When We Come Together

By: Elise

A couple of weeks ago, I was able to host a Kentucky Kitchen Table at my house in Louisville, Kentucky. I must give a great thank you to my old youth minister who helped me get a diverse group of people together while I was in school in a different city. He was able to contact people for me that came to my meal that I never would have gotten to talk to without his help; and I think this diversity embodies the idea of this project.

There were nine people who attended my project dinner, each one with their own unique perspective. And, as I had requested, they all brought one of their favorite side dishes to accompany the main course and dessert my family provided. There was Larry, an outreach minister at a church, Janet, a self-employed consultant, Iris, a writer for Anthem, Heavenleah, and instructor for students with autism, and Felix, a 5th grader at a local elementary school. Also, a few of my family members attended; there was, Jackie, a children’s minister, David, a director at a marketing agency, and Amanda, an instructor for students with autism. They have asked that I refrain from getting too detailed with their specific descriptions but, our group’s ages ranged across 60 years. There were varying political parties, orientations, economic classes, and races represented; and many people there were not born in Louisville. And, with all of these differences between people, I had anticipated some awkward moments. However, the dinner ran very smoothly. Everyone was excited to participate and eager to hear other opinions. They were all very respectful and willing to speak up.  It was a really cool thing to witness.

I began the conversation by explaining a little bit to my guests about what the class is and reminding them of the purpose. After that, I really let my guests run the conversation, and they needed very little prompting from me. With the exception of my changing the question or adding a comment here and there, I had very little to do with the direction of the conversation. They had lots of good answers, and even questions of their own. And, everyone listened to what the others had to say. This conversation really embodied Keith Melville’s thoughts in How We Talk Matters. In this article, Melville defines deliberation as an approach to public decision making; and, he emphasizes the importance of intentional conversation and listening. And, during this conversation I was able to see the amazing things that can happen when this practice is actually used. People came together and actually heard what the others were saying, despite their difference in political party or economic class. And while they might not have had their minds changed about certain topics, they heard other opinions that seemed to broaden their view of the subject, and make them more open to other ideas.

The first question I asked was the required one, what does citizenship mean to you? Overwhelmingly, the answer I heard was being a citizen meant being a part of a community. The idea of citizens being a team or a family.  Each person has a different job, but we need all of those jobs done in order to be successful. Iris was reminded of jury duty—of how one person can’t be the only decision maker, but it requires a team of people actively participating to get the job done. Similarly, Felix said that a community reminded him of a grandfather clock in which the people were like the gears that kept the clock running. Even though he is young, he had some interesting insights throughout the night.

They also discussed how you can be a “citizen” of many different communities. Of course, we were all citizens of the United States, of Kentucky, and of Louisville. But we are also citizens of churches, schools, sports teams, clubs, etc. Some of these things we choose, while others we must be a part of. So, it is important to be a good citizen in all areas of our life.

Then I asked the question, what is the thing you love most about living where you do? I opened up the question so that people could talk about Louisville, but also compare it to places they had lived in the past and what they liked about that, too.  I felt that this was important to talk about because it recognizes the fact that we did not all come from the same place, though we were there together in that moment. At first, people focused on Louisville.  They love that everyone there is so friendly, and that they may not know everyone’s name, but they know their story. They said that this made the big city seem more connected, and more like a small town. They like the reputation Louisville has of being kind and generous, and this reputation is embodied by celebrities from there that they mentioned such as Muhammad Ali and Jennifer Lawrence. They seemed to all agree that an ideal place to live had these qualities that they liked about Louisville.

After we spent time talking about what we liked, I asked about what improvements they thought should be made to the area. Without missing a beat, Amanda brought up how we needed more homeless shelters in the city. We have a few in the downtown area, but in the part of town that most of us live, we do not have anything substantial. We also discussed how our prison system needed to be reformed; both in the prison and in the transition out of it. We have many people in the city who have served their time, but still seemed to be punished because they can’t get hired anywhere. Others brought up the fact that our area needs to improve on its awareness and treatment of those with mental illness or addiction. Many people noted how they knew people who had been turned away for help in these areas because the doctors were unsure how to help, or the insurance didn’t cover it.

While I prompted this question with improvements they thought should be made in Louisville, it seemed to me that all of these problems they noticed applied across the country. And, most of them had to do with the larger systems in place. They all seemed helpless when discussing these topics because they were unsure how to get around the large systems, but they saw a clear problem in the way they were run. It made me think about a discussion we had briefly in class once about how large systems that were put in place, like the prison system or the foster care system, are put in place to fix one problem, but it can cause other problems. That what makes issues like these Wicked. You cannot foresee the consequences, and once you put the system in place it is time-consuming and costly to change or replace them.

The last thing I asked them was what advice they would give to people running for office in our country. I thought this would be an interesting topic to cover because of recent political divisions across the country. I wanted to see if the group could discuss something that could be politically charged in a calm and efficient manner. Luckily for me, they did. And I loved their answers. A main point that they all agreed on was they wanted a politician who would focus on what unites the country, and not what divides it. They want politicians who do not use Us vs. Them tactics, but who will be honest with their opinions and be true to what they think is best rather than what the Party wants. The table also advised that politicians should know that they can’t please everyone, but they should still try to make everyone feel like they are heard. A common theme of this discussion was that people felt alienated because no one was listening to them. The group thought that if leaders made an effort to listen, people would be more understanding of their actions, even if they weren’t the outcome they had hoped for.

