Ten People Around a Kentucky Kitchen Table

By: Brigid

     I dropped the ball andforgot to take pictures, but ten people including myself attended my KentuckyKitchen Table. My brother Eddie, my sister Caelan and her friends Katie,Juliana and Maria, my boyfriend Josh, his parents Michael and Laura, my mom Deborah, and myself were all in attendance at my house, around my kitchen table in Louisville. I was excited because we had people of different ages, genders, religious,and geographic backgrounds. Deborah is a politically active woman from amilitary family who has lived all over the United States. I am her daughter and also a politically active woman, but I was raised outside of Seattle, Washington along with Eddie, a senior in high school, and Caelan, a junior in high school. Even among the three of us, there is some diversity in that while we have all lived in Kentucky for the same amount of time, Caelan was much younger than I was when we moved and so one could argue that she has been more influenced by the area than I have. You could say the same for Eddie as well. I think it is also worth noting that Caelan goes to a private Catholic high school, while Eddie goes to same public high school that I graduated from a fewyears ago. I know Katie more than I know Maria or Juliana, but that is not to say that I know Katie particularly well. She’s from Louisville and goes to the same public school as Eddie. Juliana is a junior at Caelan’s school, and she is also from Louisville. Maria also attends Caelan’s school, but she was adopted from Russia when she was young. Before the dinner, I had never met Juliana and I had only met Maria once. Josh is also from Louisville, and unlike others atthe table, has lived in one place his whole life. I have met his parents before and we have talked a bit, and Michael is from Eastern Kentucky while Laura grew up in Louisville.

            When I asked the first question about what citizenship meant to them, it was hard to steer them away from voting. This might have been because the midterm elections were only a few weeks after our conversation, and Election Day is Deborah’s favorite holiday, so some of the importance placed on voting is understandable. However, the answer that everyone was able to come to a consensus on was that being a good citizen means being actively involved in their community and contributing to that community in a positive way. I think that the group was fixated on voting because they saw it as the predominate way that they could impact their community, which I understand. I think a lot of the national conversation around encouraging people to vote revolves around this idea that voting is important for making decisions about our community, which was reflected at the table.

            Since we had a few young people at the table, I wanted to know how they engaged with their community, since they can’t vote and sometimes they are limited in influencing policy because of that fact. I asked this question in particular to shift the discussion towards other types of engagement by asking people who cannot vote about the alternative ways of political engagement in which they partake. Juliana said that she would go to the administration at her school to advocate for certain issues. Katie talked about how helpless she felt when the Trump administration implemented the Muslim travel ban, but then she saw coverage of all of the protests and she had a little more hope. Eddie said that protesting seemed like an effective way of getting his voice heard even though he is still slightly too young to vote.

            One of my favorite parts of the conversation was when I started talking about how it confused me that I heard adults tell me when I was younger that my generation not only could, but should change the world for the better, but when the Parkland shooting happened, adults rushed to discredit those kids. There is also a generally dismissive tone that I hear from older adults when talking about the political engagement of young people, especially those in high school. The other young people at the table agreed that this disdain that some, not all, older adults have for young people who have political opinions is annoying and frustrating. It infantilizes us, and it helps encourage young people to disengage from politics, because they read the political environment as hostile to them. Michael was right when he said that all that complaining about young people was just an attempt silence those same young people. I think that the main reason behind attempts to silence certain groups of people is that it is easier to ignore the issues those people are advocating for if one just wholesale ignores everything that they say. It is easier to ignore someone than to confront the idea that our world is less than perfect.

            Another one of my favorite parts of the discussion was about volunteering abroad. In my class, we talked about Ivan Illich’s “To Hell with Good Intentions,” and it spurred an interesting conversation in my class about the merits of going abroad to volunteer, even if those volunteers actually do more harm than good, or who only help others in ways that the volunteers want to help them, as opposed to addressing the needs of the people in that specific country. I brought this up at the table, along with a brief summary of the speech and its main points. What I trying to talk about was whether or not volunteering abroad alone sufficed as an indicator of good global citizenship. At the table, we said that whenever someone is trying to volunteer, wherever they may be, they should try to meet the needs of the people who they are trying to help. Deborah said that her grandmother used to go abroad on mission trips, and Deborah always found that to be self-serving because she wasn’t trying to help others on their terms simply to help them; her grandmother was helping people to make herself feel better.

            One thing that I learned is that even if the people at my table did not know what the technical terms “civil engagement” or “deliberative democracy” mean—to be fair, I only know them because of this class—but nonetheless it was important to everyone to be an engaged member of their community. I also learned not to be afraid of deep conversations with people who aren’t the same age as me. I’m relatively comfortable talking about the topics describes above; in fact, I love talking about engagement and working with others to solve common problems. However, most of the time I have these discussions with people who are my own age (e.g. the Citizen and Self class) and I’m not that used to talking about this stuff with people outside my age group. I will occasionally talk politics with people who are older than me, with mixed results, but I don’t really regard the conversation during dinner as a discussion about politics (I deliberatively steered the discussion away topics like voting and the Trump Administration) but a discussion about political philosophy and engagement.

            One thing that I am self-conscious about is that I always have something to say and I sometimes talk too much. This time I really worked on listening to the people at my table and I focused more on asking questions than answering them. I learned that asking the questions can be more fulfilling than answering them because instead of thinking about what I thought and what I was going to say, I was thinking about what other people said.

            As previously mentioned, we explicitly talked about the Ivan Illich reading during the dinner; I wanted to talk about global citizenship and I thought the discussion we had in class about the speech was interesting. I wanted to push them to see what they considered examples of bad citizenship and I think I got that answer, albeit not in those explicit terms.

            I think these table discussions are like mini-brainstorming sessions in the deliberative engagement models. Deliberative engagement is based on the idea that we as a society have to talk through our problems to find solutions, and so it is imperative that we learn how to talk to one another in an efficient, productive manner. As a society, we are uncomfortable with talking about deep subjects like religion or politics because we don’t learn how to talk about these topics and we don’t talk about them. It turns into a vicious cycle. Our class teaches us to talk about big problems in respectful, productive ways, and I think that this project gave me a chance to practice those skills around people that I know really well and people that I don’t know very well.            

      In conclusion, I felt like we had a thorough discussion that I enjoyed, and I followed up with some of the participants and they said they enjoyed it as well. I liked practicing listening and moderating, and I enjoyed talking to people who were not my age. The only person who was my age was my boyfriend, everyone else was at least a year younger or older than me. Overall, it was a fulfilling experience.

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