We gathered for dinner at Donna’s home in Manhattan at six in the evening. Donna and Ben had prepared Kus-Kus with a side of fruit with Miranda bringing garlic bread while I provided the all-important wine. Ben is retired but in a former life taught communication studies at Kansas State. Donna still worked actively at the university and among communities across the state facilitating deliberation on topics she held near and dear to her heart. Miranda was a student, sitting quietly. Our conversation began with the meaning of citizenship. Though hard to define as an abstract concept there was a concrete belief that citizenship necessitated civic participation. Donna brought up Jury duty, while never directly stating so, expressed frustration with those who skip out on what she saw as the manifestation of a shared civic obligation. From there, Donna and Ben shared war stories about the different juries they had served on. The conversation turned to jury nullification, leading us to grapple with the difficulty of what participation required. Was it enough to show up or is there an unspoken direction that citizens must follow once there. Donna, Ben, Miranda and myself quickly came to understand that we mostly existed to the left of the political spectrum so our conversation naturally struck to those perspectives. This can be used as an interesting example of enclave deliberation, as we felt comfortable enough to express political beliefs without appealing to someone else’s sense of fairness. Still, even with similar perspectives the conversation never become an echo chamber of reinforcing inaccurate beliefs, but rather a lively place to share stories. An interesting part came on the Vietnam war. I was curious how Donna and Ben felt about the impact the Vietnam conflict had on them politically. My family immigrated to the US so older leftist perspectives on the conflict were things I only saw in history texts but Donna and Ben had lived it. They shared a deep belief that the war was the defining issue of their generation, still remember specifics of the conflict that I had never learned of. Education was another issue that we all felt strongly about. Apparently Ben paid 125 dollars as for his full tuition at kstate when he was a student, which is now less than ¼ of the cost for a single class. It was interesting to sit with them and hear their perspectives. I had learned from Donna about her interests in regards to housing and water. She told stories of when she sat on an advisory committee for the city reviewing potential “variant” housing providing a real life example of civic participation.
I think the meeting provided a real life example of the potentials and limitations of deliberation. On a positive not Donna and Ben were both pleasant people concerned with the wellbeing of their community. They had both made the active decision to be politically involved when able, and have done so over the course of their lives. In that sense, it was a unique experience to have an earnest cross generational dialogue. One that had given both sides of the generational divide more of an insight into how the other lives. Yet despite the positive quality of our conversation the dialogue wasn’t perfect. Speaking only for myself, there were times were racial differences in the room were acute. Specifically, a moment in the conversation came where the Flint water crisis was alluded to as the impetus for Donna and Ben’s community to relay piping. Although for them this was an innocuous connection since their action was directly linked to the water crisis, for me as a young black man comparing the two is just inappropriate. The Flint Water crisis is symbolic of a systemic neglect which could only happen to black communities, while Flint served only as reminder they could change their piping willy nilly. Even though our dialogues were on the whole fruitful, that does not mean they were perfect. These interactions show has dialogue cannot be a catch all solution since difference is fundamentally incapable of expression. Even if we can talk about a wide breath of issues with commonality the very fact real difference exist between our social lives mean that some gaps will always exist no matter what we talk about. That does not mean that I would through away the dinner conversation we had that night, but rather why dialogue is needed more. It is important for white Americans who are more racially progressive to talk within their communities so that when inter-racial dialogue occurs black people aren’t always forced into a teaching position even if perfect understanding is not possible.