Grantee: Fort Phil Kearney/Bozeman Trail Association, American Indian Interpretive Ranger Program

A Wyoming Humanities Crossroads Grantee.

Two students are being selected to participate in the program at the Fort Phil Kearny and Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmarks during a ten-week period this summer. The program will provide American Indian college students with employment and career advancement opportunities and expand the historical perspectives and content of interpretive programs, with a focus on Native American culture and history at the interpretive sites and the Wyoming landscape.

Grantee: Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, Bob Kuwahara & the Nisei Animators Exhibit

A Wyoming Humanities Spark Grantee.

In 1959, a cartoon mouse named Hashimoto-San stepped onto the silver screen for the very first time. He wasn’t destined for celebrity—like that other mouse—but to his creator, Bob Kuwahara, he was everything. Bob had been an animator in some of America’s biggest cartoon studios before World War II, but that all changed when he and 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated in 1942. Visitors to the exhibit learned how Bob and other Japanese American animators like Willie Ito and Gyo Fujikawa used their talents to help bring a little laughter into the lives of incarcerees and eventually go on to create some of the most iconic scenes in animation history.

Grantee: Sunrise Historic and Prehistoric Preservation Society,  Exploring the Earliest Cultures in the Americas

A Wyoming Humanities Spark Grantee.

Dr. Astolfo Gomez and Dr. Leticia Correa from Brazil, and Dr. Rafael Suarez from Uruguay to collaborate on our research at the rare and highly significant Powars II Paleoindian red ochre mine.  Their research in their countries is at rare sites in similar age in their home countries.  While here, they made public presentations about their work and about the cultures in their home countries and how it compares with ours in the U.S.

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/wyoming-is-home-to-the-oldest-mine-on-the-continent-study-north-america-180980134/

We all have work to do to achieve equal representation

Thankfully, Cheyenne isn’t like Minneapolis, Columbus or Chicago, where every time you turn around, another Black person is being killed by a white police officer. But that doesn’t mean Wyoming’s capital city doesn’t discriminate against people based on the color of their skin (or their economic status or sexual orientation, for that matter). That bias just manifests itself in less-violent ways.

And even though most of us knew it to be true already, we hope our two-part “Reaching for Representation” project today and last Sunday will not only spotlight a problem in our community, it will get a conversation going about how to change things for the better here. Because it’s not enough to simply know there’s a problem. We have to work hard at overcoming it.

So where do we begin? Well, the good news is we already have – at least in one small way. Last year, the Laramie County School District 1 Board of Trustees voted to change the way its seven-member board is elected. Starting next year, while four members will continue to be elected to at-large seats (meaning by voters across the state’s largest K-12 district), three will be chosen by voters in areas roughly lining up with the district’s three triads – South, East and Central.

That means candidates for those three seats can focus on campaigning in a smaller area, which should allow more people – including some with fewer resources – to get elected. While there’s no guarantee, of course, the hope is it will lead to at least some minority representation on the all-white board.

But that’s just a small step toward solving a much larger problem. As our series pointed out, we need to be offering seats at decision-making tables all over our community, not just on the school board.

That means elected leaders in our community must intentionally seek out the opinions of those who aren’t represented in key decisions. And they can’t just sit back and say, “Well, our meetings are open to anyone who wants to attend.” They must go to where people live, holding gatherings in low-income neighborhoods and at times when people’s jobs are most likely to allow them to participate.

It means encouraging minority members of our community to serve on committees and provide input before key decisions that affect them are made. And we’re not just talking about government bodies here, either. We’re including the local Chamber of Commerce, nonprofits like United Way, and civic groups like Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions. (After having two minority community members in recent years, this editorial board is currently without a minority voice, so we are working to fix that.)

It should be obvious, but without making this effort, Cheyenne and surrounding communities will continue to perpetuate and exacerbate the disparity between the “haves” and the “have nots.”

Take the area south of the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, for example. Sure, there’s South High School, one of the nicest school facilities in the state, as well as David R. Romero South Cheyenne Community Park. But south Cheyenne also is home to most of the oldest elementary schools in the state, and Johnson Junior High is still waiting for a new synthetic turf football field like the ones built at McCormick and the new Carey Junior High.

Was this intentional discrimination, an undercurrent of preferential treatment or simply an oversight? We don’t know, and it’s not really important at this point. The past is the past. What’s important is that we all make a conscious effort to do better going forward.

But wait, don’t members of minority communities have a role in this, too? Of course they do. In order to gain the representation they deserve, Black, Latinx, LGBTQ and other residents must be willing to step out of their comfort zones and make themselves heard.

That doesn’t just mean deciding to run for elected office. It can be as simple as picking up the phone and calling someone to share an opinion about a key issue. It could mean getting a group of friends together to write emails or letters to advocate for change. It might mean setting aside time and making the effort to attend a government meeting in person so officials can see people care.

For example, if south Cheyenne residents feel strongly that Johnson Pool needs to be renovated, they’ve got to tell council members they want them to make it a higher priority. And those who live south of the city limits might want to lobby council members to annex their neighborhoods into the city so they can press for the same infrastructure upgrades as other areas. (Or they could remind Laramie County commissioners that they represent ALL county residents, not just those who live in rural areas, and ask them to consider funding upgrades.)

Regardless of what action you choose to take, and no matter the color of your skin, we encourage you to do something. Because the status quo isn’t good enough, and the time to move toward equal representation is now.

WE WANT TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK: Contact us via email at opinion@wyomingnews.com.

Article published by the Wyoming Tribune Eagle: https://www.wyomingnews.com/opinion/staff_editorials/we-all-have-work-to-do-to-achieve-equal-representation/article_bb31ae33-7324-557f-b9f6-2237e543a74e.html

‘Love it and leave’: The choices facing Wyoming’s youth

In the fall of 2017, then Hot Springs High School senior Stormy Cox wrote of her home state: “In my heart I would love to stay in Wyoming … The majority of my family lives in Wyoming. It’s hard to leave all of them behind and be on my own. If I could stay in Wyoming and still pursue my dreams I would.”

Her sentiments were collected as part of a project that I and Felicity Barringer, Writer In Residence at the Bill Lane Center for the American West, undertook. The goal was to understand young people’s attitudes about a future in their hometowns and in the state. We asked Cox and a couple dozen of her classmates where they envisioned themselves in five years and what it would take for them to stay or, if they do leave, to return to Wyoming.

