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Hands Across the Hills — an experiment in cross-political dialogue — calls it quits

 Gwen Johnson of Kentucky, left, greets Leverett, Massachusetts, residents during a 2019 Hands Across the Hills meeting.
Karen Brown
Gwen Johnson of Kentucky, left, greets Leverett, Massachusetts, residents during a 2019 Hands Across the Hills meeting.

A cross-cultural project that began in 2017 after Donald Trump's election — and earned national attention — is concluding.

Hands Across the Hills organized conversations between people in mostly Democratic Leverett, Massachusetts, and mostly Republican Letcher County, Kentucky.

But Leverett organizer Sharon Dunn said when COVID-19 prevented in-person meetings — and then one of the founders, Paula Green, died — momentum slowed.

Still, she said participants made lasting friendships and got past many stereotypes of each other, although she doesn't know if anyone changed their vote.

"We really fairly soon kind of dropped our — I would almost say obsession — with voting and really began to concentrate just on person-to-person contact," Dunn said. "Our goal was to understand each other better and to see each other's needs and each other's beliefs and and try to understand them. And I do think that we accomplished that."

One of the organizers from Kentucky, Gwen Johnson, said her cohort became overwhelmed with local problems, such as the opioid epidemic, the collapse of the coal industry, and a damaging flood in the region.

"There's much heavier things to consider and talk about than political divides," said Johnson, an educator and community activist. "Not that we're not still going to be friends, not that we're still not going to have conversations, but we just think that we need to lay this project to rest for the experiment that it was."

After six years working together, Johnson said the two groups remain far apart on some issues, including COVID vaccinations and, for some, whether the pandemic was even real,. But, she said, they nevertheless learned to communicate better.

"We have talked through some deep, deep things and some big ol' elephants in the room," Johnson said.

Johnson said she did change some of her own views, including on abortion. She said she terminated a pregnancy years ago, and always considered it a shameful secret. But after Roe v. Wade was overturned, she said she no longer believes abortion should be banned.

While that change of heart is not entirely because of Hands Across the Hills, Johnson said, "hearing a different perspective than what was so personal to me, helped me to kind of sort through that and think this is not fair — because there are times that (abortion) is very needed."

Johnson said she believes they were able to give the Leverett participants a fuller picture of people in Kentucky.

"I know that we're stereotyped and painted as, you know, uneducated, barefoot, pregnant, whatever. I mean, there's all kinds of (stereotypes), but we can match degrees and credentials with anybody across this nation," she said.

Sharon Dunn of Leverett said it's true — she did change her own assumptions about the more conservative South.

"The major thing is one learns to examine one's preconceptions about people that you've never met before," Dunn said. "One keeps your eyes and your heart more open to perceiving who the other person really is."

Dunn said people from both Massachusetts and Kentucky are still engaged in other projects meant to bridge political and cultural divides in the U.S., and the group has held trainings on community organizing for outside participants.

"The work is continuing," she said. "It's just we have said that this is going to be the end of our meeting for dialogue among ourselves."

Going forward, Johnson expects to continue to call her new friends in Massachusetts to exchange views on many current affairs.

"Because I want to hear what they think and I want to give them my perspective," she said. "And anytime there's any kind of a tragedy around us or up near them, we're in contact. 'Are you okay? What are you thinking about this?'"

Hands Across the Hills is planning a final celebration in Leverett on October 14, with some Kentucky participants, including Gwen Johnson, planning to travel up.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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