WNPR

Kentucky Group Gives Western Mass. A Lesson On Coal Country

Nov 1, 2017
Originally published on November 1, 2017 1:31 pm

After the last election, many people felt inspired to mend the country's deep divisions. So when a group of liberal activists in Leverett, Massachusetts, learned that a more conservative community in Letcher County, Kentucky, was open to a cultural exchange, they started to organize.

Several months later, 11 residents of eastern Kentucky piled into a rented van and drove 15 hours north to stay with host families for a three-day event, billed as "Hands Across the Hills."

At the midpoint of the weekend, about 300 people crammed into the Leverett elementary school auditorium for a public forum. The opening singalong featured lyrics written expressly for the exchange:

"Before we met you, we pictured your faces, we studied your names, planned where you'd stay.... and we're taking a chance, to join and sit down together...."

Once underway, Leverett organizer Paula Green admitted some awkward truths at the heart of this project.

"We're known in the media as left-wing, East Coast, intellectual elites, so we're trying to change that a little bit," she said.

While Leverett and Letcher County are both rural, Leverett went overwhelmingly to Clinton. Letcher County was a Trump stronghold.

Green introduced the Kentucky group -- a mixture of liberals and conservatives -- and as Gwen Johnson, the daughter of a union organizer, explained: "We're all from coal country, that's one thing for sure. But we all have different backgrounds. Some are educators, some are a lot of other things -- positive things!"

The southerners were far outnumbered by the Leverett crowd, which -- judging from the sea of gray hair -- were mostly Baby Boomers.

But next door in the cafeteria, a group of high schoolers from Kentucky and western Mass. had skipped out on the formal program to talk about their lives.

The Kentucky teens were fascinated by the northern enthusiasm for ultimate Frisbee, which, in Letcher County, is "mostly hitting each other in the face with a Frisbee," according to Allysa Helton, 17.

The Massachusetts teenagers were curious about the southern tradition of pageants.

Helton was wearing her sash for winning first place in the World Miss Teen Kentucky Tourism pageant.

"I have my crown with me. Do you guys want to see it?" Helton said, to much approval from the locals.

And while they knew politics had been the trigger for this event, that wasn't their focus.

"I'm probably the most politically active person in our high school," said Abigail Morris, of Amherst. "Like days after the election, I organized like a 400-person walk out solidarity march, but at the same time, when we met up this morning, we weren't immediately like, 'What are your political views? Tell me about climate change and abortion.' We were talking, like, people things, and teenager things, and we were joking around and being human."

That said, they had been absorbing some lessons about each other.

Alex Sciaruto, a young Massachusetts environmentalist, was starting to understand why coal country has different priorities.

"They don't like they're blowing up mountaintops there, but at the same time, in order for them to survive and put food on the table, they have to blow up those mountaintops," Sciaruto said.

"We're trying to spread the message that, you know, we're people too," Helton added. "And we have reasons as to why we casted that vote. It's basically because of our economy."

Among the adults, the most sensitive conversations happened privately, in meetings closed to reporters. 

"There's been tension, and there are underlying questions," said Valerie Horn, who works for the Letcher County Farmers Market. "The [Leverett] group has been very gentle, and very careful, to allow a degree and level of trust to be built."

In the process, some of Horn's views about Massachusetts changed after she met Leverett residents born to Holocaust survivors and refugees.

"Their parents, having [fled] countries, left everything to begin with nothing," she said. "I admit that was a bit of an eye opener for me. I sort of felt like people here had no problems."

Stacey Lennard, one of the Leverett hosts, said she first joined the exchange to understand why someone would vote for Trump. But now she just wants to get to know them, and maybe eventually join forces on issues like education or clean water. 

"I mean, deep down, I hope they vote differently," Lennard said. "But I can't pretend to say I'm going to have an effect on that or even want to try. That's a hard question for me to even grapple with."

Part two of this rural exchange happens in April, when about a dozen Leverett residents pile into their own rented van and drive 15 hours south to Kentucky.

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