Students’ answers revealed a genuine love for their community and the sprawling, sparsely populated landscape integral to life here. The students felt a particular appreciation for the familiarity and support of small-town life, including what they described as efforts among teachers and other adults to prepare them for the world beyond Thermopolis, Hot Springs County and Wyoming.

Those efforts to prepare young people for a life somewhere far away seemed to come in part from a sense of resignation, some students said.

In their communities, where aging populations held power and resisted change, they felt there was an unspoken expectation for kids to “love it and leave it.”

More than three years later, a check-in with Cox and other young adults across the state reveals that real-world experience has sharpened many’s beliefs about a future in Wyoming. Though many love their home state and would like to build a future here, they worry about a shrinking economy and a general resistance to change and inclusivity.

Cox, 20, now lives and studies art education in Bozeman, Montana, a 4.5-hour drive from her hometown. In 2017, she wanted to become a special effects makeup artist, a vocation she was certain required leaving Wyoming.

The years since high school graduation have solidified her belief that Wyoming career opportunities still seem limited to the “practical,” she said, like jobs in the volatile fossil fuel extraction industries, healthcare, schools and service sector.

“I love to go back to Thermopolis to visit,” Cox told WyoFile recently. “But I would never move back permanently. It’s not really a good place for young people; not enough opportunity to support a young lifestyle of trying out different careers and meeting new people.”

Wyoming youth at a crossroads

For some young people in Wyoming, it’s difficult to imagine making a future in the state beyond taking advantage of the Hathaway Scholarship (funded with the state’s vast mineral wealth) to attend the University of Wyoming or  one of the state’s seven community colleges. Economies and populations are growing quickly in surrounding states while Wyoming’s rates lag. The state is also saddled with a tax-and-revenue scheme that renders economic diversity a net-loss on its budget.

The portion of Wyoming’s workforce under the age of 25 has been declining, according to data from the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services. (Eda Uzunlar)

That doesn’t add up to a sense of opportunity that many young people seek upon high school graduation.

The total number of wage earners throughout Wyoming has trended downward since 2008. There were 43,798 fewer wage earners in the fall of 2020 (during the pandemic) compared to the fall of 2008 (an energy boom year), a 11.4% decline, according to data compiled by the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services.

The trend is worse for young wage earners in Wyoming; a 30.8% decline among those 24 and younger for the same period. That age group represented 18.4% of all working persons in 2008, and 14.4% in 2020. Wyoming’s millennial population shrunk by 5.1% from 2014 to 2018 — the third highest rate of decline in the nation, according to Workforce Services data

“If millennials continue to move to big metro areas, the state may face a serious labor force shortage and faster population aging in the near future,” Wenlin Liu, chief economist for Wyoming’s Economic Analysis Division, wrote in the August 2019 edition of Trends.

Learning from attempts to shape a future Wyoming

WyoFile reached out to six young people living in or from Wyoming (read their stories here), connecting to most through channels of community activism and civic participation. Several themes emerged, including a sense of duty to “get involved” to help make the type of changes necessary to shape a Wyoming where they can feel secure about staking their future.

Their efforts include advocating for clean energy and taking action to mitigate climate change. They’ve attended city council meetings, tracked state legislation and reached out to lawmakers asking for a higher minimum wage, equal pay for women and policies to diversify the state’s economy.

Sometimes, though, those very efforts result in a sense of hopelessness for the potential to budge Wyoming’s power dynamics and culture.

Stormy Cox of Thermopolis works on a three-panel painting at an outdoor event at Montana State University. Cox says she will return to Wyoming to complete her art education degree, but says she’ll likely move away to establish her career. (Lyla Brown)

After high school graduation in 2020, Tanner Ewalt of Casper helped organize Black Lives Matter rallies in his hometown. Though he was inspired to see so many people turn out in support, other individuals intimidated protesters by brandishing guns at them, “because we dared to say, ‘hey, maybe police shouldn’t be brutalizing citizens,’” Ewalt said.

“I would love to live in Wyoming and get married and raise kids here,” Ewalt said. “But I can’t, unless the state goes through radical change, very quickly. I don’t foresee that happening.”

Emilee Thomas, 21, of Green River, advocates for women and Wyoming’s LGBTQ community. She contributes her time to environmental causes and champions pathways to more diverse and sustainable career opportunities that can help young Wyoming residents make a life for themselves in the state.

But pervasive attitudes against immigrants, particularly dismaying in a community with a rich multicultural history, Thomas said, speak to what feels like a growing resistance to change and equality. There’s also a general dismissiveness toward young people who advocate for any suggestion for change she believes is necessary to the survival of Wyoming, she said.

One source of discouragement that seems to lay bare the hostility toward change in Wyoming, Thomas said, has been the disregard for masking, and now vaccines, in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People love to say they like to help each other and be neighborly,” Thomas said. “But they thought [masking and vaccination] impeded on their personal liberties. So, yeah, I think that’s the sweet and simple of it.”

Thomas isn’t abandoning hope for change or planning to leave the state, she said. There’s too much at stake, personally and for the family and friends she depends on for a fulfilling life. Instead, Thomas, like several other young people WyoFile spoke with, has decided to narrow her civic efforts in more direct ways in her community.

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It’s enough, as a young person, to learn about your own values and ambitions, Thomas said, then a person can better build on that to help affect change on a more personal level.

Matt Henry is Scholar in Residence at the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming. He said it’s no surprise that students in his classes, which are rooted in environmental justice, tend to be concerned about climate change and the environment. Yet they still span the political spectrum and, like all young people, are still figuring out where they stand on a variety of issues.

When they discuss the state’s future and possibly making a future for themselves here, he said, some students are despondent.

“They’re really torn because they love Wyoming, and I sense a little bit of guilt,” Henry said. “They feel like they should stick around and try to make changes or help things improve. But on the other hand, they can feel hopelessness to such a degree that they feel like they can’t make an impact.”

Wyoming is relying on young people to help figure out a lot of really tough challenges, Henry said, yet there’s not a high level of outreach from those in power.

“It just seems like they don’t feel their voices are being heard or that anybody’s really asking them what they want, what type of future they want to be a part of,” Henry said.

