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Story Publication logo April 17, 2018

"Hands Across the Hills" Heads to Kentucky

A meeting of one of the facilitated discussions between Massachusetts and Kentucky participants of Hands Across the Hills. Image by Chana Rose Rabinovitz. Massachusetts, 2017.

Can a “liberal” New England college community and a “conservative” coal-mining Kentucky county’s...

Letcher County, Ky. delegation gives a presentation to Leverett, Mass. audience. Image by Greenfield Recorder. United States, 2017.
Letcher County, Ky. delegation gives a presentation to Leverett, Mass. audience. Image by Greenfield Recorder. United States, 2017.

The last thing these grassroots organizers of a cross-cultural dialogue expected to make part of their efforts was a trip a coal mine.

But that's among agenda items for 14 Leverett residents taking part in a visit to rural Kentucky next week as part of their "Hands Across the Hills" exchange, an initiative to bridge political and cultural differences.

The April 19 to 23 trip, which includes three days of discussions, presentations and tours of Letcher County, Ky., comes following the Leverett visit last October by 11 Kentucky residents, several of whom are affiliated with a network that's been trying rebuild the region's largely coal-dependent economy.

It was the decimation of the coal economy, Letcher County residents told the Leverett "Bridging Divides" group formed after the 2016 election, that convinced many to be among the 80 percent of voters there who cast ballots for Trump. (In Leverett, Trump won 14.4 percent of the vote, compared to 26.7 percent in Franklin County and 32.8 percent in Massachusetts overall.)

The visit by the Leverett contingent is scheduled to include a presentation about Leverett at a Shriner's breakfast as well as smaller presentations, closed discussions between the two groups and "story circles" for participants to share personal experiences. They also plan to meet other residents of the southeastern Kentucky region and do some square dancing.

The tour will also include a visit to Appalshop, the 50-year-old economic and cultural center designed to help Appalachia tell its own story and retain its traditions to help forge its own economic future. The visit coincides with, and will be part of, Appalshop's CultureHub Fest, celebrating creative economic development around the region.

And of course, there will be a trip to an exhibition coal mine by rail car in neighboring Harlan County.

Leverett group members, who plan to fly to Kentucky — in contrast to the 13-hour drive here by their Letcher County counterparts last fall — say they're thrilled to be having further talks with the people they got to know here, as well as an opportunity to get firsthand experience of the culture.

Swapping political talk

"I'm excited to be reconnecting with these friends and getting to meet their families," said member Tom Wolff.

But at the same time, he's having some nervous feelings traveling to the heart of coal country, just as Kentuckians were wary about how they'd be treated visiting New England — especially since a core focus of the visits is talks about personal, political perceptions.

Since last fall, when discussions centered on Trump, immigration, guns, and coal, a new set of issues have emerged — national conversations over harassment of women and renewed calls for gun restrictions. There's also the Kentucky teachers' strike and a newly announced $450 million federal prison in Letcher County, with its promise of hundreds of new jobs in an area that's lost 90 percent of its coal jobs since 2000.

"Just in this one county I live in, it's the most depressed I've seen it in my 74 years," says Letcher County resident Bill Meade, who was unable to travel to Massachusetts last fall but is looking forward to next week's visit.

The cultural exchange isn't meant to change minds, organizers stress, but to find common ground in a time that's become increasingly polarized, by focusing first on common interests, and by staying "authentic," as Leverett members say.

At public presentations planned in Letcher County, the group will insist that questions be written in advance, to lessen the potential for hostile interaction.

Paula Green, who will be co-facilitating closed sessions, says, "I know we're going to be walking down the streets of Whitesburg having a group tour. How are we going to be seen by people there? There's a long history of Northerners coming down in an exploitive manner."

As a result of the October visit, Green said, "I think my own humanity expanded. In some way, because like most of us, I've held a lifetime of stereotypes about people from that region of the country — the toxicity of hillbillies, of rednecks and labels that have been put on them by people — that have never disappeared. So that was part of my image of what it's like. I think I've been humanized by people who are now my friends and colleagues in ways that were new for me."

Another group member, Barbara Tiner, adds that after immersing herself in learning about eastern Kentucky, "I understand why people voted for Trump. I think it was misguided, and the media and the Russians had a lot to do with it, but I get it. It's the hope and promise. … So I don't have this anger. It's just a sadness."

Meanwhile, in Kentucky, "There's a lot of excitement about the trip," says Ben Fink, the CultureHub community development project director at Appalshop, whose "Leverett Exchange" group has gathered steam since members felt well received in Massachusetts.

Meade, who hasn't met the Massachusetts visitors yet, says, "I would love to have people understand, we're not a radical group of people, in no way, shape or form. I think (there's) something that maybe those people can learn. … I think once everybody sees we're all just Americans in different parts of the United States, maybe we're not different in attitudes and ways we do as much as a lot of people would like to think."

His sister, Nell Fields — who unlike her brother, voted for Hillary Clinton — says the Letcher County group has met in recent months to discuss what they learned from the New England visit: "how to make ourselves stronger and more competent doing what we do already, which is to serve the community."

The Leverett contingent is planning a May 15 presentation from 7 to 9 p.m. at Leverett Elementary School to report back to the community on their trip to Kentucky.

Green says she hopes the Kentucky exchange inspires efforts to heal the divisions that have cut off communication needed for democracy to function.

"We didn't start this exchange project to change people's votes; we did it to bridge divides and find a spirit of humanity in each other, and to acknowledge that, and to know that's in all of us. And that's the beginning of our common ground. ... This is a model , an opportunity to experiment with how do we do this."


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