Left to Right: Caity, Kristy, Steve, Jason, and Pam
My Kentucky Kitchen Table took place at my home in Cave City on November 4, 2018. There were 5 people present at the dinner, not including myself. I invited my parents, my sister, and friends of my parents. Caity, 16 years old, works at a local shoe store after school and is an honors student. Kristy, 46 years old, is my mom, a nurse, and Sunday school teacher. Steve, 51 years old, is my dad and owns and operates a bread business and teaches Sunday school. Jason, 47 years old, is a grandpa and works two jobs in a factory and on his farm. Pam, 53 years old, is a grandma and nurse. Kristy and Pam both have college degrees. Kristy is currently a student at the University of the Cumberlands working on her bachelor’s degree. Steve and Jason both only have high school diplomas.
I started the conversation with the question “beyond voting, paying taxes, and following laws, what does citizenship mean to you?” It took a minute for conversation to really get going. My sister jokingly answered “nothing” after I asked the question, but immediately took it back. We then entered a discussion of American citizenship specifically. Jason was eager to say that citizenship was about freedom. As a group, we talked about how we should be intentional to use our freedom wisely and to help others. Jason and Steve talked about how being a good citizen is being a good neighbor – being there for others and willing to help them. This led to the topic of politics. Everyone concluded that the problem with politics today is people simply aren’t good citizens. It’s rare people actually consider others’ opinions or sides of the story different than their own. All anyone cares about is their political party winning, not who would make the best leader. I then asked, “how can we steer clear from this selfishness in politics?” The elimination of political parties on ballots was suggested by Kristy, but we all were aware that it’s rare this would ever happen. But it was discussed how helpful this would be in making thoughtful decisions – citizens would be forced to vote for candidates based on who they are as people, not on the political party they identify with.
Next, I asked what my guests thought the best things were about our world today. There were some mumbled responses about how that was a tough question. I encouraged the group to take time to really think about what is good in the world despite their instinctive thoughts that the world is bad. Kristy and Pam, both nurses, discussed how the advances in medicine are remarkable and how thankful they are for them. Then, all the adults talked about how technology is good. This quickly turned into a nostalgic conversation as they brought up how calls across the state used to be considered long distance. They all began to share stories from their childhoods – how they would have to wait for their neighbors to get off the phone line when they wanted to call their friends and how their parents never knew their location once they left the house. It was fun for Caity and I to get to hear these stories since we’ve never had to have patience like that with technology at the end of our fingertips.
The next few questions I asked were about neighbors. Jason and Pam have gotten to know their neighbors in every house they’ve ever lived in. My family knows our neighbors but not personally. When I asked what everyone could do to make things better for their neighbors, Jason immediately said “just talk to them. Encourage them.” He then talked about how you never know if other people are going through a hard time and how an encouraging word can go a long way. Pam then talked about doing little nice things. She mentioned that she loves to bake pies or pick flowers from her garden to take her to neighbors. After she told us that, I couldn’t help but encourage Pam to keep doing what she was doing because I thought those little acts of kindness were so awesome. Steve then mentioned that we had good neighbors. He told us that a couple weeks ago, he got a text from one of our neighbors that our pear tree had fallen into the road. Steve was on his way home at the moment and told our neighbor that he would be there shortly to take care of it, but when he got home, the tree was already moved out of the road and into our yard. He then told us that the way he thinks we can make things better for our neighbors is to “be present.” Steve and Kristy then talked about how they needed to do better and be more intentional to build relationships with our neighbors. Caity and I then talked about how our interactions with our neighbors have changed over the years. We used to go outside and play with the kids that lived next door, but once we entered middle school, we stopped talking to them altogether. There was a significant age difference between us, but we talked about how sad it is that they probably don’t even remember our names. Overall, everyone at the table agreed that you can’t say you’re there for your neighbors if you don’t know them.
One of the last questions I asked related to everyone’s jobs. Everyone assumed that their jobs related to their roles as citizens in that they help people. Kristy and Pam help patients get ready for surgery, Jason helps his company make checkout lanes, Steve helps stores and schools sell and serve bread, and Caity helps people buy shoes. However, when I asked if their jobs serve a greater purpose, responses were more hesitant. Altogether, they eventually all said that they did. Steve seemed to struggle with the question the most. He laughed when I first asked it but talked himself into thinking he does serve a greater purpose. “Well, people have got to eat,” he finally said.
I learned a lot during this meal, but the one thing that stood out to me most was that when people talk through it, they see that there’s more good in the world than they first thought. I assumed that as I asked these questions that I would get consistently negative responses about the state of our world today, specifically from Steve and Jason. I was shocked to hear all the positive things they had to say about citizenship, neighbors, and the state of our world in general. Another thing that stood out to me was everyone at the table, at some point in the dinner, mentioned something about needing to better – whether that’s being more positive at work, getting to know their neighbors, or making more informed decisions when voting. This didn’t necessarily surprise me. I fully expected for our conversations to somehow result in feeling like we need to change the way we live. I think that’s just what happens when people talk about the condition of our world today. We’re all aware of the problems, but when we come together and discuss how to change them, we realize that we can make change ourselves.
I walked away from my KKT with “The Snare of Preparation” by Jane Addams on my mind. Based on all the responses I got from my guests, I felt like they had the same mindset as Addams: they just need to do something. And I think that’s totally awesome. It’s one thing to sit in a classroom and talk about how we should talk about things to make change happen. It’s another thing to actually talk about making change happen. This dinner was a really unique opportunity and I appreciated my time with my guests and their vulnerability to share how they’ve been bad citizens. I think asking these questions impacted them far more than they thought it would. They began to seriously consider what they need to change so they can live well with their fellow citizens. I think that now, whether at the hospital or the shoe store or the farm or the grocery store, these workers are going to keep in mind that they are serving a greater purpose of helping people. I think that now these neighbors are going to be intentional to start (or continue) being present and encouraging those they live beside. I think that now these citizens are going to consider the character of the candidates they’re voting for, not just the political parties. I think that part of the answer to the question “how can we live well together?” is talking about how we can live well together – my KKT is evidence of that. What’s the most exciting thing about this dinner is the possibility that this spark in my guests could impact those they come in contact with every day, like Michael Pollan talks about in “Why Bother?” If everyone present at my KKT begins having citizen conversations with those around them, I may soon be living in a community of world changers.