Read the profiles of Wyoming youth here.

Reporting was made possible through a grant from Wyoming Humanities, funded by the “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Portraits of Wyo Youth: Six Visions of a Future in the State

Wyoming stands at the crossroads of a permanently shrinking coal industry and a historic budget crisis as its dominant conservative politics move further to the right on several issues.

Presented with these factors, a troubling number of Wyoming’s young people choose another route altogether: the one that leads out of state.

The portion of Wyoming’s workforce made up of young people continues to shrink as many choose to leave Wyoming rather than stake out a future in their home state.

“The consensus [among young people] is Wyoming is beautiful, but the communities are very much not welcoming,” said Tanner Ewalt, a University of Wyoming freshman from Casper. “Not to be rude, but it’s a bunch of old people who tell you how good things used to be and they don’t want things to change.”

Ewalt is among the ranks of young people in Wyoming who have attended city council meetings, reached out to legislative representatives and joined grassroots movements to address climate change and advocate for social justice in Wyoming and beyond. He said young people — not all of them — generally want more diverse communities and more diverse job opportunities while preserving the state’s wild spaces and small, home-town familiarity.

There’s no revolution of young Wyomingites organizing to nudge the state’s culture and identity in the direction they want to see. But those who have tried to help shape the state’s future, in big ways and small, are learning from their experiences and assessing how — and whether — they’ll be a part of it.

In collaboration with the Wyoming Humanities Council’s WY It Matters initiative, WyoFile reached out to several young people in the state to ask about their vision for Wyoming and their potential role in it. Here is what they had to say.

Tanner Ewalt

Age: 19

Hometown: Casper

Occupation/civic involvement: Student, University of Wyoming

Tanner Ewalt grew up in Casper where his parents worked in the oil and gas industry. Ewalt jokingly said his father, in his 40s, has the body of an 80-year-old due to the physically demanding nature of the work. It’s not a vocation Ewalt intends to follow. Instead, he’s interested in a career rooted in civil rights and law — an ambition he’s certain will require him to leave the state after college.

“If you aren’t planning on going into oil or oil-adjacent fields, and even if you are, it’s really bleak,” the 2020 Natrona County High School graduate said.

Ewalt is finishing up his freshman year at the University of Wyoming, happy to take full advantage of the state’s Hathaway Scholarship program. After earning his undergraduate degree at UW, he plans to go to law school, maybe in Wyoming, but more likely outside the state.

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“I specifically want to go into civil rights law and maybe one day run for office, and I don’t see that gelling with where Wyoming is at, and I don’t see that changing in the future,” Ewalt said. “I don’t have my heart set on staying in Wyoming.”

Ewalt has frequently attended local city council meetings, and he often reaches out to his legislative representatives regarding social justice issues and to advocate for Medicaid expansion. He helped form Casper Youth for Change, which in 2020 organized rallies for the Black Lives Matter movement and transgender rights. He said the experience was both exhilarating because of the number of people who came together for social justice, and disheartening for the fact that so many others in his hometown brandished guns at the young activists.

“There’s only so much activism I can do with people screaming at me before I go, ‘You know what, have it your way. I’ll go somewhere else. I’ll take the education that you guys provided, I’ll take it to a different state,’” he said. “There’s only so much that you can pour into a place that hates you before you get tired and say ‘OK, well, I tried. Sorry, I tried. I’ve got to get out.’”

The state’s outdoor opportunities are a “treasure,” Ewalt said, and he loves the small-town feel and sense of familiarity in Wyoming. But those qualities contradict with a political landscape that makes anybody who doesn’t lean far-right feel that they are not welcome, he said.

Ewalt said he’d like to see more “diversity of thought” in Wyoming, particularly in its politics. He said Wyoming seems stuck in a downward spiral where young and more progressive people are made to feel unwelcome so they leave rather than stay and get involved to change the political and cultural landscape.

One way to address the issue, Ewalt said, would be to forgive student loans in exchange for living and working in the state for five years after graduating. More young people might get involved in local civic matters and politics, and maybe the Wyoming Legislature would no longer look like a “retirement home,” he said.

“They’re going to bring diverse ideas, they’re going to bring solutions to the problems we’re seeing, they’re going to bring capital — both financial and idea-based capital — and they’ll have a vested interest in making their community better,” he said.

“I really hope that older people who are leading can connect with the idea that, well [the past] may have been great for them,” Ewalt continued. “For us, Wyoming feels like a place that you get stuck in, not a place that you want to be in, because there’s no foreseeable future for us.”

Meghan Smith

Age: 26

Hometown: Wheatland

Occupation/civic involvement: Sheridan Tent & Awning Co.

Meghan Smith exudes confidence about staking her future in Wyoming. But she didn’t always feel that way. After graduating high school in Wheatland, the daughter of a game-warden father and detective mother eagerly moved to South Dakota, sure that her future lay beyond Wyoming’s borders.

Meghan Smith, Wheatland. (Meghan Smith)

“One of my biggest headwinds about living in Wyoming was just, it’s kind of notorious for being close-minded; this is the way things have always been done, so this is how they’re always going to be done. Not a whole lot of room for growth,” Smith said.

But South Dakota wasn’t a fit, either, so she returned to Wyoming to continue her education at the University of Wyoming. From Laramie she moved to Cody where she worked at the Silver Dollar Bar, then to Sheridan to work as a security officer at the Wyoming Girls School.

Along the way she grew, with the help of trusted mentors. Smith said she’s gained confidence in herself and learned how to seek out the things she loves about her network and community, even though there are still a lot of things about Wyoming she’d like to see change.

“If I could change one thing, I think I would try to provide a platform that allows people to feel more comfortable to gain knowledge about stuff that they’re not very confident about, politically and otherwise,” she said.

Today, Smith works at Sheridan Tent & Awning Co. She recently bought a home and feels comfortable about her future in Wyoming.

“I would really like Wyoming’s future to involve land and wildlife conservation,” Smith said. “I don’t want to live in a day where hunting is no longer common practice. And I imagine a Wyoming future with more opportunity, opening its mind to other [uses for] natural resources.”

She said the first and perhaps most profound act toward one’s community is finding your place in it, with room to be yourself. From there, you have the power to support and help shape your community without necessarily being an activist.

