My Kentucky Kitchen Table took place in my home in Union, Kentucky. The names of the people who participated in the dinner, not including myself, are Vince, Elizabeth, Janice, and Manda.
Vince, my father, is 53 years old and a father of three. He spent his early childhood in Southern California, but went to high school in Northern Kentucky so his step-father could pursue a job opportunity. After graduating high school, he immediately went into construction and has been in construction sales ever since. He was raised Catholic.
Elizabeth, my step-mother, is 42 years old. She grew up in Gallatin, Tennessee. She later left Gallatin for Bowling Green as she attended WKU. She obtained a degree in education and was a high school business teacher for a few years before deciding teaching was not her passion. After some time in real estate, she then settled on a career in Human Resources. Roughly eight years ago, through mutual friends, she met my father. She is Methodist but mainly identifies as Christian.
Janice, my grandmother, is 76 years old and a mother of four. She grew up in rural Indiana and, pursuing a job opportunity and family, eventually moved to Southern California. At the time, she was a secretary for a phone company. This is where she met her husband, who would later move her and her four kids to Northern Kentucky. Once in Northern Kentucky, she got a job at a local news station while working on a degree in education. She would go on to spend many years teaching middle schoolers. She is Catholic.
Manda, my grandmother’s friend, is 70 years old. I invited her to dinner because I do not know her very well, and I believed she could add a unique and diverse perspective to the conversation. She is a mother but did not specify how many kids she has. She grew up in Peoria, Illinois in a progressive household. Her mother was a member of the media, so Manda, naturally, pursued a career in broadcasting. She moved to Northern Kentucky after hearing of a job opening at a local news station. This is where her career in the media took off, and where she met my grandmother. She did not mention her religious affiliation.
The first question I asked at dinner was, “Beyond voting, paying taxes, and following laws, what does citizenship mean to you?”. The responses I got were very intriguing. Vince and Elizabeth both agreed that citizenship was ultimately the individual’s responsibility of cultivating a better community. They believe a good citizen is active in the community and helps their neighbors when need be. Manda furthered this idea by pointing out how citizenry is an active effort that looks to better society, and effective citizenship that betters our nation, and eventually the world, cannot be achieved until it is practiced in our homes. She emphasized how the home is a microcosm for the world and the birthplace of proper citizenry. The interesting thing I noticed from this discussion was the consensus that moral obligation is a necessary component of being a citizen. Everyone participating in the conversation believed that it is their responsibility to look after their neighbors. It is the “right” thing to do. “Why is this the right thing to do?”, I asked. Vince, Elizabeth, and Janice mentioned their faith. Manda noted how she would want others to look out for her, so she looks out for them. This is citizenship to them.
I then asked the question, “How do you think your job relates to your role as a citizen?”. The responses I received were similar to the first question. Vince mentioned how he enjoys the constant interaction he has with people in construction sales. He looks forward to seeing clients and hearing about their lives. He mainly just wants to use his job as an outlet to reach others and help them with whatever he can. Janice said her years as a middle school teacher where propelled by a desire to shape young minds and hopefully prepare them for being an active member of their community. She was on the ground level of citizen training. Elizabeth said her job in Human Resources gives her a firsthand account of the issues fellow citizens are facing and how they are responding to them. She views her position as an opportunity to guide those struggling and steer them towards greater production in the workplace and community. Again, the theme of moral obligation was prevalent. They all think it is their responsibility, as contributing members of society, to help those in need so that they can contribute, perpetuating the cycle of neighbor helping neighbor and societal improvement.
The conversation then got a little lighter as I asked, “Did you ever have meals around the table with your family growing up? Did you enjoy it?”. Manda noted she was a raised in a traditional household that emphasized family unity through dinner. It was an expectation to eat dinner together because this was the time for true cohesion. Janice and Elizabeth reiterated this, stating they were both raised in traditional families and enjoyed the time they spent with the family at dinner. Vince, however, said family dinners were not a priority of his childhood due to both his parents constantly working. He said that the lack of family dinners, and the effect this had on his development, cemented the importance of the ceremonial event for family building, urging him to implement it into his children’s lives. This demonstrated to me how important our home life is in shaping us into the individuals and citizens we are.
