It was a Monday night: April 17th, to be exact. I found myself eating dinner with a family that I had never met before. It was for an Mahurin Honors College course and we were expected to have a discussion about the meaning of citizenship and the values that we hold dear. I’ll admit, I wasn’t all that excited about the project, but I felt that I would learn from the experience nevertheless. After all, I had spent nearly a whole semester reading different articles about the benefits of deliberation and how discussion is a useful tool for discovering other perspectives on major issues. Prior to the assignment, I had only really done this with people my age. It would be the first time that I would thoroughly learn from the perspectives and insights of experienced adults.
The assignment brought me to the cozy home of Allen and Alisa in Alvaton. What a full life they’ve lived! Allen is a true renaissance man. In addition to previously and extensively serving in the military, he is heavenly involved with the International Center in Bowling Green, travels to the United Nations annually, and is an avid hunter. He has done medical volunteering in Panama, traversed through Central America across the Pan-American Highway, hunted game in Africa, and once lived in Britain. He is knowledgeable about both Christianity and Islam and speaks some Spanish. At one point, he even ran for office. Not to mention he was a college roommate of my professor’s father! Alisa is an avid reader, a devout Christian, a proud grandmother, and a former German speaker. She has moved everywhere alongside her husband and once coordinated a mission trip to Guatemala. She is a wonderful cook and made some delightful mashed potatoes, green beans, and deer steak: which Allen hunted. Although she insisted that we not bring anything, I brought some rocky road ice cream. It complemented perfectly with the caramel cake she made! Also at the dinner was Annie, a sophomore at WKU that studies Arabic, Spanish, International Affairs and Political Science.
Annie and I began the discussion with a fundamental required question: beyond voting, paying taxes, and following laws, what does citizenship mean to you? For Allen, one of the most important parts of being a citizen was becoming informed. He was very concerned about how the American people are either misguided or unaware about the current state of political affairs. He mentioned that people will say they don’t watch the news because of the negativity or how they don’t attend town-hall meetings even for important topics like budget spending. Allen felt that people should care and need to care more often. He mentioned that an ill-informed citizenry was a primary concern of the Founding Fathers. Given the times, the worry seems warranted.
Another concern of Allen’s was that there is an issue of Americans not knowing their history or basic aspects about citizenship. Alisa agreed and they both mentioned a study that had asked STEM majors at the University of Texas a series of citizenship questions. For example, “Who fought in the civil war?” Supposedly, a disheartening number of students could not give an answer. Alisa noted how immigrants often learn that sort of information when they become naturalized American citizens. She mentioned some friends who had recently took their test, and, supposedly it was hard. Luckily, their friends were heavy readers and likely passed. In addition to the importance of being civically informed, Alisa felt that citizenship also meant becoming involved with the community and government at all levels. Given their history of volunteering and activism, it seems that the Youngmans have taken their definitions of citizenship to heart.
After a lengthy discussion on citizenship, we then moved on to another interesting question: what social issue is closest to your heart and why? Immigration was an issue that was dear to both Alisa and Allen. The reason was that they felt that xenophobia and suspicion of immigrants was a long-term danger and that it conflicted with our identity as a country. As a latino, it impacts my family directly. I expressed my frustration that despite our heritage, some members of my family have voiced vigorous support for Donald Trump. Allen mentioned that, unfortunately, it is a common cycle: immigrants who have settled here for a long time eventually start to grow distrusting of other immigrants. Looking back on the discussion, it makes me wonder what sort of culture we have created in this country: one that embraces diversity or one of clear division?
The previous question inadvertently brought up a discussion on fake news and how the concept has changed our perception of current events. Allen said it perfectly: before, there were simply different sides of an argument. Now, we don’t even know what the facts are. We also talked about how the advent of the internet has made it easier to fall victim of confirmation bias. To avoid this, Allen, as a liberal, reads a variety of news articles… including Fox News. Again, this family practices what it preaches.
The next two discussion topics were generally positive. For Alisa, the best thing about our world (1) is that young people since 9/11 have been willing to fight for our country. Allen agreed, and talked about how many young Americans go to war and come back severely injured and mutilated. Despite this, they keep their ambition and their willingness to fight. He also mentioned that our generation is smart. I really appreciated this, as it’s rare that people say good things about our generation. I was able to relate particularly with Allen and Alisa in that we wanted to live in a kind of community that is diverse (2). Diversity was a value that the Youngmans especially held dear. They reminisced about when they lived in Washington D.C., how their neighbors came from all over the world, and that there were many international restaurants in the city. While they value the refugee population in Bowling Green, they felt that Kentucky just did not have a high level of diversity compared to Washington D.C. In addition to being diverse, they also wanted an educated and inclusive community: something they found in Bowling Green as shown through the Unity Walk. In my short time here, I am impressed by how much these values matter in the city. By making WKU accessible and teaching Chinese in elementary school, accepting a vibrant refugee community, and fighting for change in the Fairness Campaign, Bowling Green has made a true effort to embrace these values and is a community that I’m proud to be a part of.
As our conversation came to an end, we asked the Youngmans what advice they would give to people running for office. Alisa mentioned a local politician who ran for a position when she was younger. She valued that he funded his own campaign, avoided using flyers, and served with integrity. While she does not trust politicians, she recommends that they follow his example. Allen noted that successful politicians are often very personable and can keep a good sense of humor. Thus, he implicitly suggested that candidates should take on those traits. As I was hearing this, I couldn’t help but think of Trump and Hillary. It reminded me of my Trump-supporting friends who admired that he funded his own campaign. On the other hand, Hillary was simply not a relatable person: a trait Saturday Night Live took full advantage of skit after skit. That said, the Youngmans gave sound advice: have integrity, be personable, and have a sense of humor. Of course, it never hurts to fund your own campaign as well.
I learned a lot that night, but what I think I learned most was that you just never know the depth of a person’s experiences. Just looking at Alisa and Allen, I would have never guessed that they had been to so many places or had helped so many people. In a similar spirit, I learned that it’s possible to have the stereotypes of one political ideology but have beliefs that follow a completely different political philosophy. The Youngmans joked that they’re the most right-wing liberals out there. After all, they come from an older generation, live in rural Kentucky, support gun rights, and are churchgoers. As stereotypes have it, this just screams conservative. Actually, they are very progressive: they support LGBT+ equality, reproductive rights, and the acceptance of refugees. In essence, the dinner was a reminder to not judge a book by its cover.
This assignment really related well to the class’s key question, how do we live well together? As Keith Melville put it in How We Talk Matters, “politics is, in many ways, about how we communicate with each other.” If we don’t take the time to honestly communicate and to try to understand how our fellow citizens think, we won’t have the opportunity to learn from their experiences, to debunk deceptive stereotypes, or to hear ideas and perspectives that we have never really thought about before. In other words, when we take the time to talk, we make an effort to get to know each other and to establish a mutual understanding. These are ideas that have been discussed extensively in my citizenship class and that’s exactly what we did at the dinner: as former strangers, we decided that citizens need to be informed and that our society should be diverse. And, once again, I was reminded to look past stereotypes. It was a blessing to have had the opportunity to meet Allen and Alisa. I’m glad I took part in this assignment and can’t wait to gather around again at our Kentucky Kitchen Table.