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"We got an email from our Kentucky community, saying: We know some of you are Jewish, we know how horrible the murders were in Pittsburgh, and our hearts are with you. I was almost in tears because of how meaningful it felt to me."
Karuna Center: Could you give a brief introduction to Hands Across The Hills—how did it originate, and what is it trying to accomplish?
Paula: Hands Across The Hills is a project whose aim is to bridge divides in our country around the polarizing issues that have arisen in recent years and especially since the Trump election. We live in a very progressive community, and we sought a partner whose community is conservative. We wound up with a community in Eastern Kentucky in the coal region because we found a partner there. Unless one finds a credible partner who lives in a conservative community, it's hard to make entry—otherwise, our motives are suspect. But this person, Ben Fink, was able to make it possible for us to work with a group of people from there, many of whom voted for Trump. The whole region is about as red as Western Massachusetts is blue, so even those who didn't vote for Trump are living in Trump country and in Trump families.
We wanted to do this in order to reduce the polarization that seems to be impacting our country with violence now—hatred manifesting as violence—that's destructive and dangerous and is rapidly increasing. It seems absolutely necessary to reduce the amount of violence for people in our country to feel safe and free. So we we decided that we would set up a dialogue format to work with these people. We based it on work that I had done at Karuna Center for 25 years overseas, where we had been bridging divides with far more complicated situations because people were actually victims or perpetrators of mass violence and wars.
We used the same principles of dialogue to organize this. Therefore, I organized a long exposure to each other, rather than just a few hours. We had one set of dialogue and community conversations here in Western Massachusetts for 3 days, and 6 months later it was followed by the same format, 3 days in eastern Kentucky. That gave people a lot of time to get to know each other, to build trust, and to break down the stereotypes and the walls of bias that we all carried about each other's regions and each other's votes.
Karuna Center: There are a lot of different communities who went for Trump. Why build a relationship with Letcher County, Kentucky, as opposed to, say, wealthy communities in Michigan that went for Trump? Is there a certain impetus that led you towards coal country particularly?
Paula: Absolutely not. It just happened. It was not destined or planned to be any place. It could have been our next door neighbors. In fact, we tried our next door neighbors! We tried red-voting communities in Western Massachusetts, but we could not identify any groups who wanted to talk to us.
"For us to spend time with them and their community, and hear their stories and their suffering, created tremendous empathy for who they are and why they voted the way they did."
Karuna Center: So much of the work that you've done internationally has been about breaking cycles of violence and transforming conflict in the context of ongoing violence between groups. Here in the US we do have a lot of violence: structural violence, and also these recent eruptions of violence like we had over the weekend at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. Do you see this kind of U.S. peacebuilding work as potentially addressing any of these forms of violence that are manifesting in the U.S?
Paula: Totally. Completely and totally. The point of this is not just to make friends: the point of it is to repudiate the hatred, to reduce the negativity, to shift the stereotypes that are going on in this country, and to bring people to a place of much deeper understanding and respect for each other and therefore become able and willing to protect each other.
We got an email this morning from our Kentucky community, saying: We know some of you are Jewish, we know how horrible the murders were in Pittsburgh, and our hearts are with you. That mattered to us. They are understanding more about what happened in Pittsburgh and how people feel because of us, because they heard, in our group, people whose families were Holocaust survivors. So they have empathy at a different level, and when I got that email this morning I was almost in tears because of how meaningful it felt to me.
That's a good result of dialogue. There it is, right there: Their compassion, their concern, their understanding. They are transferring their relationship with us to Pittsburgh and to all the Jews in this country who are terrified now. There is a tremendous amount of dehumanizing in this country now, and that was part of the issue overseas that has allowed war to develop. This country is in great danger—and this country is so important in the world that what we do here impacts the rest of the world, and gives permission for either positive or negative regard for others in the rest of the world to be expressed.
"The point of this is not just to make friends: the point of it is to repudiate the hatred, to reduce the negativity, to shift the stereotypes that are going on in this country, & to bring people to a place of much deeper understanding and respect for each other and therefore become able and willing to protect each other."
Paula: We had stereotypes also. We got to know people who we had no experience knowing. We didn't know any coal miner families. They previously did not exist for us. All we knew was that they’re Trump voters and we are angry about the results of this election. So for us to spend time with them and their community, and hear their stories and their suffering, created tremendous empathy for who they are and why they voted the way they did. We understood why they voted. We didn't agree with it, but we understood it.
Karuna Center: Given the situation we have in this country right now with midterm elections coming up, people feel under attack—people are under attack. People may say, “we are fighting for our lives here. Why dialogue with a small group of coal miners in Kentucky? We should be fighting back right now. We don't have time to get to know each other, we should be spending our energy on fighting the good fight.” I wonder what you have to say to people who who might say that.
Paula: Dialogue is a tool. It is not a panacea. It is not a substitute for political action. Dialogue is a very useful method in a time when people degrade each other because of their identities, but it is not an answer for everything. It is not a substitute for action at all.
"Dialogue is a tool. It is not a panacea. It is not a substitute for political action. Dialogue is a very useful method in a time when people degrade each other because of their identities, but it is not an answer for everything."
Paula: I think it's quite similar. The difference is I'm an insider, not an outsider, and there's no translation necessary, and that part is certainly easier. Being an outsider is a different stance from being an insider. I have to be more careful as an insider to pay equal attention to all opinions and comments.
Karuna Center: How do you find that ends up influencing or affecting the process that you use?
Paula: I tried my best to hold both sides carefully and respectfully, but I think being an American also helped people feel that I understood just what was going on. Sometimes overseas I would miss a lot of nuances, because I don't understand the details, I didn't live through the conflict. But I've lived through this conflict, I've been here all my life, I understand what is going on here very deeply.
Karuna Center: Is there any part of your work with Hands Across The Hills that you see could be expanded or replicated, and what it would take to make that possible?
Paula: The answer is yes to all parts of that question. First of all, we are expanding. We are starting a group on race in South Carolina, and we are already involved in racial dialogue here in Massachusetts in preparation for it, so that is an expansion there. There are requests from a few other places to do this. I am going to keep training people to engage in dialogue, and taking people along with me who will watch the process and then be able to do their own, so I am very committed to a widening of this process.
We have had a good bit of media attention: We're on the front page of a newspaper in Amsterdam today; the article is written in Dutch. We are going to be on European TV seen by millions. We are expecting a front page Boston Globe article before the election. I have a New York Times appointment this week with a reporter. So we are very conscious about reaching out to media. We have a website and another video being made. So we're doing whatever we can to spread the idea and tools and theories and practices, all of it. We are very committed to making this larger.
"We are expanding. We are starting a group on race in South Carolina, and we are already involved in racial dialogue here in Massachusetts in preparation for it. There are requests from a few other places to do this. I am going to keep training people to engage in dialogue, and taking people along with me who will watch the process and then be able to do their own."