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KY County Crosses Political Divide through Arts, Culture

This small-town community center is involved in the Letcher County Culture Hub, an effort in eastern Kentucky to bridge political differences through arts and culture. (Gwen Johnson)
This small-town community center is involved in the Letcher County Culture Hub, an effort in eastern Kentucky to bridge political differences through arts and culture. (Gwen Johnson)
December 30, 2016

LETCHER COUNTY, Ky. - In America, where the political divide has reached Grand Canyon proportions, one Kentucky county is trying to build deep community relationships to overcome these differences.

It's happening in Letcher County, where 80 percent of the residents voted for Donald Trump. It is known as the Letcher County Culture Hub, and Ben Fink, who has been heavily involved in the effort, believes it can be a model for other communities. He said divisions are "never absolute," and can be bridged through culture on two levels.

"One is art and music, and theater and film, and all that stuff," he said, "and then there's also culture on a deeper level - the shared values and the shared stories that we tell about each other, about ourselves, about our community."

The Culture Hub brings diverse groups together, from artists and musicians to volunteer fire departments and business associations.

In the tiny town of Hemphill, which began as a coal camp more than a century ago, lifelong resident Gwen Johnson said the idea has helped unite people despite their differences over who should be president or the future of the coal industry.

Johnson helps her mother run the Hemphill Community Center, a gathering spot for meetings, concerts and classes. She said while some folks celebrated Trump's win "to the fullest" and others "went into mourning," busy times at the community center have helped heal those differences.

"There is a wide span of opinions at the table," she said, "but we are coexisting and just 'agreeing to disagree' in order to get this work done."

Fink told a similar story. He came to Kentucky from the Northeast to work for Appalshop, the grassroots cultural and media center that started the Culture Hub. While helping cash-strapped local fire departments put on a bluegrass music festival, left-leaning Fink said he became friends with some of the volunteers - even one he said supports "far-right" politicians.

"We recognize that there's differences. We recognize that we disagree on things, and we also recognize that we share a lot more than we don't. We get along just fine," he said. "We recognize that we've got a lot of stuff in common, you know - stuff like music and a sense of humor."

That, said Fink, is what the Letcher County Culture Hub is building - bridges he hopes are built across America.

More information is online at appalshop.org.

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service - KY