My Kentucky’s Kitchen Table took place at my own dining room table in London on Sunday, November 4. London is a small town in Southeastern Kentucky where family and faith reign supreme in most circles. Five people gathered around the table that afternoon: my mother Heather and Grandmother Martha, our neighbor Kristen, my former high school teacher Charles, and me (Jeremy). All attendees of our dinner helped to reflect the diversity of our community through political, religious, economic, and age differences.
Heather is a high school math teacher at Corbin High School in nearby Corbin, Kentucky. She is a white middle-class citizen, aged 47, and she identifies as both a strong Republican and a Baptist Christian. Her religious identity is most influential in her stance on social issues and political opinions.
Martha is a retired social worker and a custodian at her local church. She identifies as Caucasian, though she is 1/8 Cherokee Indian and her skin tone is dark, aged 74, and she lives below the poverty line in her retirement. She identifies as a political independent and a strong non-denominational Christian. She credits both her religious identity and her life experience for influencing her political and social outlook.
Kristen is an unemployed high school student at local South Laurel High School. She is a white, wealthy young woman, aged 18, who identifies as a political independent but a staunch Catholic. She credits her religious identity most for her stance on social issues, but she doesn’t have much interest in political disputes.
Charles is a mechanic at Aisin Automotive Casting, LLC. outside of London. He is a white middle-class citizen, aged 47, and he identifies as a “blue dog” conservative Democrat but does not have any religious affiliation. He credits his upbringing in a military family for influencing his beliefs and stance on political and social issues.
I, Jeremy, am a student at WKU studying Mechanical Engineering and seeking a certificate in Manufacturing and Logistics. I am a white middle-class citizen, aged 18, and I identify as a strong conservative Republican and a Baptist Christian. I credit my upbringing and religious identity for influencing my stance on both political and social issues.
After a short time of mingling to get to know one another better, we sat down to dinner around the ovular table and passed the rice, beans, biscuits, chicken, and potatoes that everyone brought. I then probed the question, “Besides voting, obeying laws, and paying taxes, what does citizenship mean to you?”, and the conversation that followed was nothing that I could have anticipated. Martha broke the silence with her response, “I think that being a citizen means you should love your neighbors.” She then elaborated that she believes each person has a responsibility to serve their community and their neighbors. Since we are all unequally blessed, it is important that we share our blessings with others. Everyone else’s responses began to echo the same concept of the “golden rule”. Heather added that citizenship is an active role, but it also brings a sense of identity. As a teacher, Heather believes her responsibilities are not only to educate her students in school subjects, but also she believes it is her duty as a citizen to mentor to her students in need. Charles then adds that being a productive member of society is crucial to being a good citizen. He believes that each citizen should do his or her best to provide for their own and others in need. Also, he believes good citizens should exercise their freedoms since in fact “Our nation was built upon freedom.” Kristen then chimed in that citizenship is dependent on how much a member actually produces towards the whole. However, she argues that since some people aren’t as capable of helping themselves, others should be willing to provide them aid. I agreed with most of their sentiments, that citizenship is an active role and that it is our duty as citizens to love one another.
In the small town of London, most people call each other by name as they pass by because they have a sense of appreciation for one another and the rest of the community. This could lead into my next question, where I asked the group “What kind of community do you want to live in?” The unanimous response was that we all wanted to live in a place just like we already do. Martha and Charles both believe that the concept of “southern hospitality” cannot be replicated in the more dense northern cities because it is impossible to know who your community members are. People become numbers on a statistics sheet rather than names and faces that Heather argues “feel more like family”. Kristen believes a community should be safe enough that kids can play outside without their parents hawking them, prompting Martha to lament, “When I was growing up, we didn’t lock our doors.” Today, it is difficult to imagine leaving your home and family defenseless, but my ideal community would have enough love and respect for one another that there would be no need for locks on the door.
Later in our meal, I poked another burning question upon the desks, this one more tailored to the adults at the table. “How do you think your job relates to your role as a citizen?” Martha was the first to speak once again, beginning with, “Oh Lord!” She then detailed her experiences as a social worker in Perry County, Kentucky where she experienced many broken lives and families on a daily basis. Heather then commented that as a teacher, she knew she influenced hundreds of students each and every day, some more than others. Charles then noted that as a mechanic, he doesn’t deal with people directly as often as the others, but he knows his work is responsible for the safety of countless people. I added my experience as a grocery store worker where I worked around the public and enjoyed helping elderly women to their cars and having brief conversations with customers. Overall, we all agreed that whatever the job was, it wasn’t simply to receive a paycheck, but rather the job was a vessel to serve others in the community in whatever way that the job made possible.
Heather, Kristen, and I were the three most conservative at the table. We each opposed government welfare programs, contrary to Martha and Charles. I cannot speak for Heather and Kristen, but a very different side of the issue struck me when Martha recalled memories from deep in her past. She shared with us a story that her mother told her long ago about how harshly the Great Depression treated the coal mining industry of Southeastern Kentucky. Her parents and others were so starved for food in the height of the depression that they waded 4 miles of knee-high snow in November of 1932 in order to vote for FDR and his New Deal program. Not only did this strike me as a horror that I could not imagine, but it also defined what a true citizen should do: go out at any cost to vote for what you believe is right.
In To Hell with Good Intentions, Ivan Illich argues that Americans should stay out of foreign aid until they fix problems in their own country. The conversation at our kitchen table agrees with Illich to an extent, because it was our shared belief that American communities should be closely connected and loving, while many communities in America are hostile environments that are in need of repair. America is a strong nation but a broken one, just as Illich says, and the only way for us to fix our broken nation is for our communities to love one another once again. Furthermore, our broken communities are a wicked problem. This is true since every day our communities become more and more broken as long as we don’t love our neighbors, and the only way for the problem to truly be solved is for everyday citizens to take action and become better members of their communities, rather than staying grounded on what they believe is correct.
The Kentucky Kitchen Table was so much more than the assignment I had anticipated. The opportunity to sit at dinner with people who share different backgrounds and opinions was something I expected to be argumentative, but instead it was a learning experience for everyone in attendance, especially myself. Often times I get caught up in my own worldview and shut down contrasting opinions as incorrect, but sitting at dinner with these people allowed me the opportunity to connect with them like they were family, thus opening my mind to why people believe what they do. Put simply, I learned from my peers that right and wrong are the extremes of the political spectrum, but following the “golden rule” as a citizen can have many different outcomes that are all right. I only wish there was an opportunity for others to sit and learn from their neighbors as to why they are different, rather than pushing them away because of their differences.