LEVERETT — The potluck meals offered a bounty of careful dieting. A group of Leverett neighbors had invited some mostly conservative Kentuckians to visit last October for a three-day weekend of political dialogue, and the gatherings were stocked with carefully labeled plastic containers: vegan, vegetarian, nut-free, dairy-free, gluten-free.
Last spring, the same group of left-leaning Pioneer Valley residents headed to Kentucky for a reciprocal visit with their coal-country counterparts. One of the hosts remarked, only half-joking, that they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to feed their Massachusetts guests.
“We don’t have any labels,” she said.
The barbecue pork chops and T-bone steaks, baked beans and coleslaw the Kentuckians served their guests underscored the many differences between the two groups, who forged an unlikely friendship after the 2016 election. Proposed by a few frustrated activists in this Franklin County village of fewer than 2,000, the cultural exchange project Hands Across the Hills was created as a small-scale effort to make some sense of the pitched battle between millions of clashing voters on either side of the nation’s political divide.
One year later, the two sides have kept in close contact. Hands Across the Hills organizer Paula Green recently accepted the first annual domestic award of excellence from the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Peacebuilding, and a German television station is set to air a documentary, featuring the two group as representatives of the polarization the whole world is watching.
But a nagging question remains.
“How has it mattered?” Green asked a recent meeting of the Leverett group to mark the first anniversary of the collaboration. In what real way, if any, had Hands made a difference?
After Donald Trump’s presidential victory, “we were in a state of despair,” said Green, a specialist in international conflict resolution. While discussing what to do about it, the friends hit upon the idea of forming “an exchange program with a group in Trumpland,” said Jay Frost, a retired technical writer and training developer.
Browsing the Internet, he came across a dispatch from the heart of Trump country by a young, progressive Connecticut native working as a grass-roots activist in Letcher County, Ky., where 80 percent of voters had supported Trump for president. That was a virtual mirror opposite of the results in Leverett, where Hillary Clinton received almost 1,000 votes for president, compared with 185 for Trump.
Activist Ben Fink knew right away that he wanted to help bring the two communities together. He’s an organizer at Appalshop — the Appalachian Film Workshop, a multimedia arts center established with federal funding in the county seat of Whitesburg in 1969 to teach people in an economically depressed area to create “culture-driven development.”
When the folks from Leverett proposed the meeting, the two communities had a few things in common, Fink said in a recent phone conversation. For one thing, they were both working on boosting their high-speed broadband connections, a major issue affecting many of the nation’s more isolated regions.
But there was a lot more they didn’t know about each other. As the group from Kentucky began planning their trip north, one of the younger members admitted she had no idea there were rural towns like Leverett in Massachusetts.
“Likewise,” Fink said, “people in Leverett were surprised that we have trans people in Kentucky.”
There was plenty of apprehension on both sides as the first visit drew near. The folks from Letcher wondered whether their liberal counterparts would berate them for voting for Trump. The Leverett contingent — mostly academics, counselors, and nonprofit consultants — fretted that they’d be seen as snobby “elites” still bitter over the election loss.
Still, “we were primed to like each other,” said Green, who has fostered dialogue in Bosnia, the Middle East, and many other war torn regions of the world.
The Kentuckians explained that their enthusiasm for Trump’s promise to resurrect the teetering coal industry (impacted, many believe, by Democratic environmental policies) was deeply personal: Their families have “coal dust in their veins,” one said. On the other side, stories of how the Holocaust directly affected the families of some of the Leverett participants gave the visitors pause. They hadn’t considered that their comparatively well-to-do counterparts might have experienced their own forms of deep-rooted suffering.
So they ate, square-danced, and got down to the hard business of arguing about left and right. The trip to Kentucky last spring was equally rewarding, with members of the Massachusetts group staying in the homes of their Letcher County hosts. And they’ve kept in touch.
“We call and write letters to each other,” said Velda Fraley, a retired schoolteacher, of her relationship with Leverett’s Barbara D’Arthenay. “We’re almost like sisters. It’s really nice to have a friend, you know.”
Yet on Trump and the current animosity in American politics, they can’t get past the point of agreeing to disagree.
“I think we’ve been ignored for a long time,” said Fraley, on the phone from Whitesburg, about her community and the Middle America they represent. “Everyone else got what they wanted on the coasts.”
Fraley was particularly troubled, she said, by her Democratic counterparts’ suggestion that the Electoral College should be abolished after both Trump and George W. Bush (in 2000) won the presidency while losing the popular vote. Without the system we have, she said, the voters from less-populous states would “never get to choose anybody. They figured it out the right way, I think, our Founding Fathers did.”
Most who attended the Leverett anniversary gathering agreed that the dialogue helped them understand why many Republicans supported Trump.
Still Barbara Tiner, who hosted the meeting at her home, says she remains angry about Trump’s presidency.
“It’s like the rules have changed. Cheating and lying are OK. We’ve — well, they’ve — lost the moral compass,’’ she says of the GOP. “That’s what I’m really struggling with. How do I play that game?” (In several conversations, her Kentucky counterparts, some of whom were registered Democrats, noted that they don’t agree with everything the president says and does).
Tom Wolff, a Leverett resident well-known for his work in coalition-building and community development, told the group he felt Hands Across the Hills has been a success.
“I think it’s had a lot of ripples,” he said. “Is that big enough? I don’t know.”
What next? There was some talk about exploring a potential “sister city” relationship between Whitesburg and Leverett.
Bill Meade couldn’t make the trip to Western Massachusetts last year because of a medical issue. But he enjoyed cooking all that barbecue for his new Leverett friends.
Meade, a gregarious retired coal miner and trucker who is still chief of his local volunteer fire department, laments that the country’s partisan politics have become so fraught. He can recall a day, he said in a phone call, when Republicans and Democrats wanted essentially the same things for their fellow Americans.
“People are leaving the Democratic Party because the Democratic Party basically left them,” he said.
A long time ago, his late father had a feud with some neighbors. When they had a death in the family and a power outage at home, Meade’s father brought over a few of his boys and restored the electricity so the family could host a wake. The family, he said, was amazed that someone they disagreed with would do such a thing.
“He had this philosophy,” Meade said of his father. “ ‘You whip a fellow with kindness, not fists.’
“That’s a good policy.”