“I guess I’m kind of just dipping my feet into sharing in the community as a whole,” she said. “It’s easy to stand on the outskirts of some communities and say this isn’t going to work out for me. But, if this is truly what you love, and this is really where you’d like to call home, I think it’s definitely worth the effort.”

David Holt

Age: 23

Hometown: Douglas

Occupation/civic involvement: Sunrise Movement

David Holt said it’s difficult to clearly see whether his future lies Wyoming or somewhere beyond. “I don’t have anywhere near enough money to move anywhere,” Holt said. “So I‘m hoping I’m wrong about [the potential for] change in Wyoming.”

His ambition is to help bridge the gap between science and politics. “That, in my opinion, would help create a brighter future for a lot of people.”

Holt grew up in a conservative household outside of Douglas. He now lives in Glenrock, a town of 2,600 on the banks of the North Platte River. When he does socialize, he avoids conservative circles and says he feels like an outsider in his own home state. Conservatism in Wyoming, Holt said, feels “cultish” and unquestioned.

David Holt, Douglas.(David Holt)

“I do like to chat with people who are not as [progressive] about things so that maybe I can open them to a different point of view, and a lot of people are willing to listen,” he said. “At the same time, there are those people who will not budge.”

Holt volunteered for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in hopes to make Wyoming’s conservative politics less relevant nationally, he said. Recently, Holt has shifted his attention to another matter he’s passionate about: climate change. He helps out with local chapters of the Sunrise Movement, a youth organization seeking social justice in fighting against climate change.

To better envision a future for himself in Wyoming, Holt said the state needs to come to terms with a transition away from fossil fuels. “Invest very heavily into the [fossil fuel-dependent] communities so people don’t get left behind,” Holt said. “I hate seeing people suffer. But at the same time those fossil fuel companies got to go.”

Wyoming must continue to use its mineral wealth to invest in education, he added. Schools must do a better job providing a solid education in all areas of science and education must also be more accessible to those with disabilities, he said.

Holt said the biggest obstacle to changing Wyoming’s course to a more sustainable future is a culturally ingrained conservative attitude.

“I talk to people who are a little bit more open than you’d think, so I think there is hope. But it’s slim,” Holt said. “Young people know what’s up. They know they’ve been shorted, and there’s a lot of anger and resentment about that. Even though those are not necessarily good emotions, they can be channeled to do good somehow.”

Emilee Thomas

Age: 21

Hometown: Green River

Occupation/civic involvement: Student, Western Wyoming Community College

Like a lot of young adults, Emilee Thomas is learning all she can about herself. She’s not as religious as her parents. She’s an advocate for the LGBTQ community and for women’s rights. She also cares deeply about climate change and the environment, as well as the future viability of her larger southwest Wyoming community where both non-energy and energy-related jobs are disappearing.

Thomas recently risked alienating herself from her community by penning an op-ed that appeared in several Wyoming news publications. She poked at the notion that a new Biden administration pause on federal oil and gas leasing is to blame for recent economic woes in Wyoming and stands in the way of the state’s future prosperity.

Emilee Thomas, Green River. (Emilee Thomas)

There were critics, of course. But Thomas said she was surprised at the volume of positive responses, and especially at personal feedback from people she knew but didn’t realize shared her concerns for a more sustainable Wyoming.

“It just made a big impact on me and made me feel a lot better about staying in Wyoming, because I do love Wyoming. I just hadn’t felt very welcomed,” Thomas said.

Thomas is getting more comfortable with the idea of participating in civic matters, but is careful to focus her efforts. She’s an active member of the Eco Club at Western Wyoming Community College, which has worked to boost a local recycling program and raise money for conservation efforts in Yellowstone National Park. She frequently participates in group and public discussions regarding Wyoming youth and economic transition.

Thomas recently shifted her studies to sociology as a way to pursue her passion for helping at-risk youth. She also sees her studies as a way to advocate for more diversity that she believes must include greater acceptance of migrants, the LGBTQ community, young people and women in elected positions.

“We’re supposed to be all for women’s equality, but I really don’t feel equal in Wyoming,” Thomas said. “I feel uncomfortable going anywhere, even though it’s a small state. I want to feel comfortable going places. I want to feel comfortable being by myself.”

Stormy Cox

Age: 20

Hometown: Thermopolis

Occupation/civic involvement: Student, Montana State University

As a high school senior in 2017, Stormy Cox was determined to leave Wyoming to pursue a career as a special effects makeup artist. Today, though, she finds her path bending back to the state, albeit temporarily. She’ll earn her art education degree at Montana State University in December. From there, she plans to do her student teaching in Cody, 84 miles from her hometown of Thermopolis.

“I can see myself living in Wyoming for a little while,” Cox said. “But I definitely don’t see myself settling permanently. I am hoping to live somewhere a bit more diverse, with more to do and with more opportunities in art.”

Stormy Cox, Thermopolis. (Jennifer Emery Photography)

For Cox, the four years of experience and perspective she’s gained since high school graduation has only solidified her views on her hometown and Wyoming. Although she still loves the small-town familiarity of Thermopolis, she longs for more worldly experiences and a place where she can feel both secure in a career and exposed to new opportunities.

Cox said career opportunities in Wyoming seem tied to what’s practical; agriculture, energy extraction, tourism and the myriad services to support them. Those vocations aren’t always stable, and many don’t pay well. Wyoming schools are an exception, for now, she said. That’s why she’ll do her student teaching in Cody.

“Wyoming relies so heavily on the oil and gas industry that I think a lot of young people kind of see that as their only option,” Cox said. “That or something practical, like teaching or medicine. I also think, with issues of sustainability and climate change becoming a growing concern among younger people, a state that is so reliant on oil and gas is not the most alluring.”

Wyoming, and a lot of small towns in the state, could definitely draw more tourism and businesses seeking a rural quality of life, she said. But it feels like there’s a disconnect between those in power and those who see potential for an evolving Wyoming.

A big part of the gravitational pull on young people to leave the state is the opportunity for more worldly experiences, Cox said, which isn’t unique to Wyoming. But whether the state can draw those young people back relies on job opportunities and a more welcoming and diverse culture.

“I think there are many reasons young people struggle to imagine their futures in Wyoming,” Cox said.

