentucky's coal country is the dire economy.
For most of the two-hour public forum Sunday that culminated the weekend, attracting about 200 people to the Leverett Elementary School auditorium, participants discussed what had changed over two years. When audience members asked questions on cards about their views of Trump and McConnell, Rachel Sexton, who is new to Hands Across the Hills, said she opposed Trump — unlike her father and grandfather, who have worked in the coal mines — adding that his "words, and the hate … breaks my heart." As someone studying to become a special education teacher, watching Trump mock a reporter with a disability "spoke to me, but then when I asked my dad about it, he said, 'Yes, that is serious, that is bad. But if I don't have food to put on the table, and I don't have money to pay the electric bill, then I'm not even going to see the news or hear these things he's saying about these people."
Herb Smith, a documentary filmmaker, pointed back to Trump's 2016 campaign.
"There were all these promises about what he was going to do, putting coal miners back to work, and it just hasn't happened," he said. "And it's real disheartening in a way to have these hopes elevated and then, as a country, we haven't actually seen what was promised. To some degree, we knew it was bunk. When it becomes what we feared, we're justifiably saddened. There's a saying about raising hopes and then the sense of despair is deeper than if you never raised them."
But Letcher County employee Mike Gover told the gathering, "When you just hear an answer, making a judgment based on the answer, it's so much more complex than that.
"We (just) spent three really intense long days of some pretty heated stuff, trying to understand, 'How can you believe that and I believe this?'" he continued. "'How can you look at that same guy and think he's OK, and you look at him thinking he's the spawn of Satan?' It's a little too complex to answer."
Unlike the 2017 visit, participants this time began more comfortably and less anxious with one another, trusting themselves to go deeper at trying to understand their differences.
"One of the things that's changed for me," said Kentuckian Gwen Johnson, "is when something's going on in the news, I kind of check in with the folks up here to see what they're thinking. And before, I didn't think they cared about what was going on down home. And I found that they do indeed care. … We never at all thought that any other part of the country cared about the things that were being done to the folks down home."
The 14 Massachusetts and seven Kentucky people present decided to continue working on specific projects, including choosing representatives from each group to speak about their work at local libraries, schools and clubs, creating a teen exchange as well as an oral history project in their communities and adapting a Letcher County model to create a "culture hub" in Leverett.
For anyone who thinks Hands Across the Hills is about whitewashing the stark political chasm in America, Leverett resident Kip Fonsh — who remains intensely angry about Trump's election — emphasized it's been "a hard journey to get to this stage today. What I want to ask is, 'What are you going to do? Are you just going to go home and forget about this, or are your going to … find some way to join with your neighbor, with someone who lives in another part of the country, and have a dialogue about your differences?' ... Otherwise, I think we've wasted our time."