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Leverett group heading south on cultural exchange

  • 17-year-old Kentuckian Alyssa Helton speaks to a packed house at the Leverett Elementary School gymnasium during a community forum with 11 visitors from Letcher County, Ky., for a cultural exchange and dialogue project hosted by the Leverett Alliance's Bridging Committee on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017 in Leverett.

  • Amherst Regional High School student Alex Sciaruto, 17, takes question slips from the community during a community forum with 11 visitors from Letcher County, Ky., for a cultural exchange and dialogue project hosted by the Leverett Alliance's Bridging Committee on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017 in Leverett.

  • Tyler Ward speaks to a packed house at the Leverett Elementary School gymnasium during a community forum with 11 visitors from Letcher County, Ky., for a cultural exchange and dialogue project hosted by the Leverett Alliance’s Bridging Committee on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017 in Leverett. RECORDER FILE PHOTO

  • Nell Fields, center, speaks as one of 11 visitors from Letcher County in Kentucky during a community forum for a cultural exchange and dialogue project, Oct. 28, in Leverett. RECORDER FILE PHOTO

  • Pioneer Valley community members engage in a community forum with 11 visitors from Letcher County, Ky., for a cultural exchange and dialogue project hosted by the Leverett Alliance’s Bridging Committee on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017 in Leverett. RECORDER FILE PHOTO

  • Ben Fink speaks to a packed house at the Leverett Elementary School gymnasium during a community forum with 11 visitors from Letcher County, Ky., for a cultural exchange and dialogue project hosted by the Leverett Alliance's Bridging Committee on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017 in Leverett.

  • Kentuckian Valerie Ison Horn speaks to a packed house at the Leverett Elementary School gymnasium during a community forum with 11 visitors from Letcher County, Ky., for a cultural exchange and dialogue project hosted by the Leverett Alliance’s Bridging Committee on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017 in Leverett. RECORDER FILE PHOTO

  • Hundreds gather in the Leverett Elementary School gymnasium during a community forum with 11 visitors from Letcher County, Ky., for a cultural exchange and dialogue project hosted by the Leverett Alliance’s Bridging Committee on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017 in Leverett. RECORDER FILE PHOTO

  • Amherst Regional High School students and three teenage visitors from Letcher County Central High School in Kentucky, talk with each other after a community forum was held for a cultural exchange and dialogue project hosted by the Leverett Alliance’s Bridging Committee on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017 at Leverett Elementary School. Clockwise from left, Alyssa Helton, 17, Katelyn Caudill, 18, Alex Sciaruto, 17, Piper Lacy, 17, Dominik Spangler, 18, Sam Brainin, 16, and Abigail Morris, 17. Helton, Caudill and Spangler are the visitors from Kentucky. RECORDER FILE PHOTO



Recorder Staff
Sunday, April 15, 2018

LEVERETT — The last thing this town’s grassroots organizers of a cross-cultural dialogue expected as part of their effort to bridge political and cultural differences was a trip down a coal mine.

But that’s among the 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.

The April 19-23 trip, which includes three days of discussions, presentations and tours of Letcher County, comes following the Leverett visit last October by 11 Kentucky residents, several of whom are affiliated with a network that has 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 Donald 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.

There will also be a trip to an exhibition coal mine by rail car in neighboring Harlan County.

Leverett group members, who plan to fly down 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 having an opportunity to get firsthand experience of the culture, flavored with lots of Appalachian music, dancing, and story swapping.

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 concerned about how they’d be treated in New England — especially since a core focus of both visits involves talks about personal political perceptions.

Since last fall, when discussions centered on Trump, immigration, guns, and coal, a new set of issues has 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 has 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,” said 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 a common ground in a time that has become increasingly polarized, by focusing first on common interests, and by staying “authentic,” as Leverett members say.

At public presentations planned around 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, said, “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, said 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,” said 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’s sister Nell Fields — who, unlike her brother, voted for Hillary Clinton — said 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 the elementary school to report back to the community on the trip to Kentucky.

Green says she hopes the exchange serves as a pilot project that can inspire efforts to heal the divisions that have cut off communication that’s 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.”