Jack Burchess

Age: 16

Hometown: Gillette

Occupation/civic involvement: Student, Thunder Basin High School

As freshman Wyoming Sen. Troy McKeown (R-Gillette) contemplated whether to support a measure to expand Medicaid during the Wyoming Legislative session in March, Jack Burchess sprang into action with a small team of fellow volunteers to canvas McKeown’s constituents regarding their level of support.

“Most of them were open to the idea,” Burchess said. “But he [McKeown] ended up disappointing his constituents.”

Door-knocking in conservative Gillette — the coal and “Energy Capital” of the nation — isn’t easy, particularly if you’re advocating for progressive political causes or candidates. But connecting with neighbors, urging people to register to vote, organizing and fighting for social justice is already second nature for Burchess, 16, a sophomore at Thunder Basin High School in Gillette.

“I am very involved in my community, and I try to volunteer when I can,” Burchess told WyoFile on a recent afternoon after hanging posters and banners at school in his bid for student body president.

Jack Burchess, Gillette. (screengrab, Better Wyoming youth forum)

His family moved to Gillette from Nebraska two years ago, joining relatives already living in northeast Wyoming. Burchess said he was impressed with the school and community amenities in Gillette; they far exceed community assets of his former home in Nebraska.

Despite his drive to affect change, Burchess said he doesn’t see a future for himself in Wyoming. “There’s something to be said about Wyoming,” he said. “But I plan to leave the state for college and probably for my career.”

Burchess said he’s stunned at the outsized role energy has on Wyoming’s economy, culture and politics. “A lot of people are scared to even discuss or talk about the future or renewable energy,” he said. “I think people are afraid of losing their jobs, especially under the Biden administration, and I understand why this state voted for Donald Trump, again.”

There’s definitely an awareness and a lot of anxiety in Gillette over the prospect of economic calamity, he said. But there are inroads to talking about change without offending those who are skeptical or resentful about changes that are driven from far beyond Gillette.

“When young people realize that their futures are at stake and [they express] those concerns to their family, that is where a lot of this change can happen,” Burchess said.

Reporting was made possible through a grant from Wyoming Humanities, funded by the “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Local Officials Hope Redistricting Looks Different This Time

By Bob Bonnar, Publisher

When the U.S. Census Bureau released preliminary figures from its 2020 census on Monday, it officially signaled the start of the debate in the Wyoming State Legislature over legislative redistricting. Lawmakers tasked with redrawing the boundaries of the state’s legislative districts over the course of the next year got their first glimpse of the numbers that will ultimately dictate their decisions, and some of the most basic parameters of the debate can now be defined.

But numbers don’t tell the entire tale, and this is a story that began long before census-takers began the chore of counting Wyoming’s residents a little more than a year ago.

For the people of Newcastle and Weston County, it began when the Wyoming State Legislature last approved legislative districts in 2012. As a result of that exercise, the boundary for House and Senate districts representing the county were drawn right through the heart of Newcastle, effectively dividing the county.

At the time, local officials and some residents feared that the community’s voice in state government would be diluted — or even lost — because the voting blocks of Newcastle and Weston County were effectively split as well.

“I would really suggest that you guys get lined up for 10 years from now because you’re the big loser in this deal,” State Senator Ogden Driskill (R, Devils Tower) said after his district, Senate District 1, was radically altered in 2012.

Senate Districts Map 66 Legislature

Prior to redistricting he had represented Crook, Weston and Niobrara Counties, and Newcastle, the most populated city in any of the three counties, was effectively right in the middle of that district. Redistricting moved the southern half of his former district, including Newcastle, into Senate District 3, which was represented by Curt Meier of LaGrange, a town more than 170 miles away. Senate District 1 was expanded to the west to encompass part of Campbell County, which became the dominant county voting block in the district.

“I think it’s absolutely tragic that we’ve left the big and powerful with bigger and stronger voices, and the smaller and under-represented with an even weaker voice. It’s not what the framers of the Wyoming Constitution wanted to happen,” Driskill said at the time.

His sentiments were echoed by local officials who feared Newcastle and Weston County were going to find it harder to influence decisions in the state capital.

“Because those (legislative) districts have fallen into the urban centers, we are losing our voice,” County Commissioner Marty Ertman said after the new legislative boundaries were approved in 2012.

Driskill and Ertman had both been elected to their posts in 2010, and the fact that they were relative political newcomers made it more difficult for either to influence the outcome of the redistricting debate, although both tried.

Representative Hans Hunt (R, Newcastle) was also newly elected when the debate over redistricting began in 2011, and his efforts to introduce amendments and offer his own redistricting plan in an attempt to “keep Weston County whole” also failed to gain traction, either in committee meetings or on the floor.

House Districts map 66th Legislature

“The way that the district lines fell 10 years ago was not what we were hoping for,” Hunt, now a veteran lawmaker and former Wyoming House Majority Whip, told the News Letter Journal last week.

Making Lemons Out of Lemonade

The actual impact of that last redistricting exercise, however, may not have been as negative as local officials feared at the time.

“I don’t think Newcastle has been represented well at all because of the way districting went. I don’t know that it hurt us, but I don’t know that it has done us any good either,” Newcastle City Clerk/Treasurer Greg James admitted.

When the issue of redistricting was debated a decade ago, James was Newcastle’s mayor. In response to the legislature’s decision to split Newcastle’s voting block into two different senate districts, he encouraged local residents and interest groups to use the new reality as an opportunity to double-down on their advocacy by contacting the senators representing both districts to voice their concerns and provide local input.

“We need to be in contact directly with them, and need to be pounding on them,” James said in 2012.

Those sentiments were echoed by Driskill at the time, and he encouraged voters in Newcastle and Weston County to turn the situation into an advantage by demanding representation from their senators.

“I would recommend you use the heck out of everybody. I would stand hard on Curt, and he’ll represent you fine,” Driskill said. “Stand on me and use me as well. You do have multiple representation across those lines, and they’re obligated to represent you. I would not let them forget that, regardless of where they live. You’re alright as long as you fight to keep your representation, but if you let down, they’ll head north and south on you,” Driskill warned.

Local officials and voters alike took his words to heart, and Weston County’s legislative delegation actually grew in some respects because of efforts made by those involved to strengthen lines of communication.

“On the whole local governments did try to keep me informed, and I made a conscious effort to keep in touch with them on my end,” said Hunt.

