On November 15th of 2018, I hosted my Kentucky Kitchen Table at my house in Bowling Green, KY. Since all of my friends were at work or busy with assignments, I asked my sister, Sarah, to invite over her friend Kendra. They joined me, my dad, and my younger siblings Kaila, Caydon, and Kiara for a steak dinner. I figured it would not be very safe (or appetizing) if everyone made a dish themselves, so my dad just allowed the younger kids to help him with smaller tasks in the kitchen. We worked together to make steak, macaroni and cheese, creamed corn, green beans, sweet tea, and brownies for dessert. While most of us were family, we have very different personalities and aspirations, and, from what Sarah had told me, I knew Kendra had grown up much differently than any of us. Kendra is seventeen years old and is planning on going to school to become a social worker. I learned that she has been in the foster care system for most of her life due to abusive and alcoholic parents and has not been taught any certain religious beliefs, or even knows if she believes in a God. My dad is 47 years old and a navy veteran. He has been working as an electrical engineer at the same factory in the 200 person town he grew up in since he was honorably released from the military. His parents are pastors, so he is incredibly religious and also very openly pro-Trump. Sarah is sixteen and hopes to become a police officer. She is very much a daddy’s girl and will do nearly anything to please him. Kaila is ten years old, very outgoing, and is extremely determined to become a school teacher. Caydon is nine, obsessed with sports and his Nintendo DS, and has high aspirations of becoming Steph Curry when he grows up. Kiara is six, lives in a fantasy world, and wants to be the tooth fairy when she grows up ( but plans to keep the money ). As for me, I am 18, currently a Psychology major, very passionate about equality and feminism, and want to work as a rape and sexual assault therapist in the future. Now that you understand a little bit more about who was participating in this conversation, hopefully the things said will make more sense.
After my dad prayed over the meal, I began the dinner by asking the question, “Beyond voting, paying taxes, and following laws, what does citizenship mean to you?” All of the older people could agree that one of the main parts of being a good citizen dealt directly with being a loving neighbor to everyone. Of course the inevitable “Make America Great Again” slogan was thrown in there a few times, but ultimately we could all put our differences aside and agree on this main idea. Kiara said she had absolutely no idea what a citizen could do other than vote and follow the law. Caydon, on the other hand, felt very strongly that to be a good citizen you have to clean up the country and make it healthy. This lead to me asking, “How do you practice being a good citizen right now?” We all said something centering around being caring to those around us and sharing love. Kendra added in that she supports those who fight for equality and love for all. My dad believed one of the highest forms of being a great American citizen was by putting your life on the line for someone else’s freedoms whether that be by the military or first responders. We also talked for a while about how it is easy to call yourself a citizen just because you live someplace, but that is not all that citizenship entails. It was brought to my attention that it is very easy to come up with a “beauty pageant” answer to these types of questions when you know that other people who may not believe the same as you will hear what you have to say. I wondered if I had not taken a picture of the table and prefaced with the fact that this was for a project if I would have gotten vastly different results.
Ultimately, after the citizenship questions the conversation moved on to the school day, weather, and funny things we saw online, but I was left thinking about how surprised I was at some of the answers I received. It was shocking to me how much the answers related to our class discussion about empathy. Since both Sarah and my dad are extreme Trump supporters, empathy was the furthest thing from my mind when trying to predict their answers. They both even specifically mentioned treating every class, sexuality, gender, race, and ethnicity with compassion. When thinking about this sudden drastic change in their views, I remembered back to in The Empathy Exams Jamison talked about how hearing about an individual story can make someone feel more empathy. When Kendra was telling us about how she grew up, she told stories about her mom experimenting with both sexuality and religion, and she mentioned several instances where they had to beg for money or food to stay alive. Since this was all of our first times hearing this incredibly emotional story from someone we had all grown to relate to, I believe it caused my dad and Sarah’s eyes to open and allowed them to put themselves in her shoes, which made them show more empathy to those who are different from them. This discussion proved to me just how much empathy can change views and bring people from all different walks of life, personality types, political parties, and generations together enough to agree on the basic idea of compassion.
Caydon’s answer that citizenship is about cleaning up our country and make it healthy initially caused some laughs around the table, but the more I pondered on the thought, I came to agree with him. I found it interesting that the second youngest person at the table was the only one to mention anything about taking care of the environment, while the older people snickered at the idea. This reminded me of our reading No Rock Scorns Me A Whore where the author, an adult, sees the idea of saving the Earth as essentially hopeless since even those who want to make a change have things they refuse to give up. Since Caydon is so young, he still has the optimism most children seem to grow out of as they mature. Those of us around the table who have seen the depressing news stories and statistics about climate change and destruction of the ecosystems seem to have given up on the idea that something can be done to reverse or at least lessen the damage that when presented to us, we literally laughed. Possibly if we looked at problems with the same childlike optimism and hope my brother did instead of just dismissing or even laughing at the ideas that seem impossible, we would have more progress as not only a country but as a society.
Honestly, at first I just saw this project as another homework assignment I had to do, but after completing it, I can see why it is so important. Not only did I get to connect and share what I have been learning in Citizen and Self with the people at the dinner table, but I also got to have a meaningful and eye-opening conversation with the people I care about. This seemingly simple question gave me insight into how my dad, siblings, and Kendra see and experience the world around us. Also, it served as a gateway for me to talk about other deep and controversial questions and topics I had been steering away from for fear of what they would say. In times like these, the media and society focuses on the differences between various groups and tries to create a greater separation between political parties, races, genders, sexualities, religions, and any other way people like to define themselves. Even with one short discussion, I have seen how easy it is to come together and make decisions when everyone is polite, respectful, and open-minded like every good deliberation should be. By seeing these impacts first hand, I will definitely use these techniques in the future when potentially divisive topics arise, which often happens around the holiday season. Hopefully, in this upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas season, not only me but also my family and Kendra can use the empathy and communication skills we exercised during this dinner to discuss and solve problems in a more effective and humble way. With this new open and free communication between me and my father, I am sure we will grow to live better together while still respecting our differences. My biggest lesson learned from this dinner was that although everyone has different experiences, those differences should not divide or discourage us, but instead they should help bring us closer together through freely sharing our ideas in a respectful way that can work to open the eyes of those participating.