Soon after learning about the Kentucky Kitchen Table, I started to stress out. I live two and a half hours away from Bowling Green, so finding a time that would work both for myself and my guests was going to be a challenge. My initial KKT was set for the middle of October, and I had invited my immediate family, multiple aunts, my old band director, and my brother’s girlfriend. The timing was going to be perfect, everyone could make it and it seemed like I could get through this assignment with little to no setbacks. That was until I realized that the date of my sorority initiation was set in complete conflict with my original plan. So… I had to improvise. As it turned out, there wasn’t another weekend that I was free to go home for a while, and many of my original guests were unable to make it. A few weeks passed, and it was time for me to host the dinner.
I sat down at the table with my mom, dad, aunt, older brother, and my brother’s girlfriend. While I did know the majority of people at my KKT, the diversity amongst us is evident. What we lacked for in racial diversity, we made up for in age, economic, and political aspects. My parents are high school sweethearts, so they come from a similar background. Both of my parents were brought up in small, coal-mining towns in southeastern Kentucky. My father, Bill, has worked at Ford Motor Company for over twenty years on line, and was recently promoted to skilled trades. His dad served in the Korean War and worked as both a coal miner and on a rescue squad. He has pretty strong conservative leanings. My mom, Patti, is the daughter of a coal mining veteran as well. She’s worked for Toyota Motor Manufacturing for upwards of twenty years. For the majority of the time, she was on the line. A few years ago, she was promoted to Diversity Coordinator of her department. Essentially, she plans events and helps promote an environment of equality at Toyota. She, on the other hand, identifies as more of an independent politically. While both of my parents began college, neither obtained their degree. My aunt, Susie, is my mother’s sister. She has worked in the public school system in Richmond, KY for thirty years as a speech therapist. She is strongly democratic, and often argues with my father about policies and politics. My brother and I are both first generation college students, and we grew up in central Kentucky. My brother, Trey, is two years older than me. He’s attending a community college back home and looking to pursue some type of business degree. My brother’s girlfriend, Rileigh, is someone I don’t know very well. She’s 18 years old and is hoping to become a veterinarian.
It’s important to note that my family, throughout the course of our busy and chaotic lives, have become accustomed to not eating around the dinner table. For the most part, we opt to eat in front of the TV or in the kitchen. While we normally eat together, the dining room is for special occasions. So, sitting down in our slightly neglected dining room table definitely made the dinner feel more familial. There was my dad, telling jokes to my brother’s girlfriend, who is not quite comfortable with our over-the-top brand of southern hospitality just yet. My mother, who is very much a go with the flow type of person, sitting back and listening as we were about to begin. My aunt, trying to turn on the UK game to check the score. My brother, who is somehow simultaneously a carbon copy and the complete opposite of my father. They’re both very strong willed, but they possess very different political leanings. My brother’s girlfriend, sneaking off to play with our three dogs before we began. Then there was me, who was nervous enough after my first attempt had failed. I’ve experienced political conversations with my family on numerous enough occasions to know that I might’ve opened a can of worms my moderator training isn’t equipped to handle just yet.
I hosted my KKT in my hometown of Georgetown, Kentucky. Scott County is the fastest growing district in Kentucky, all because of the Toyota plant that attracts people from all over the state looking for work. That being said, it still has a small-town feel. There’s only one high school in the county, home to over 2,500 students. In contrast to the highly industrial Toyota plant, there are horse farms pretty much everywhere you look. I went to school with many of the same people from kindergarten all the way through high school.
I began by explaining what my project was actually about, then we started into discussion as we dug into the food. We started with an easy one, “Do you know your neighbors?” To my surprise, the answer wasn’t a unanimous yes. It turned out that Rileigh spends most of her weekends in Morehead, KY visiting family, which left less time to connect with her neighbors here. My aunt lives in an apartment in Richmond with her long term partner, Tommy. She said that she felt like she could probably connect better with her neighbors, but she doesn’t really feel the necessity. Something I thought was interesting is that she said she felt more connected with her neighbors when something was going wrong, like when their power went out, than on a daily basis. Both my parents and brother felt very connected to our neighbors, especially because we’ve lived in the same house with the same neighbors for 15+ years.
We discussed the very important “What does citizenship mean to you?” question for a fairly long time. When asked, my dad immediately responded with freedom. He said that, as a son of a veteran, he felt that those sacrifices give us the ability to have our freedom, and ultimately be citizens. He launched into a bit of a rant about the NFL kneeling protests, but that’s besides the point. My dad and brother both agreed that being a citizen was the very core of being an American. When they were talking, the two words (citizen and American) almost sounded synonymous. Their freedoms and rights were what citizenship is about. It was generally agreed upon that being a citizen was about respect, about standing for the national anthem and going beyond just paying taxes and voting. Rileigh brought up an interesting idea, that citizenship is about being there for the people that need you and filing in the gaps. That simple comment launched my dad into a story about when he was younger, and his father was working long hours to put food on the table. His neighbor would let my father come over and pick peaches straight off his tree, and that was often his dinner. “It’s about those little things,” my dad said, “because you never know how much they’ll add up over time.”
That response in particular made me think about the central questions of the class, and it really relates back to multiple of our central questions. How do we solve problems? Well, it seemed to my KKT members that even the smallest of steps could lead to something great, and have a lasting impact over time. In relation to the readings, the approach is comparable to the “The Energy Diet” by Andrew Postman reading, about putting small measures in place. It’s certainly an easy, non-intimidating approach. How do we live better together? One way that was suggested by my dinner partners was to have faith in your neighbors, like the sweet man that provided my father with food. We’re more likely to understand those around us, as well as come together to tackle bigger issues, if we can trust our neighbors.
The next question I asked was “What kind of community do you want to live in?” Overwhelmingly, there was a generational gap in answers. The older of the group decided they wanted to go back in time, back to how things were when they were younger. “I want to live somewhere like home 30 years ago, where we slept with our doors unlocked and could walk down the street in the dead of night without concern,” said Susie. “Back in the stone age, before every house had A/C, we’d leave the doors open at night. Now, that just sounds ridiculous.” Whereas the gen-xers would prefer to go back to the past, the younger generation felt like society needs to take steps forward. Beyond physical safety, my brother argued that emotional safety was just as important. “We need a community of understanding, and compassion. There’s no way we’ll address any of our problems if we don’t listen to each other,” said Trey.
It was getting late, and we had long since finished our dessert (chess bars, my specialty). As I said goodbye to some of my guests and helped clear the table, the conversations of the night were still flowing through my mind. The main take away from my KKT was the great effect that just sitting down and having a real conversation can have. In the modern society we live in, it can be easy to get caught up in the chaos and general stress that is everyday life. With new technology, especially smart phones, making deeper connections with people can be difficult. It’s very easy to use technology as a scapegoat (something that my mom often points out to my brother and I) and not be present in the moment. The KKT gave me the opportunity to really learn more about those around me, even those that I thought I already knew very well. Overall, I learned that a lot of problems could be addressed in a more efficient way if we just take the time out of our day to really listen to each other: not just hear what others are saying, but really listen and understand.
Not pictured: Susie