Meier, who had suddenly become Newcastle’s senator, said he actually welcomed the opportunity to serve Niobrara and southern Weston counties when his district shifted north.

“It wasn’t hard. The folks in Newcastle and Lusk are even more conservative than the folks around Torrington, and I’m more conservative too,” he told the News Letter Journal on Tuesday. “The Weston County people were just a great group of people, and easy to talk to.”

Meier admitted that the size of his new district presented some challenges, but said that logging miles to cover large legislative districts is not unusual in Wyoming. He was re-elected to serve Senate District 3 in 2014, but stepped away from the legislature after that term when he successfully ran for the office of Wyoming State Treasurer. Meier said that the experience of covering a large district actually prepared him for his race for statewide office.

“It really kind of helped me in my state endeavors to have that aspect of having to travel and reach out to folks,” he reasoned.

Meier wasn’t the only legislator representing Weston County whose star rose over the course of the last decade. Hunt rose rapidly to a leadership position in the House and spent time as the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, and Driskill is now the Majority Floor Leader of the Senate. Tyler Lindholm, who represented northern Weston County and Crook County in the House of Representatives for the majority of the past decade, lost a re-election bid in 2020 but passed a number of important bills and rose to leadership and held the rank of committee chair during his time in the legislature.

“Crook and Weston County had the most effective elected delegation there has been in the state in a long time,” Driskill said this week, basing his assessment on successful bill passage, leadership positions and overall legislative influence.

Hunt agreed, but noted that Weston County residents were only able to reap the benefits of their suddenly expanding influence in the legislature because of the shared commitment to keep the doors of communication open.

“By the sheer effort of our representatives, and through their engagement it has gone much better than it potentially could have,” Hunt suggested.

“Generally they were always for northeast Wyoming,” Ertman agreed, noting that she felt that the people and communities of Weston County responded to the challenges presented by the new districts by drawing closer together to present a unified voice to their legislators.

“I think we’re (Newcastle) closer to Upton than we were,” she reasoned. “When we got split, it forced us to come together. We had to because we couldn’t afford to be split.”

James isn’t sold on the idea that the current legislative district boundaries have been turned into a positive for the City of Newcastle, but he acknowledges that city officials have learned to make the best of the reality.

“I can’t say that it has necessarily hurt us, but it hasn’t done us any favors to deal with someone who has no connection to our community,” he suggested. “I think what has happened locally is we’ve done an excellent job with the city organization of surviving and getting by the best we can.”

While there is agreement that present legislative districts may not have hurt Newcastle and Weston County, and may have even benefitted the communities politically over the course of the past decade, there is still a shared belief that things could have been much worse.

“Slightly different circumstances could have significantly changed the situation,” Hunt said, indicating that different election outcomes could have left Newcastle and Weston County with representatives who weren’t as receptive to the concerns of those communities and their residents.

He believes his House district, which stretches 150 miles from Newcastle to Torrington, is largely homogeneous, but admits there are pieces of legislation that force him to make choices between the communities he serves.

“It was certainly helpful to be able to get up there and say the people of my district support this or don’t, and know that was solidly the case of the vast majority of the population, but there are a handful of issues, particularly when it comes to local government funding, where there is a huge clash between communities in a legislative district,” he explained. “There are times when what is good for Torrington isn’t good for Lusk, or when something good for the Goshen County School District is not good for Weston County School District #1.”

A Desire to be Whole

The consequences of legislative redistricting may not have been as dire for Weston County as many feared ten years ago, but there is still a belief that the county’s lack of a concentrated voting block could result in a complete loss of representation in the state legislature.

“Weston County has the population for one House seat and one Senate seat right now, and they get neither. Your odds of getting a senator in the district the way it lays is somewhere between slim and none,” Driskill said. “If they get the wrong person elected, they could get no representation.”

Although that fear didn’t become a reality in the past decade, officials who lost the redistricting battle the last time believe the potential still exists, and they are hoping for a better outcome this time around.

“We will always want Weston County to be whole, and I think we will fight for that again,” said Ertman, who is now the chair of the county commission, and hopes to use her experience and office to lobby for a better outcome for her constituents this time around.

“I think there is a contingency of us that will push,” she said. “We paid our dues, and we will go in with so much knowledge and so much patience that I think we will be okay.”

Hunt is also in a better position to influence the outcome of the debate than he was a decade ago, and he admitted he will use his new position on the Corporations Committee — which is tasked with designing a redistricting plan in the coming months — to advocate for an emphasis on respecting county boundaries to the greatest extent possible when legislative districts are drawn.

“I think it is every bit as important today, if not more so, to draw those lines along county boundaries as closely as possible,” Hunt said. “We need to do the best we can to ensure every community has a representative that they know is, relatively speaking, right next door.”

“I think it is appropriate to look at the needs of all of the folks, and the county structure is definitely one,” Meier agreed. “It was a political process which could have served the county structure better.”

Driskill still believes that to be true as well, and as the Chair of the Corporations Committee, he may be in the best position to help steer the legislature towards a more desirable outcome for Weston County this time around.

“My promise to Weston County for a long time was to try to figure out how to put the county back together for them,” he told the News Letter Journal. “My intent is to keep Weston County whole this time.”

The fact that Weston County’s political leaders and elected representatives are certainly more seasoned this time around should help that cause, but there is also a belief that the legislature will be more inclined to use county boundaries as a guide in drawing legislative district boundaries.

“We can do better this time,” Hunt predicted. “The legislature seems to be more inclined and open to the idea of trying to draw those lines along county boundaries where they can.”

Senator Cale Case (R, Lander) helped guide the debate as the Chair of the Corporations Committee ten years ago. He acknowledged there would be an effort to adhere more to county boundaries when drawing new legislative districts, but cautioned that it would prove difficult in some instances.

“To actually mandate representation on county lines is really difficult to accomplish based on legal constraints,” he said, explaining that the population of each district created by the legislature must be within five percent of the average number of residents between each of the state’s 30 senate districts or 60 house districts.

“That is only a ten percent range, and that is very challenging,” Case warned.

A Statewide Solution

Even with those challenges, a solution that keeps Weston County “whole” is possible, but the solution is likely to still require some compromise.

