Small Town Democracy

By Mary

My Kitchen Kitchen Table took place in Glendale, KY, the quiet little town in central Kentucky that I call home. We sat around my family’s kitchen table, the table that my siblings and I sat around for years as kids.

Around the table were six people. My sister, Anne, is a 16 year old junior in high school who is an incredibly talented artist, writer and student who is gifted in not just the arts but in math and science as well. My mom sits at one end of the table. She has been a homeschooling mom of six kids for 28 years, and now is the development director for the local crisis pregnancy center. My dad sits at the head of the table. Dad is an engineer who works as the director of a healthcare clinic. My brother David sits across from Anne. He is 23 years old, works in the Louisville Ford plant as a CAD engineer, loves learning, and is the most industrious person I’ve met. Beside him is his fiance, Anna. David and Anna got engaged the week before we had dinner together. Anna is a senior in college, studying Asian Studies and Chinese. She works at the public library, and as the newest (soon to be) addition to the family, is a very welcome but not a very familiar presence at the dinner table.

We ate an incredibly scrumptious meal of pork, smashed potatoes, green beans, and a dessert of brownies, strawberries and ice cream prepared by my Mom, Anne and me. We had a wonderful time making dinner together.

This is a diverse group of ages, with my parents born in the Baby Boomer Generation, David and Anna born in the Millennial generation, and my sister and I born in Generation Z. Anna grew up in a different family and in a different town, my dad spent his childhood in Tennessee and Indiana, and my both my parents have lived and experienced much more in life than David, Anna, Anne and me.

We had a great conversation about citizenship. I asked the question, “What does citizenship mean to you?” We talked about two meanings of the word of citizenship – citizenship as a noun and citizenship as a verb. We said that to be a citizen (noun) means you have a particular legal status and fulfill duties within that status. To be a citizen (verb) means you take steps beyond just your legal status to improve the world around you. We said that the duty of a citizen is to do what they can. My dad said, “any good that people do – no matter what it is – adds to the greater good. Therefore, a citizen is responsible to do what good they can.”

Anna mentioned that globally, citizen participation is decreasing. We talked about how some countries are implementing compulsory voting laws. Anna talked about a unique system that India employs, where citizens’ thumbs are dipped in ink when they vote, making it easy to identify people who have and have not voted. We talked about how culturally, this system would not fit in in America, but it is interesting to see how other democracies go about the voting process.

I then asked, “Do you see your job as serving a greater purpose?” I picked this question intentionally, knowing that we had a diverse group of jobs and hoping that it would spark good conversation. My mom answered that she thought her job contributed to the greater good because the non-profit that she works for helps create healthy families, and healthy society cannot exist without healthy families. My brother said that he thinks his job in manufacturing definitely contributes the greater good, because every manufacturing plant provides a product to people who need it, whether the product seems “important” or not. He considers manufacturing a “noble profession” because it is not glamorous and doesn’t receive thanks but is instrumental to our society. Anna said that her job at the public library helps the whole community and every demographic, if people choose to take part in it. This, in a way, is a metaphor for democracy and engaged citizenship – if you choose to take part, your participation will benefit you and help strengthen the democracy. If you do not choose to take part, you have only yourself to blame. My dad said that he did consider his job as contributing to the greater good. As the director of a healthcare clinic that provides intensive care to Medicare patients with significant illnesses, Dad sees his job as connecting people with services they need that they wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere. He believes that because no man is an island, helping one person helps a lot of other people in turn.

We would define citizenship as taking deliberate action to do what you can to help another person, even if it is a small act or in an unconventional way like working in a manufacturing plant.

Sitting around the table eating dinner is not new to my family – growing up our family made it a point to stop and eat meals together. But having structured conversation about citizenship drew us together, because it gave us a picture into each person’s perspective on the world. I learned something about each of the people around the table, and developed my view of citizenship by having an intentional conversation about citizenship with my family. Our conversation reminded me of Jane Addams’ “Snare of Preparation” article. In her article, Jane Addams talks about how people often get caught up in preparation to serve and never actually embark to serve. The definition for citizenship that we developed touches on this, as it requires that citizenship be active based not on how large your impact can be, but how meaningful your impact can be. Often people don’t act (or vote, or write to their representatives, or talk intentionally or get involved in campaigns) because they think that it will not matter. In his article “Why Bother?,” Michael Pollan argues that we should bother about taking simple actions that don’t seem to have a large impact because they change ourselves and influence people around us. Our conversation helped relate Pollan’s article about the environment to citizenship. People should care about being good citizens because it makes you a good neighbor, a good friend, a good employee. Acting in the interest of others and not just in your own interest broadens your horizons and gives you an appreciation for people who are different than you. Citizenship is not limited to just political action; citizenship is a mindset that changes the way we interact with others. Only a transformed American citizenry can change American politics. Only citizens who deliberate with one another over kitchen tables, grocery store aisles and across party lines, and stay informed about both relevant issues and the needs of their neighbor can develop a flourishing democracy.