I did not realize until it was over how great of an experience this project was. It is not often that I get to sit and talk with a diverse group of people about issues that actually matter. And, it is not that I dislike these types of conversations; I just get so caught up in my own life that things like this don’t happen. But, I now realize the value of this type of conversation. In this class we talk about the importance of deliberation, and I can see now just how effective it can be. If people were to openly discuss topics like these more often, I feel our communities would be stronger. Most people came to this table strangers, but I feel we left a connected group. If citizens would take more opportunities like these, they might feel more connected to their communities.

Small Town Democracy

By Mary

My Kitchen Kitchen Table took place in Glendale, KY, the quiet little town in central Kentucky that I call home. We sat around my family’s kitchen table, the table that my siblings and I sat around for years as kids.

Around the table were six people. My sister, Anne, is a 16 year old junior in high school who is an incredibly talented artist, writer and student who is gifted in not just the arts but in math and science as well. My mom sits at one end of the table. She has been a homeschooling mom of six kids for 28 years, and now is the development director for the local crisis pregnancy center. My dad sits at the head of the table. Dad is an engineer who works as the director of a healthcare clinic. My brother David sits across from Anne. He is 23 years old, works in the Louisville Ford plant as a CAD engineer, loves learning, and is the most industrious person I’ve met. Beside him is his fiance, Anna. David and Anna got engaged the week before we had dinner together. Anna is a senior in college, studying Asian Studies and Chinese. She works at the public library, and as the newest (soon to be) addition to the family, is a very welcome but not a very familiar presence at the dinner table.

We ate an incredibly scrumptious meal of pork, smashed potatoes, green beans, and a dessert of brownies, strawberries and ice cream prepared by my Mom, Anne and me. We had a wonderful time making dinner together.

This is a diverse group of ages, with my parents born in the Baby Boomer Generation, David and Anna born in the Millennial generation, and my sister and I born in Generation Z. Anna grew up in a different family and in a different town, my dad spent his childhood in Tennessee and Indiana, and my both my parents have lived and experienced much more in life than David, Anna, Anne and me.

We had a great conversation about citizenship. I asked the question, “What does citizenship mean to you?” We talked about two meanings of the word of citizenship – citizenship as a noun and citizenship as a verb. We said that to be a citizen (noun) means you have a particular legal status and fulfill duties within that status. To be a citizen (verb) means you take steps beyond just your legal status to improve the world around you. We said that the duty of a citizen is to do what they can. My dad said, “any good that people do – no matter what it is – adds to the greater good. Therefore, a citizen is responsible to do what good they can.”

Anna mentioned that globally, citizen participation is decreasing. We talked about how some countries are implementing compulsory voting laws. Anna talked about a unique system that India employs, where citizens’ thumbs are dipped in ink when they vote, making it easy to identify people who have and have not voted. We talked about how culturally, this system would not fit in in America, but it is interesting to see how other democracies go about the voting process.

I then asked, “Do you see your job as serving a greater purpose?” I picked this question intentionally, knowing that we had a diverse group of jobs and hoping that it would spark good conversation. My mom answered that she thought her job contributed to the greater good because the non-profit that she works for helps create healthy families, and healthy society cannot exist without healthy families. My brother said that he thinks his job in manufacturing definitely contributes the greater good, because every manufacturing plant provides a product to people who need it, whether the product seems “important” or not. He considers manufacturing a “noble profession” because it is not glamorous and doesn’t receive thanks but is instrumental to our society. Anna said that her job at the public library helps the whole community and every demographic, if people choose to take part in it. This, in a way, is a metaphor for democracy and engaged citizenship – if you choose to take part, your participation will benefit you and help strengthen the democracy. If you do not choose to take part, you have only yourself to blame. My dad said that he did consider his job as contributing to the greater good. As the director of a healthcare clinic that provides intensive care to Medicare patients with significant illnesses, Dad sees his job as connecting people with services they need that they wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere. He believes that because no man is an island, helping one person helps a lot of other people in turn.

We would define citizenship as taking deliberate action to do what you can to help another person, even if it is a small act or in an unconventional way like working in a manufacturing plant.

Sitting around the table eating dinner is not new to my family – growing up our family made it a point to stop and eat meals together. But having structured conversation about citizenship drew us together, because it gave us a picture into each person’s perspective on the world. I learned something about each of the people around the table, and developed my view of citizenship by having an intentional conversation about citizenship with my family. Our conversation reminded me of Jane Addams’ “Snare of Preparation” article. In her article, Jane Addams talks about how people often get caught up in preparation to serve and never actually embark to serve. The definition for citizenship that we developed touches on this, as it requires that citizenship be active based not on how large your impact can be, but how meaningful your impact can be. Often people don’t act (or vote, or write to their representatives, or talk intentionally or get involved in campaigns) because they think that it will not matter. In his article “Why Bother?,” Michael Pollan argues that we should bother about taking simple actions that don’t seem to have a large impact because they change ourselves and influence people around us. Our conversation helped relate Pollan’s article about the environment to citizenship. People should care about being good citizens because it makes you a good neighbor, a good friend, a good employee. Acting in the interest of others and not just in your own interest broadens your horizons and gives you an appreciation for people who are different than you. Citizenship is not limited to just political action; citizenship is a mindset that changes the way we interact with others. Only a transformed American citizenry can change American politics. Only citizens who deliberate with one another over kitchen tables, grocery store aisles and across party lines, and stay informed about both relevant issues and the needs of their neighbor can develop a flourishing democracy.