My next question was, “What kind of person do you want to be?”. It took few minutes for them to think of their responses. Elizabeth was first to chime in. She said she wanted to be a better mother and Christian. She admitted to not adamantly practicing her faith and that she needs to. Vince and Janice both desired to be more informed in our information-abundant society. They both stressed how critical it is to discern what is correct information from the incorrect and that they would like to be more skilled at this. Manda, interestingly, mentioned a desire to be more empathetic. She stated empathy was key to promoting social change, and, through empathizing, we can become more informed, and morally well-rounded, citizens. Everyone hit on the desire to become either better moral executioners or more informed with the goal of it furthering moral execution. It is interesting how this theme of morality seems to be the foundation for citizenship and improving as individuals within society.
I then asked, “What advice would you give people running for office in our country?”. Vince responded first, noting that someone running for office needs to take into consideration the views of all his/her constituents, and a noticeable effort towards creating a unified nation is key. Manda pointed out how most politicians tend to campaign in the areas containing those funding their campaign. According to Manda, politicians will never take into consideration the views of all their constituents as long as a select few campaign donors are influencing policy platforms and campaigning. This snowballed into the topic of structural flaws in our government, and how these flaws could potentially be fixed. However, everyone at dinner spoke of this governmental reformation as a hopeless and nearly-impossible cause. This forced me to consider how any kind of societal change can occur when the people charged with inciting said change believe its hopeless.
Another question I asked that sparked interesting dialogue was, “Is there anything you can think to do that might make things better for you or your neighbors where you live?”. Janice said a significant, but small, change she has made that has created an increasingly-positive neighborhood environment is simply making herself available to her neighbors. She has started a dialogue with other members of the neighborhood and informed them that if they ever need anything, or just want to hang out, she is here for them. She said it has created a friendlier, dependent neighborhood that willingly interacts. Elizabeth mentioned that she also believes an open, honest dialogue with the neighbors will create a safer and smarter community. Similar iterations of community conversation came from Vince and Manda. It is interesting and sensical that simply talking is what can lead to more efficiently operating communities.
My final question was, “What social issue is closest to your heart and why?”. This question got somewhat heated as some had differing opinions on prominent social issues. Vince immediately gave his social issue: NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. He believes that the national anthem precedes all social statements and change, affirming everyone should stand for the flag first and then discuss social injustices. In short, the national anthem comes first, and then discussion is had. Manda, being the individual I do not know very well, responded to this with respectful, yet defensive, disagreement. She firmly stated the national anthem means different things to different cultures, and kneeling for the flag is the epitome of being American. It is an individual’s right. If these demonstrations are not done, according to her, no social change can occur. This then led to the conversation of whether kneeling NFL players are kneeling for a cause, or just kneeling with the intent of following their teammates stance. The debate ultimately ended with the recognition we can never truly know someone else’s motives. Elizabeth and Janice did not have much to say as this was discussed. I found it interesting how two people can look at the same situation and have radically varying perspectives. It made sense considering Manda’s liberal and Vince’s conservative background. The main takeaway was that this “debate” over when it is appropriate to protest remained a civilized discussion. It did not escalate into an argument due to both parties’ recognition of the importance of empathy.
One of the main things I learned was how important morals are considered to be in citizenship. Everyone at the table defined citizenship as a moral obligation to care for our neighbors and, thus, further society. Another takeaway was that healthy discussion was key to actually achieving a greater, more representative society. They recognized the need for empathy in order to have healthy discussions, and a community without dialogue is divisive. Finally, there is a sense of hopelessness clouding people’s desire to change their societies. Unfortunately, some believe we are trapped in our current society and view change as dauntingly impossible.
Honestly, I was surprised by how similar everything discussed was to our class. We talked about the role of empathy, how morality factors into our lives, and the presence of wicked problems. The central idea that was most prevalent was definitely the importance of deliberation. Melville’s “How We Talk Matters” discusses how the discrepancy between what is happening and what should be happening (like the bridge) can truly be overcome when a healthy dialogue is created. By listening to and understanding each other’s ideas, we can venture towards compromise and social change. Everyone around my table viewed deliberation as the first step towards understanding, and even practiced this when debating when it is appropriate to protest.