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Columnist Paula Green: Time is now for Americans in dialogue

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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

During the weekend of Oct. 27-29, a small group of concerned citizens in Leverett are welcoming 15 Kentuckians from Appalachian coal country into our homes — and we hope into our hearts.

Their two vans will arrive in the dark after a 15-hour journey. We think they are brave to come into our homes and community, and we will be there to welcome them. Their culture and politics vary vastly from ours — yet both groups are committed to discovering our common dreams and ways to realize them that serves all of us.

How did this weekend come about? When the Leverett Alliance formed out of the despair over the 2016 election, one subgroup, the Bridging Committee was determined “to bridge” with Americans whose histories and perceptions are different from our own. We found a remarkable partner in Appalshop, a nonprofit community and cultural organization in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Eighteen of us in Leverett and 15 in Kentucky have been planning ever since and have named our endeavor “Hands Across the Hills.”

We plan to enhance our understanding of each other in a series of structured dialogues, as well as share activities that include participatory theater, an art project on ancestry, music jams, meals, sightseeing in the Pioneer Valley, and home stays.

On Oct. 28, a full day of events is open to the public, including a morning community forum where our guests will first present their history, culture, and challenges, and then engage with the audience in small groups. In the evening, everyone is invited to a contra dance. For details, see the Leverett town website at http://leverett.ma.us/ and click on “Hands Across the Hills.” Next spring, our Leverett group will make a reciprocal visit to Whitesburg.

We began this effort hoping for camaraderie and connection for all 33 participants over the weekend, as well as increased awareness and learning for the public that participates on Oct. 28. Over the months, however, this project has unexpectedly grown in dimension. Now some of us ask if our coming together, our exploration, and our documentation of the project can be a model for dissemination and encouragement for others to try a similar experiment in their own communities.

For decades, I have worked with people in war-torn countries who afterward learn to interact effectively and rebuild their communal lives. If it can happen in those circumstances, I believe people-to-people programs here in our own fragmented country can do the same, using this model or one like it.

We understand the vast gaps in our lives and views. We do not expect to agree with our guests and we will not avoid the difficult topics, but we expect to listen and be listened to. We seek a way to find common purpose before we fracture even further, and that is what we hope our project will accomplish.

This bridging project offers an alternative to the despair and disempowerment we have been feeling — that we are helpless in the onslaught of history rolling over us. So often it seems like there is nothing we can do. But here is something we can do. The process and the growing connections feel right, healthy, and empowering. We now live in anticipation of their arrival, our dialogues and our shared three days of activities.

Transformation? Do I expect others may change? First of all, I’ve changed. For the first time in my life I’ve read a half dozen books about Appalachia and watched relevant videos. I’ve also had many conversations with my Kentucky counterpart Ben Fink and become sensitized to their issues and concerns. I am in deep transformation and I believe our Bridging Committee is too. This transformation gives me hope that we can move from demonization to humanization, first with our fellow citizens from Trump country, and later with others.

The Leverett Alliance welcomes your participation at the public events on Oct. 28. This is a great opportunity for you to share in a meaningful grassroots learning experience with some people from a different part of the country who are taking a risk for understanding and connection.

Paula Green, of Leverett, is founder of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding in Amherst and professor emerita of the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont. She has worked extensively in conflict transformation in Asia, Africa, the Mideast and Eastern Europe.