Editorial: Hands Across the Hills finds common ground

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The grassroots Hands Across the Hills initiative encouraging people to overcome political differences and find common ground successfully bridged the divide between liberal Leverett and coal-country Kentucky.

We hope that other communities recognize the value of that shared experience and learn from the Leverett Bridging Committee that hosted 11 people who drove 15 hours from Letcher County in southeastern Kentucky the weekend of Oct. 28 and 29.

Local participants in that weekend’s events — including a community forum that drew 200 people, smaller dialogue circles, potluck meals and a contra dance — gathered Monday at the Mount Toby Friends Meetinghouse and described how they were uplifted and inspired by connecting with the Kentuckians.

Rob Robertson of Amherst was among about 100 people from the region at the meetinghouse. As he listened, Robertson said, “I had trouble keeping a dry eye … this is amazing work.”

Robertson, the founder of a local chapter of Better Angels, which sponsors workshops bringing together progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans, sees opportunities to expand that concept by learning from Hands Across the Hills.

Paula Green of Leverett founder of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding in Amherst and one of the lead organizers of Hands Across the Hills, is ready to help. She will offer three four-hour trainings on consecutive weekends in January, and says there already is significant interest in Amherst, Northampton and Greenfield to find partners for similar dialogues.

Critical to the success of the weekend in Leverett was making sure that all who participated felt respected and loved, said Green, adding that the visitors from Kentucky “were so thrilled to have been here.”

Soon after their visit, Green wrote: “Hands Across the Hills has touched a chord of longing here in the Valley, affirmed by the hundreds who flocked to the public community forum to meet our guests. The size of the Valley audience astounded our Kentucky friends, and the standing ovations in response to their presentation warmed their hearts to Massachusetts and brought tears to their eyes.

“This project and similar dialogue events that arise around the country allow us to say ‘no’ to divisive identity politics and ‘yes’ to a society that responds to sustenance, security and recognition needs of all, while expanding our notion of community in the process.”

Nearly 80 percent of the votes in Letcher County went to Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, compared to 14.4 percent in Leverett. In October, some of those Letcher County residents explained the appeal of Trump’s promise to revive the coal industry and bring back thousands of jobs.

One woman, Gwen Johnson, described how her daughter was forced to move six hours away for an electrician’s job in a coal mine after the mines in eastern Kentucky shut down.

“A few years back, when the coal industry began to crumble out from under us, we were mad because that’s what’s always put shoes on the children’s feet and food in their mouths. We were in a place of despair because we didn’t know what we were going to do. I spent several months in deep depression about it,” said Johnson, whose only brother was killed in a mining accident.

Members of the Leverett Bridging Committee plan to visit Letcher County in April to continue the dialogue. The Rev. Sarah Pirtle of Shelburne Falls said she hopes to have the same “rush of gladness” then that she experienced during the October weekend in Leverett. “It felt euphoric.”

Among the challenges in duplicating “Hands Across the Hills” is finding a willing partner. “It’s hard to find the partners, it was hard to find people who want to talk to us,” Green said.

One of the Leverett organizers found an online article titled “Building Democracy in ‘Trump Country,’” and contacted the writer, Ben Fink, a community development project director transplanted from Connecticut to Letcher County. He organized the group that visited Leverett. At the end of that weekend, one Kentuckian said, “We came in curiosity and left in love.”

That’s a powerful message and a hopeful lesson from Hands Across the Hills. We encourage others to find ways of engaging in similar dialogue to help heal wounds still raw for many after last year’s divisive election.