What a great time to host a dinner with so many unique conversation opportunities! On November 21st, two days before Thanksgiving, we gathered at our Manhattan home for a Kansas Kitchen Table dinner. We chose to sidestep a pot-luck and make home-made pizzas instead. Our gathering included my wife Shauna, our neighbor Shirley, family friends Cory and Amanda, and classmates Justin and Andra.
Shirley has lived in the same Manhattan home for nearly 50 years and spends her time in retirement traveling with her husband Bob. Although we have “known” Shirley and Bob for nearly 20 years, this is only the second time we have had dinner together. Unfortunately, Bob was ill this evening and was not able to participate. Cory was one of the first kids our son met when we moved into our neighborhood in 1999. His wife Amanda teaches Dramatic Arts at Topeka High School. We know Cory and Amanda well, but since we don’t usually spend time discussing politics, tonight’s discussion allowed us to learn about each other in a different way. Andra is in two rhetoric courses with me and is from Olathe, Kansas. Justin is a linebacker on the Kansas State University football team and we have three courses together. Our group included representatives from the Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z. We are from Atlanta Georgia, Olathe Kansas, Manhattan Kansas, and the Mountain West. I felt that our diverse group of participants provided a great representation of time, space, and experiences that showed itself during our dinner conversation and our discussion on democracy and citizenship.
Cory and Amanda arrived first and we spent a few minutes catching up on life and appreciating their relief at having the next few days off work. They had driven from Topeka, and were happy to just relax for a bit. As more guests arrived, we expanded our conversation to make room for introductions, short histories, and general pleasantries. Shirley arrived next, and we spent some time talking about how she remembered our house from 40 years ago when the original owners lived here. It was nice that she knew about our home’s history and was able to share her memories with us. Andra arrived a few minutes later and was followed shortly by Justin. Once everyone arrived, our casual conversations turned more serious as I described how we would make our pizzas. It turns out that not many people have made their own pizzas, so we were in for an adventure. While we were making our pizzas, we engaged in familiarizing conversations – using short personal stories to get to know each other better.
Amanda shared stories about the plays she directed in Wichita and Topeka, and provided our group with some light-hearted anecdotes that helped set the mood as light, funny, and fun. Her stories provided the opportunity everyone needed to settle in to their unfamiliar setting and get comfortable with each other. Justin, Shirley and Andra spent some time talking about football and the great win the team had over Oklahoma State – it was an animated, high energy exchange between a player and his newfound fans. Andra, Justin and I talked some about upcoming assignments that piqued the curiosity of the other guests, who were interested in the details of our small group deliberation event later in the month, and the events on campus that led to that project. We spent some time discussing the rare opportunity we had to work with another course to address campus civility issues. These conversations provided an easy segue into our main discussion topic – democracy and citizenship.
Amanda kicked off our discussion on the topic of citizenship benefits and responsibilities and we worked our way around the table to hear everyone’s ideas. As we took our turns there were many pauses so that we could ask and answer questions, explore conflicting views, and in some cases, search for ways ideas could be incorporated into a broader idea of citizenship. Ideas about responsible citizenship included some of the basics like voting, taxes, law abidance, and jury duty, but also included the idea that the only true responsibility of citizenship might be “obeying the law.” It was interesting to hear Cory’s perspective that citizenship responsibilities could be satisfied by not inhibiting progress by others. Cory suggested that a person who spent their entire life in meditation shared the same benefits of citizenship as someone who was a political or social activist or volunteered all of their free time supporting others. As we worked our way around the table, the general agreement was that there is a difference between responsibilities of citizenship and the responsibilities of community. Everyone agreed that we should act to safeguard our families, neighbors, and communities, and that we share a responsibility, according to our abilities, for making our communities better places to live. We took turns choosing follow-up questions and spent quite a lot of time on the questions: “Do you know your neighbors,” “What kind of person do you want to be” and “What social issue is closest to your heart and why?” I felt that our group was pretty unified in our expectations for each other and our community.
Our gathering provided a clear example of how we can use small groups to shape our democratic society. Although our gathering was not organic, we took away the same lessons that an organic gathering would have produced; that each of our group members was able to see how repeated discussions could lead to the development and adoption of actionable ideas to improve our communities. Amanda and Cory saw that they could impact their neighborhood safety if they become more aware of their neighbors. And, that I might achieve better outcomes on improving our neighborhood roads if I work with my neighbors to build a unified voice. We each have an anecdotal example of how we can extend our discussions outside the kitchen to put our values and convictions to work in our neighborhoods and communities. This was a fun and valuable experience!