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Editorial: Valuable lessons in Kentucky visit

  • Leverett and Letcher County, Ky., groups share a reflective moment before beginning their discussion during April in a Whitesburg, Ky., church. RECORDER FILE PHOTO


Thursday, June 07, 2018

There were glimmers of hope in the recent visits and discussions between Leverett liberals and voters of Donald Trump-leaning coal country Kentucky — like a bright orange ember in the ashes of a woodstove that might just rekindle a bright new fire if gently fanned to life.

Discussions between the two groups began last October with a visit by Letcher County, Kentucky, residents to Leverett, and broadened during April with a reciprocal trip to Kentucky by the Leverett contingent. The idea was to foster cultural understanding for voters from both sides of what might be called the Trump divide.

These days it has become all too easy to vilify people who vote differently, but it’s dangerous to disparage without trying to understand the “others.” That’s why we are proud that it was typically thoughtful Franklin County people who went to lengths to reach out, to understand the people who seemed to stand on the other side of a political defile that in fact may be more of a bridgeable cultural divide.

“The way people vote is a small measure of their humanity,” noted Paula Green of Leverett, who facilitated close to 10 hours of structured dialogue between the two groups. That alone is an important takeaway for all of us. What started as something of a pro- and anti-Trump dynamic was able to change to a “community of people struggling together to understand each other” and transcend their differences.

Green, who has spent more than 25 years bridging differences in conflict zones around the world, said, “This is about finding common ground and trying to dispel the stereotypes and demonization of each other, because that threatens our country and our democracy.”

From the reporting by Greenfield Recorder senior reporter Richie Davis, who traveled to Kentucky for the long weekend of cultural exchange, it appears the at-first wary exchange participants found they could learn about each other if they just listened. One side might not convert the other completely to their way of thinking, but they came to appreciate each other as fellow travelers in this world.

“You guys in Hands Across the Hills are onto something most people are not doing,” said Amy Brooks, a University of Massachusetts theater graduate who works with Appalshop Roadside Theater in Kentucky. “Actually physically sharing space, sharing food, sharing stories is really important in this work.”

She noted that both groups, politically conservative and liberal, share the same needs, “but have very different ideas about how to get those.”

When it came to brass tacks talk about Trump, there were no Road to Damascus conversions, but maybe that wasn’t the point.

The hope is that when people make the effort, as did the Leverett and Letcher County folks, we can grow understanding and maybe shuffle a bit toward the middle, which is where progress is made.

We were heartened by the anecdote of Kip Fonsh of Leverett who “had a knock-down, drag-out argument” with a Kentuckian about guns. But at the conclusion “we both stuck out our hands. Then we said, ‘Nah!’ And we hugged.”

The ability of people to see beyond their differences and to listen and learn from one another is vital.

One woman, Nell Fields, who grew up in a family of 18 children in Letcher County, recalled a time when debating politics around the kitchen table wasn’t about winning an election, it was really about understanding what was happening. She lamented that things have gotten to the point where people don’t want to talk with each other. Twenty or 30 years ago, as a young adult, she noted that “it was motivating and invigorating to connect with somebody who might have a little different political view and you’d talk about it, and it didn’t separate you as people.”

We need to find a way to return to that time. And maybe this small Hands Across the Hills example, and other efforts like it, can rekindle warm relations and open conversation among today’s factions.