By Mary Beth
On Sunday, November 4th, I went home to Owensboro, Kentucky to host my Kentucky Kitchen Table project. The brunch took place in my home at my dining table, where we ate chicken and waffles, fruit, biscuits and gravy, and hash brown casserole. I invited a neighbor, two of my mom’s co-workers, and one of the co-worker’s fiancé. My neighbor, Julie, has been around for most of my life, but beyond living in the same area, I did not know her very well prior to the brunch. She is a widow, her husband died from cancer when I was very young, and the mother to three biracial children-two daughters and a son. Julie works at a rape crisis center where she counsels victims of sexual abuse. My mom’s coworkers, Delanie and Sarah, I have met before when visiting my mom at work. Delanie is fresh out of college, in her mid-twenties, and lives alone in a rural area outside of town. Sarah, in her thirties, is engaged to Ben. Both Sarah and Delanie are social workers, specifically working in case management. Ben and Sarah live together and have three rescue dogs. Ben is a technical writer for BB&T Bank, also in his thirties, and works from home. I had not met Ben prior to the brunch. My mom was also there, and she is in her late forties and works as a social worker. The last guest is me, Mary Beth, an 18-year-old girl who attends Western Kentucky University and is double majoring in International Affairs and Public Relations.
I began the conversation with the required question: beyond voting, paying taxes, and following laws, what does citizenship mean to you? Julie was the first to answer, saying she believed citizenship is speaking up for those that are oppressed. She stated being a good citizen is an extension of “love thy neighbor.” Julie is Methodist and very religious, all though she said she rarely agrees with everything said at her church. To her, citizenship is thinking outside one’s own family and taking care of others when needed, stressing the importance of volunteerism. Delanie spoke next, saying she believes citizenship is being tolerant and respectful of other people’s religious views and opinions. She also thinks citizenship should emphasize integrity and honesty.
Sarah chimed in, agreeing with Julie, saying being a citizen requires compassion and giving to others. Ben answered next, straying away from the moral obligations the others at the table had expressed, and spoke about the importance of being involved. He thinks as citizens, it is our duty to pay attention to politics and the world around us, particularly local news. While national politics often hold our attention more, he thinks citizens should be knowledgeable on what is happening in our community as it often has more impact than we realize. I mentioned the primaries coming up and how many people do not even know who they are voting for, myself included. Ben agreed on this sentiment, saying we all should pay more attention to the things that will impact our everyday lives and be aware of what is happening in our community.
I next posed the question: what kind of community do you want to live in? Sarah was the first to answer and said she wants to live in a proud community, one that can celebrate and appreciate our community’s history and shared identity. Julie agreed, adding she wants to be a part of a community where individuals understand where their rights end and others’ begin. I brought up the recent event in my hometown where a man dressed up as a Nazi and his child as Hitler for Halloween, saying that the situation was appalling and shed a bad light on our community. They all agreed that the event did not embody what kind of community they wanted to live in, but it made them confront the problem’s our community has. While bad, the situation almost brought the community together, as many people rallied against the man. Delanie said it was refreshing to see the backlash he received, while our community has a long way to go, one man’s actions do not reflect the sentiment of our town as a whole. The topic shifted with Ben jokingly saying his ideal community was one where people went to bed at a decent hour and mow their lawns.
I then asked whether religion influenced how they see themselves. Julie answered quickly, saying it 100% influenced how she sees herself. She strongly believes in the Golden Rule, “love thy neighbor,” and said it is prevalent in every major religion. Sarah and Ben disagreed, as they are not religious. They both agreed religion does not define them as people, rather they chose to live their core values, whether it is rooted in a deity or not. Ben said he believes a person should strive to maintain equality and be a good person, regardless of religion. I liked this part of our conversation because it reflected the diversity of thought among the people at the table. While Julie is very religious and bases her life off her religious beliefs, but Ben and Sarah do not practice any religion at all, they can politely disagree on how it defines them. All parties at the table agreed, however, that being a good person transcends any religion and can be universally practiced.
The topic of conversation shifted as I asked what social issues they all hold close to their hearts. Sarah immediately answered with the right to marry. She and Ben agreed that gay rights are the most important issue to them. Julie agreed, as her son is gay. She added that the oppression of marginalized people is the most important issue, whether it’s women, black people, or the LGBT community. She mentioned a story that happened on Halloween where a fellow neighbor called her daughter the n-word. I was shocked, saying that as a society, you would think we were becoming more progressive, not digressing to old racism. The event also made me think of the book, Love Thy Neighbor, about how quickly neighbors in Bosnia turned on each other and expressed hatred towards one another. Julie explained that her youngest daughter has experienced more blatant racism than her two older college kids. Delanie joined in, saying people are not more racist than previous years, just that the political climate has emboldened them to express it more. They table agreed that with political leaders like Trump, people feel they can express their opinions, however hateful, more freely.
With the topic of political leaders brought up, I asked what advice they would give to those running for office. Delanie advised those running for office to listen to people and what they truly want. Julie stressed the importance of running positive campaigns and not smearing the other candidates, making me think of the presidential ads we watched in class. Ben added to the conversation, saying candidates shouldn’t be afraid to swing for the fences and be brave in taking a stand. He advised aspiring politicians to get more people involved and allow others to express their views. Even though most people have their minds already made up, he thinks it is a poisonous thought to not think that we can make an impact. I mentioned to him a book we read titled, The Political Brain, that states a third of voters already have their minds made up and the goal should be to target those whose minds are not unchangeable.
I ended the conversation on a positive question: what are the best things in our world today? The question was met with silence as all my guests considered something good in the world. Ben finally answered, saying the interconnectivity of the modern world has made it easier than ever to meet new people, learn new things, and encounter ideas different from your own. New technology, he said, has greatly changed the way we communicate and broadened our ability to connect with others. Julie agreed, saying technology can be used for positive change and allow us to see things from others’ point of view. She thinks that in our world, people are given the opportunity to use their voice more.
The whole project reminded me of an article we read in class, “How We Talk Matters.” By sitting around a dining room table and calmly discussing, sometimes disagreeing, we embodied the deliberative engagement the article mentions. Deliberation, rather than argument, centers on the ideas of divergent thinking, a “groan zone” of figuring out a possible solution, and convergent thinking, finally coming to a common ground. My guests showed that deliberative engagement on a personal level can affect the way we interact with our community.
The Kentucky Kitchen Table project inspired me to engage in more thoughtful conversations with my peers and college community. Finding a common ground, something all as humans can agree on, is not as impossible as we previously thought. When we come together, share a meal, and discuss what it means to be citizens, we acknowledge the rights of others to be heard. The project has taught me the importance of not only being a good citizen, but having beliefs on what citizenship is.