My Kentucky Kitchen Table took place in Bowling Green, Kentucky, at my parent’s home. Present were my parents, my three siblings, and a young couple from the community.
My parents are both nurses, studied at a community college, and come from a conservative background. My siblings, Kenneth, Jeffry, and Candice are all in high school. Candice is very social and reads a ridiculous number of books each week; Jeffry loves history and math, he absorbs facts like a sponge; Kenneth is graduating this spring and will be studying chemistry with a minor in biophysics at WKU.
None of my siblings have solidified their viewpoints yet, but they provided an intellectualism and curiosity that drove the conversation forward. Generally, they favored opinions like my parents, but they demonstrated a heightened awareness of certain social issues, like religious discrimination.
The young couple I invited were Andrew and Lin. Andrew is from Baltimore, MD and Lin from Todd County, KY. These two brought a strong line of diversity into the discussion, as they proved to have very different perspectives and political views. Their ideas tended to be more liberal than my parent’s ideals, and they were more aware of social prejudice and activism.
Otherwise, the group was homogenous. My parents and Andrew all had a bachelor’s degree education. I am working towards my bachelors, and my siblings are all working through high school with plans to go to college. All people present identified as Baptist but went to different churches within the denomination.
Finally, there was of course me. I am a freshman in college, pursing a degree in biochemistry. I would rather talk about science than politics or philosophy, and I generally feel very uncomfortable in discussions like these. I straddle the lines between many ideological divides, so my are a tend to be a strange mix of liberal and conservative, old and new. Like many young people, I dislike both the existing powers in our nation, and their opponents. What I want in a society is peace, not extremism. Ultimately though, my values are grounded in my faith, the most important force in my life.
As Lin and Andrew would be coming straight from a previous appointment, it was agreed that my mom and I would make the food for the meal. It was a team effort; I went grocery shopping and made the salad, my mom made barbecue chicken, brownies, and macaroni and cheese. The table was barely large enough to fit everyone, plus the food, but we crowded around.
After giving everyone several minutes to get to know one another, I posed the first question: beyond voting, paying taxes, and following laws, what does citizenship mean to you? I didn’t get much of a response other than “wow, that’s a big question,” so I developed the question further. First, I asked how they felt their job related to their role as a citizen. The first unanimous response was that working helped the economy. My mom said that as a nurse, she improves the healthcare of the community. Andrew said he both pays taxes through his work and has relied on financial support in times of unemployment. Thus, he has both relied on and supported society.
“Do you see your job as serving a greater purpose?” I asked. There was a moment of silence, then my dad said, “yes, ultimately.” Everyone else agreed. It did not so much matter what kind of job they worked, was the consensus, it was the fact that they were working, serving, and being served in their various positions.
Next, I asked the group if their religion or spiritual identity relates to how they treat others and act as citizens. Andrew laughed, “would anyone say no to that?” The group seemed to agree that spiritual identity is absolutely fundamental to who we are and how we act. There was a positive bias towards religious identity. One of my siblings briefly mentioned extreme religious beliefs that lead to violence. Thus, religion’s profound influence can also have dangerous effects. Instead of helping us live better, it takes the freedom of others.
The conversation lagged, so I asked, “what are some issues close to your heart?” This provoked some quick and strong responses. Lin immediately said school shootings, and all of the parents in the group chimed in with agreement. My dad brought up drugs and related some of his experiences as a nurse caring for addicts. He was a fierce advocate for harsh penalties, but my mom opposed him. She advocated rehabilitation, citing her experiences with drug abuse within her extended family. Thus, they represented two of the options presented by German Lopez in his article “How to Stop the Deadliest Drug Overdose Crisis in American History.” Finally, they agreed that it is too complicated an issue to solve with either option alone, unknowingly identifying it as a wicked problem.
The conversation turned to racism, and Andrew expressed a desire to live in a diverse society that was a safe space for different identities. The whole group related their various experiences with racism, mostly stories of observed racism. My dad mentioned that much of the racism he heard was not from people being purposefully malevolent. “People just want to be funny,” he said, “and what comes out is unacceptable, whether they realize it or not.”
I asked the group if they had dinners with friends and family when they were young. They all said yes, it had been a common occurrence in their childhood. Lin said it had always been an exciting event, a chance to meet new and interesting people. It made me think of my dad’s stories, that as a child, he would attend farm event dinners with his father and was mind-blown at the many people he experienced. Especially for children, it is incredibly important that people are exposed to new people groups. It is not always an unpleasant experience, as we tend to stereotype it.
As we dug into brownies and ice cream, I posed the final question: “What kind of person do you want to be?” I heard a lot of adjectives: selfless, caring, free, safe. I believe these relate back to the first question, what it means to be a citizen. Being a citizen, at least according to the people gathered at my kitchen table, means striving to be the best version of ourselves and both living in and providing an environment for others to do so as well.
The evening was thought-provoking for me. Looking back over the conversation, I was surprised that there had not been more conflict. From what little I knew of the attendees’ political views, I had expected argument. Instead, they were unified in the face of the problems they discussed, and the held the same basic values. This taught me something new about citizenship. Citizenship is not about politics or even about the social issues that plague us. Citizenship is about relationships, how we are bound with the common goal of being better. It is not a singular effort, but rather the simultaneous effort of everyone in the community.
Within this simultaneous effort, there are hundreds of tiny exchanges that occur every day. My parents, nurses, willingly provide healthcare for the community. In exchange, they expect a salary with which to support their family. Andrew relied briefly on unemployment from the government. He now works, provides a service to the community, and pays taxes. We give police officers power over our community, and in exchange we expect safety. I offer an intimate glimpse into my thoughts and ideas and expect that the reader will respond with thought and at least a minimal level of respect. This social trading is what holds together our society, so it makes sense that when the exchanges become unfair, or unreciprocated, problems arise. Being a citizen then, means making fair and noble exchanges, demanding what we must, and compromising when we can.
In the discussion, Lin mentioned how hard it is to solve problems in America because in our world everyone has vastly different opinions of what must be done. So, in the end, nothing is done. For us to answer the question of how we can solve problems, we must first answer the question of how we can live together better.
The second lesson I learned hails back to the reading “Green Fire, the Still Point, and an Oak Grove.” This reading left an imprint on me because it teaches the importance of knowing the whole story before passing judgement on an issue. I tried to apply this concept in the discussion. Rather than responding immediately to a statement with my own opinion, I attempted to hear the whole story by asking questions and learning the background of the speaker.
This helped shape the discussion and I saw my dad soften towards some of Andrew and Lin’s ideas that I knew he disagreed with. Knowing his life story explained why he felt strongly about representation of minorities.
This was an evening that formed some of my fundamental beliefs about citizenship. I hope to become a better citizen, and I think it begins with dinners like these.