“You have to have a plan that works statewide. You can’t redistrict your corner of the world, and expect the rest of the state adapt to you,” Driskill cautioned. “You can’t do redistricting that way.”

If there is hope to reunite Weston County’s voting block, however, it will require local officials and their legislative representatives to act quickly. Unlike the last time, those officials believe they are in a better position to ensure Weston County’s concerns are part of the conversation early in the process, and that may make a big difference.

“During the last redistricting, the northeast was the last piece to get put in the puzzle. The east side of the state is where they made all of the corrections at the end of the map, and we were the very last,” Driskill said. “My intent is that this time the northeast is where we start at.”

He pointed out that his Co-Chair on the Corporations Committee from the House, Dan Zwonitzer (R, Cheyenne) will be motivated by different concerns, however, and insisted that advocates for a solution to keep Weston County “whole” would have to work with other legislators to address concerns from their constituents as well.

“Almost any way that you cut northeast Wyoming, you have to deal with Sheridan, Johnson, Campbell, Crook and Weston in that corner to make it fall together,” Driskill reasoned.

Although he is no longer the chair, Case is still a member of the Senate Corporations Committee and will be able to offer his knowledge of the laws, constraints and technicalities associated with redistricting to the conversation. He said he thinks there are ways to improve representation within districts, but thinks the math and the dynamic changes in the state’s population will make it almost impossible to make everyone happy. He suggests that a better way to keep county’s “whole” may be to focus on regions of similarity.

“I do know that it makes some sense to look at population numbers and look at a broad grouping. We could maybe try to look not at county boundaries but at area-of-interest boundaries,” he offered, indicating that he hopes the committee will at least consider a plan that includes multi-member districts. He believes such an approach provides more flexibility by allowing at-large representation within the district’s boundaries.

“That will be considered, I can tell you,” Driskill assured.

And so it Begins

The release of preliminary figures from the 2020 census on Monday provided the first bit of data that will guide decision-makers, and the conversations around redistricting will start to pick up in the coming weeks. It is unlikely, however, that the committee will tackle the issue in depth until additional numbers are provided, and that will be several weeks from now.

“I don’t know that we will have much discussion about redistricting prior to July,” Hunt said, noting that the committee would probably try to address its other interim topics so they could put all of their energy and attention on redistricting when all of the data becomes available.

“To the greatest extent possible, we hope to focus on redistricting without being distracted by everything else,” Hunt said, indicating that the committee would probably participate in workshops to help its members understand the issue and the legal requirements associated with drawing legislative boundaries.

“It’s nice to have Hans’ knowledge there,” Ertman said when asked about the upcoming debates. The Weston County Commission Chair said she feels more prepared for the battle this time as well. She also admits that the fact that the county did not suffer as much politically as many had feared the last time around will allow her to approach the debate differently.

“I look at things through a bigger scope now instead of a little tunnel. We did just fine, and we do know that, so I just don’t think there’s as much fire in the belly (this time),” she said.

Newcastle’s City Clerk/Treasurer agreed that local officials have learned that the impact of the legislature’s make-up is not as significant as people thought ten years ago, and he anticipates that the conversations will be measured and reasonable.

“I can’t see anybody on the council pounding the pulpit over it,” James stated.

At the same time, most Weston County officials have been waiting for a decade to right what they felt was a political wrong, and the commitment is still strong to pursue that goal. There is also a belief that local leaders have done their homework and positioned themselves better this time around, and they are cautiously optimistic heading into the discussions.

“I am looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to the process and looking forward to being on the committee as opposed to being an outsider and a freshman who barely knew what to do,” Hunt said.

The makeup of the Corporations Committee has also changed considerably from ten years ago. That committee did not have any representatives from Wyoming’s 13 least populated counties, and all 14 of its members hailed from eight of the largest counties in the state.

“That is no longer true. The committee is more balanced than it was 10 years ago,” Hunt said, noting that in addition to he and Driskill, the east side of the state is also represented by voices from nearby Goshen and Converse counties, which share similar concerns. He also expressed confidence in the experience and abilities of the committee members.

“The committee is a good one on the House side. It is a good, thoughtful, well-balanced, senior committee. We have no freshman on Corporations Committee in either house, so everybody is coming in with some knowledge,” he stated.

Data on county and city growth was not part of the report released by the U.S. Census Bureau this week, but the agency has reported that states can expect those numbers by August 16, and that is when the work on redistricting will really begin.

(Ed. Note: Reporting for this piece was made possible through a grant from Wyoming Humanities funded by the “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.)

The Ranger 4/29/21

Probe of railcar explosion deaths could last months; no OSHA comment now

By Katie Roenigk
Staff Writer

Work force safety officials say their investigation into last week’s fatal railcar explosion in Shoshoni could continue for several months.

Until then, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will offer no comment on the incident, Wyoming Department of Workforce Services communications manager Ty Stockton said Wednesday.

Stockton also noted that OSHA may not have jurisdiction over the incident, which occurred at a railcar repair yard and could fall under the purview of the Federal Railroad Association instead.

Read the Full Issue

The Ranger 4/28/21

COVID Behind Bars

By Katie Roenigk
Staff Writer

Throughout the course of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, most Fremont County
residents have felt a certain level of social isolation as they have adjusted their daily activities to
comply with public-health restrictions meant to limit the spread of the coronavirus.


But for a small subset of the community, the level of isolation has been even more extreme.
More than 50 Fremont County residents were sentenced to prison March 2020-March 2021
and remained incarcerated at the end of last month, according to the Wyoming Department
of Corrections

Read the Full Issue

COVID has altered the way we engage with government. What else about that process needs to change?

COVID has altered the way we engage with government. What else about that process needs to change?

By Ellen Gerst

Casper Star-Tribune

In the digital world, you can tune in to watch your local government without even putting on shoes. Want to give public input on one of the agenda items? You don’t have to sit through hours of discussion at City Hall to give one comment under the five-minute time limit.

For people who work nights, have to take care of kids or don’t have the means to leave the house at will, streamed meetings that can be watched even after they’re over take a lot of the logistical barriers — or even just annoyances — out of participating in local government.

But the virtual world, citizens and officials have found, can’t completely replace the physical one.

