Democracy as Empathetic Citizenship

IMG_2034[1]By Anne

On April 7, 2017, our group had our Kentucky Kitchen Table in Bowling Green, Kentucky. We visited the local Chili’s, with a group of 6 diverse students. While enjoying our food, we talked about everything from the situation in Syria to vegans. While our conversation over dinner may have seemed random, it provided insight into the way that many people view their role as citizens, and how we can make small changes in our lives to make a lasting impact on the wicked problems surrounding us.

The names of the participants were Ryan, Anne, Mahesan, Jill, Thomas, and Hannah. Of the group, all of us were students but there were a variety of ages. Additionally, we talked a lot about our hometowns from around the Kentucky and Tennessee area, and even learned that one of the group members, Thomas, never had a true hometown because he grew up with a military family who constantly moved around. Ryan is from Owensboro, Kentucky, but was born in St. Louis. He is an accounting major working on his CPA. He brought along Mahesan, who is a Biology major and Chemistry minor. Mahesan wants to become a doctor. Hannah is from Madisonville, Kentucky, and is also majoring in Chemistry with a double major in Biology. She plans on going to dental school. She brought along Thomas, who is from Brandenburg. He is an exercise science major who plans on becoming a clinical exercise physiologist. I am from Frankfort, the capital of Kentucky, and I am double majoring in Philosophy and Environmental Health Science. I plan on working with water quality. I brought along Jill, who is majoring in Recreation Administration and plans on working for the National Parks. Our group was truly diverse, and hails from a variety of different backgrounds.

The first question that we asked to get our conversation was, “Beyond voting, paying taxes, and following laws, what does citizenship mean to you?” While it was difficult for us all to think of the answers, some people talked about how much it means to them to be empathetic toward other people in order to truly be a good citizen. To do this, some people suggested that we treat others like we care about them, while others suggested that you simply “be a good person.” Additionally, we talked about how there is an importance to building a community where people care about one another, notably a community in which neighbors would work together to solve a common problem.

Finally, we talked about the importance of communication with others. Technology was deemed as one of the main obstacles against effective communication, whether it be from miscommunications online or the lack of communication face-to-face. However, someone did mention that, while communicating online, we tend to disclose more about ourselves, and in that sense, we form closer relationships with other people. I, and others, agreed with this notion. Regardless, we decided that people seem to be naturally good and will be as good of citizens as they can be with the resources they have, regardless of their natural communication or social skills.

The second question brought up during the dinner was, “What do you think are the best things about our world today?” Immediately, everyone began thinking of the worst things in our world today, and noting the exceptions to the worst things as some “good things” about our world. Ryan talked about how the overall standard of living, economically, has gone up in the United States over the past few years. However, Jill mentioned that just because the technical standard of living has increased doesn’t mean that people are any happier. People in our society can be pretty lonely and unhappy, although compared to some other countries in the world we are quite fortunate.

We also brought this idea into thinking about the situation in war-torn countries such as Syria. As a country, Syria has more problems than the US in terms of basic human rights and standards of living. When considering this, we talked about the wicked problem of fixing these conditions for the inhabitants of Syria, as well as the wicked problem of whether it would be better to focus on raising the standard of living, and in that way impact human rights, or whether the country should focus on getting its citizens basic human rights which would than impact the standard of living. Many people in the group expressed that they felt hopeless and helpless in being able to solve this wicked problem. As a problem, it seems too big for any one person to put a dent in. However, we talked about how making small changes in your own community to be more accepting of refugees and people in general can make a large impact if everyone does it. This invokes the thought of the “Why Bother” reading which we read in class, which talks about the large impacts a community can make if they band together.

An example of this was brought up by Ryan. He talked about how one of the big issues in Bowling Green is the sex trafficking rings which have been found here. These organizations often prey on the abnormally large refugee population which Bowling Green houses. These refugees sometimes have little choice in what they do to survive, and are vulnerable to these types of organizations. To combat this wicked problem, a faculty member named Dr. Thrasher helps out at a local organization named Hotel, Inc., as well as providing a place for sex trafficking victims of Bowling Green and the surrounding area to recover and find a place in the world. This is a great example of one person doing their part to help remedy the issues that they care most about.

Another example of an issue brought up was the overall treatment of elderly people in our society. These people are often ignored and forcibly put into nursing homes, where they sometimes subjected to unfair treatment and an environment which is not conducive to creativity. Thomas talked in depth about how if we all treated elderly people with more respect it would be a better world. Personally, Thomas volunteers at a nursing home, and tries to do his part in keeping the local elderly people company and helping them to, in turn, have good end-of-life care. He did mention, though, that his efforts do not help with the systematic bias that happens in the nursing home system. More affluent people will always get better care.

From this conversation, there were several themes: that doing your small part can make a difference, that having empathy for your fellow citizen can make the world a better place, and that while the world may seem like a hopeless place filled with wicked problems, we can all make a difference in our own ways. These relate heavily to some of the things we have talked about in class.

The first reading I would like to talk about is the empathy reading. We talked a lot about empathy as a route to being an impactful citizen. Empathy, as discussed in the reading, involves knowing that you know nothing about another person’s struggles and accepting that they are struggling, even if you don’t believe them. Relating to empathy, we talked about how it is important to be empathetic to your neighbors and peers as a good citizen. In doing this, we said, society as a whole will be better. While empathy seems to be a small thing to do, it can make a large impact when we all validate each other’s feelings by empathizing.

Another reading which related to our conversation was the reading, “Why Bother?” In this reading, the author talks about how if everyone approached the environmental wicked problem by making small personal changes that we can all solve the issue together. In our conversation, we related this concept to the wicked problem of the war in Syria and the surrounding areas. By doing small things such as calling Congress about accepting refugees into the US and by donating some money to the cause, we can do our small part to solving the issue. Wicked problems such as this do not have one cause or one solution, and so it is important to keep trying to contribute to the solution, even when you might sometimes feel hopeless.

Overall, I learned a lot about the different ways we all try to be good citizens. While we all have different ways of getting over the “bridge” of solving the problems in our world, we all try to cross it by using our own talents to do good. While Thomas volunteers at nursing homes and Dr. Thrasher works with sexual assault victims, I will be right here in my corner of the world, working on purifying the world’s water supply.

While we all approach citizenship in different ways, there is no one “right” way to be a good citizen. While our efforts may sometimes seem fruitless in the complicated problems our world faces, when citizens band together as a community we can make a noticeable difference.  

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