My Kentucky Kitchen Table took place in Cynthiana, Kentucky. Cynthiana is a small town halfway between Lexington, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio. Those who took part in the dinner were Lynda, Les, Anna Jo, Brenda, Steve, Carly, Jim, and myself. I am a freshman physics major at Western Kentucky University. Lynda is a mother of four who works as a secretary at a school. Les is retired from the Marine Corps and works at the Post Office in Paris. He has traveled to over 20 countries around the world. Les and Lynda have lived in Cynthiana for over 20 years. Anna Jo was an inspector for the EPA out of Frankfort. She made sure that coal companies in Eastern Kentucky were up to code. Jim is a retired Sergeant Major from the Army. Anna Jo and Jim raise their granddaughter, Carly, who is a junior in high school. They have lived in Cynthiana for over 10 years. Brenda works in public records at the local hospital and Steve works at a factory in Georgetown. Brenda has lived in Cynthiana her entire life and Steve has lived in Cynthiana for 20 years. Steve moved to Cynthiana from Eastern Kentucky and was raised around coal mining. For dinner, everyone brought an assortment of different soups and sandwiches. For dessert, we had brownies and cookies.
The conversation started with me asking the question, “Beyond voting, paying taxes, and following laws, what does citizenship mean to you?” As I went around the table, the general answer was along the lines of helping our neighbors and the people around us as best we can. We have to live our own lives, but when people are in obvious need, we have the obligation to help. The ways in which each of us help our neighbors did change though. When I am home in the winter and summer, I shovel snow, mow yards, and take the trash to the street for my elderly neighbors. My parents, Les and Lynda, check up on people on our street to make sure they are doing alright. Lynda also regularly talks to her mother and brings her food to keep her company. Since Anna Jo, Carly, and Jim live out in a more rural area, they have a more unique way of helping their neighbors. They watch out for their neighbors’ houses when they are away and shoot groundhogs that are in their yard from their front porch. At this point (and quite a few others), the conversation took a side track. Les started to talk about a recent episode of Alaska: The Last Frontier he watched in which muskrats were being trapped and their fur sold for coats. Jim had also seen a show similar to that and talked about how many skins went into making a coat along with their costs.
For Brenda, the social issue closest to her heart was food stamps. She does not like that she and Steve both work full-time jobs and has a harder time paying for groceries than people on food stamps. When she goes to the grocery store, she buys off brand food just to pay the bills. She finds it unsettling when the person in front of her has a full cart of name brand food and steak, then pays with food stamps. She believes that people are becoming too dependent on the government and people who actually work without government assistance have a harder time paying bills. We all agreed that with many programs, people abuse the system because they do not want to work. Les talked about some people he has worked with that did not want to work and avoided working when possible.
When the conversation shifted to politics and the government, there were quite a few negative opinions. Jim believes that the representatives citizens elect should do what is best for their constituents, but they continue to do what benefit themselves. There was a general consensus that government officials need to do focus on making the right moral decisions in legislation. Legislators do what people want right before elections to get reelected then do what they want the rest of the time they are in office. People help out each other in their communities but the government does not. The government has been helping other countries more than its own citizens. Les said you know a politician is lying if his mouth is moving. Overall, we are all skeptical of the government’s ability to do things correctly.
When I asked what everyone loved most about where they lived, almost no one had the same answer. Brenda liked that she lived close to where she worked; she lives less than a mile away from the hospital. Anna Jo liked that she lived out on a farm away from people, but was still very close to town. Les and Lynda liked that they live in the same area as their parents and are close to their family. Les, Lynda and I live on the east side of town, just within city limits; Brenda and Steve live a few miles further in town; and Jim, Anna Jo, and Carly live on the west side of town just outside city limits.
The dinner concluded after I asked, “Have you ever had a conversation with someone from a really different background than yourself?” Les grew up on military bases, then joined the Marine Corps and Jim retired from the Army. In the military, they encountered a very diverse spectrum of people. Having moved from base to base, Les got to talk to people from all over the United States. Both Les and Jim were able to talk to people in other countries when they were deployed. Steve works in a factory so he sees a few diverse people. The rest of us never really talk to people of extremely different backgrounds because we have all lived in the same general area for most of our lives.
Overall, everyone agreed that we already do what we can for our neighbors. A few thought that if they tried to help people too much, others could be irritated with their interference. Some people want to live their lives without help from others, whether it be from our neighbors or the government. Those at the dinner do what they can for the people around them without being overbearing. We respect the differences in people but realize that we are more similar than we are different. The main reason society is the way it is today is because people do not listen to each other or respect other people’s opinions. If we would listen to what people need and see things from their view, society would be a much better place.
I learned a lot from this activity about different people’s perception of good citizenship. Some of us believe that we should go out in the community and help others, while some help those close to us. The few that I ate dinner with thought that the government has a negative impact on citizenship. When people in communities rely more on the government, they rely less on each other and those around them. I also learned that people live in different areas for different reasons. People choose where to live according to their work, families, or communities. Also, when you live in a small town, there is not very much diversity in people.
My discussion over dinner reminded me a lot of Ivan Illich and good intentions. Ivan Illich believed that good intentions mean nothing when overall it does more harm than good. We all help people around us when they are in need, but we only help at the proper time and certain situations. There are circumstances where it is a personal problem and people do not like others meddling in their business. Everyone needs to be aware of what is needed and not jump at every opportunity they think they may have. Many people value their privacy and do not like others “helping” them to make themselves feel good. Those at the dinner recognized that there are limitations to how much they can help others. Helping in the wrong place is no longer helping, it is hindering.
One of the central questions of Citizen and Self is “How can we have more of a say over our lives – and contribute to others having more of a say over their lives?” From the dinner and discussion, we can have more say over our lives when others help us when we need help. We, as good citizens, then reciprocate and help others that are in need later. If everyone respects each other, we would have much more of a say over our lives. Even though we live in America and have more freedom than any other country in the world, people for some reason do not respect others’ opinions. If we are kind to others, it will be easier for them to have more say over their lives because people will be encouraging them instead of being discouraging.