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My Turn: Leverett group seeks common ground

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Thursday, October 05, 2017

Like millions of Americans, I was devastated by Donald Trump’s electoral college win last November. During the days that followed, I encountered many others — friends and strangers alike — who felt the same way.

However, rather than dwelling on my negative response, for the first time in my life I decided to become involved politically, something beyond simply participating in local demonstrations. I wanted something with impact, an effort that would deliver direct, recognizable results while moving forward in what I anticipated (correctly) would be difficult times.

So a week or so after the election, when the Leverett Peace Committee called a meeting to discuss ways in which the local community might respond, I decided to attend, along with about 70 like-minded neighbors. I am not generally one to speak up at these gatherings, but early in the meeting, I came up with a brainstorm and expressed it somewhat as follows:

“Most of us in Leverett are at polar opposites with the rural red state communities who swung the election to Trump. Yet, we all have common goals and needs — decent incomes, affordable healthcare, a livable environment, and so on.

“Sadly, we ‘elites’ don’t understand people in these rural communities, and they don’t understand us. What if Leverett could establish some type of formal exchange with a community in the rural heartland to find common ground and move forward together?”

Meeting participants agreed that this was a good idea. That night, we created an organization called the Leverett Alliance, which organized itself into six volunteer committees.

I joined the “bridging” committee, headed by Dr. Paula Green, a co-founder of the Leverett Peace Committee. Green has worldwide professional experience in peacebuilding, inter-group dialogue and conflict resolution. The bridging committee’s assignment was to explore the exchange concept

At the outset, we faced a key challenge: Why would anyone who voted for Trump want to listen to a bunch of Massachusetts liberals who ‘know better than everyone else?’ A committee member with relatives on the other side said flatly, “Trump people are impossible to reason with — it’s not worth the effort.”

To test the waters, we tried to connect with Trump voters in Leverett and neighboring communities. That hasn’t worked out so far, but the effort continues. We did participate in a formal dialogue session with members of the Pioneer Valley’s Muslim community, with Green as facilitator. This was a meaningful learning experience for everyone who participated.

Still, the bridging committee refused to let go of its initial objective: To connect with a community in another part of the country with political and cultural experiences different than our own.

In March, I came across a fascinating web article entitled “Democracy in Trump Country.” (The article originally appeared on billmoyers.com, but I accessed it via salon.com.) The author, Ben Fink, is a leader in a community organization called Appalshop. He lives in Whitesburg, Kentucky, the seat of Letcher County in the heart of Appalachian coal country.

Fink’s article talks about the emergence of political power in the rural communities. It also explains Letcher County’s response to the election and how Appalshop brings together rural people from a variety of backgrounds through music, drama, film, and storytelling. The article concludes with a call for other communities to join in their efforts.

I took Fink’s cue and emailed him with Leverett’s “partnership” proposal. He responded enthusiastically, and after several telephone conferences, our group from Leverett and a group from Letcher County are now participating in an unique cultural exchange and dialogue program.

The project launches on the weekend of Oct. 27, when about a dozen residents from Letcher County will visit Leverett. We’ll then make a reciprocal visit to Kentucky next spring.

The program’s title is “Hands Across the Hills,” and during the October weekend we’ll meet with our guests to share each other’s folkways, explore cultural differences, and participate in facilitated dialogue sessions.

Letcher County is a good match for Leverett in terms of the original project goal. Their citizens voted 80 percent Trump; while Leverett went 84 percent for Clinton.

Economic differences are similarly dramatic. Average household income in Leverett is relatively high, while in Letcher Country it’s low. Unemployment in that part of Appalachia is a major issue, largely due to the demise of the coal industry.

Still, Fink’s article assures readers that the people of Letcher County all seem to get along with each other. Much credit for this goes to Appalshop, which helps to create spaces where everyone belongs, and where individuals feel safe enough to open share their thoughts and ideas with people they might otherwise fear.

“That’s exactly the type of environment we want to create for our guests when they visit Leverett,” says Green. “I have really come to appreciate their courage, and I understand their fears in coming to Leverett. They don’t want to be stereotyped, and we are acutely sensitive to this fact.”

Hands Across the Hills has scheduled a number of public events, all on Saturday, Oct. 28, that include a community forum, musical presentations, art exhibits, community potlucks for lunch and dinner, and a contra dance.

The Leverett Alliance welcomes your participation at these public events This is a great opportunity for all of us to share in a meaningful grassroots learning experience with some great people from a different part of the country.

Jay Frost is a retired writer and a 40-year Franklin County resident who lives in Leverett.