Wyoming Sen. Chris Rothfuss said going entirely virtual means the Legislature loses the chance encounters and shared meals that make its laws better and more collaborative. Casper City Council member Kyle Gamroth said hearing from citizens over email or social media doesn’t have the same impact as seeing them at a meeting. Elsie Herbort of Mills doesn’t even use a computer.

In Wyoming, decision-makers and laypeople agree, government seems to work best when it communicates openly and often with its people. And it’s up to officials to learn the needs and limits of their own communities and find the best way to have that conversation.

‘Silver lining’

In Laramie, City Council member Paul Weaver said locals started participating in their meetings much more once they switched to video conference meetings streamed online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That’s been a silver lining,” Weaver said. “I think it’s always good to be able to have people share their views on things with us.”

He said the council has had multiple requests to continue taking public comment over video calls, and some say they’re more comfortable calling in than appearing in person. He says they’re now looking at how to keep doing that even after pandemic conditions subside.

“We probably will do that, so that we can encourage people that might not otherwise want to provide their input to us if they didn’t have that option,” Weaver said. “And we’d like them to be able to do that and feel comfortable doing that.”

In Casper, where remote public comment is available but nearly never used, City Council member Kyle Gamroth says he’s already noticed in his first few months on the dais that there’s a small vocal minority that shows up in person regularly. Their presence, he said, might not leave a lot of space for more measured input from a wider swath of the city.

“I think there’s a lot of people out there that disagree with this very brash, crass, belligerent language and behavior becoming popular these days,” Gamroth said, “but they’re not speaking up, they’re not getting engaged, they’re not raising their voice.”

Weaver admits the virtual model doesn’t work as well in areas where internet access isn’t as common as it is in Laramie, or in places where the population isn’t as tech savvy. Becoming too reliant on streaming or video calls might open up accessibility to some but can in turn leave out lower-income or older populations who aren’t online.

The digital divide

According to census data from 2019, 17.5% of households in Wyoming don’t have access to the internet. Around 8% don’t have a computer at all. And those with internet access are subject to paying high prices for slower speeds, thanks to a lack of sufficient broadband infrastructure in the state.

In Mills, Elsie Herbort keeps up with her town government more than most. She doesn’t have internet and doesn’t use her virus-ridden computer, but she corresponds with Mills officials nevertheless — by way of handwritten notes sent in with her monthly water payments.

“There are a lot of these older people out here that do not have computers,” Herbort said. “I’m not the only one. Most of the people that I know do not have computers.”

Herbort once served on Mills Town Council herself, even spending a few months as mayor. She’s no stranger to the civic process, but now she has to rely on a newsletter circulated by the town and the newspaper to stay updated.

She’s spent more than a year writing letters to the town asking for an explanation for a $4 fee charged with the water bill each month. The answer she keeps getting is that it’s an administrative fee, to cover postage for the bills. She doesn’t buy it.

“I have asked legitimate questions. I honestly got a little bit feisty a couple of times,” Herbort said. “Some people might think four dollars is no big deal, but it adds up. So I thought, well, I’ll just keep writing.”

She said despite her efforts, she still doesn’t feel like her local government is hearing her. And in a town of around 4,000 people, she says it shouldn’t be hard to take everyone’s voice into consideration.

At the state level, 2021’s hybrid legislative session saw more people giving testimony and a lot more eyes on the lawmaking process than usual. Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said the Capitol felt eerily empty without members of the public milling around this session, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t paying attention.

It wasn’t unusual for committee meetings or floor sessions livestreamed on the Wyoming Legislature’s YouTube to rack up a few hundred views each. The video of the House Judiciary Committee’s discussion of marijuana legalization has been watched nearly 2,000 times. During that hearing, the committee heard testimony from a doctor in California, a concerned parent in Colorado and a former Rhode Island governor — as well as others from all corners of the state who may not have made the long trip to Cheyenne to speak under the 3-minute time limit.

That increase in participation and transparency is a good thing, Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said — for the most part.

Taking government online also cuts out some of the best parts about it, Rothfuss says. It’s a great way to be transparent and to give citizens a better look inside government processes, but when it comes to giving remote testimony there’s a risk of public comment turning rude and angry, losing the spirit of collaboration and respect fostered by having to sit a few feet away from a legislator and look them in the eyes.

And streaming, he fears, may turn the Capitol into a theater rather than a place for careful discussion. Because anyone can tune in, record comments or testimony, and post them online, the information going to the public may be presented out of context.

For lawmakers, Rothfuss says, going completely virtual would take away the informal hallway conversations, lunchtime discussions and random encounters that build compromise and lead to thoughtful, collaborative legislation. Case, an early proponent for streaming meetings and enabling remote testimony, said that for committee meetings, virtual public input looks more like a queue of short speeches than a conversation between citizens and lawmakers.

Now that the Capitol is fully equipped to stream meetings and allow remote participation, Case said he doesn’t see it going away. For the summer’s interim committee meetings, committee chairs can choose whether to hold meetings virtually or in person. Beyond that, the Legislature’s policy on remote participation has yet to be determined.

“We will likely find that remote participation is going to win out,” Case said. “It’s like a genie out of a bottle, you can’t put it back in. The public expects it, they think its better — and it is, in many aspects. Not in all aspects.”

As lawmakers found, nothing can replace the kind of civic engagement fostered by real-life interactions between a government and its community.

Making contact

For one, it personalizes issues in ways an email or phone call really can’t. Austin Berlin, chairperson of Casper’s Council of People with Disabilities, said showing up to council meetings has paid off. The council is an advisory body for Casper City Council, which means it can offer direct input on issues like transportation and health care access, and City Council members are appointed as liaisons between both bodies.

In January, CCPD member Masha Flynn came to a meeting asking the council to do something about clearing snow from sidewalks so that wheelchair users like her can get around during the winter. A week later, council member Amber Pollock called for a public awareness campaign to urge citizens to do their part in clearing the sidewalks outside their homes.

Berlin said CCPD also usually hosts a City Council member at its own meetings. That gives them an audience with decision-makers outside the time constraints and formal setting of council meetings, and allows CCPD to give input on how current council projects would affect Casper’s disabled residents.

“I think that they have made an effort to really go to most of our meetings and listen to our input and what we are looking for in our representatives,” Berlin said. “I think that they’ve done a good job with listening to us and doing what they can to make things happen.”

The Council of People with Disabilities opened up a line of communication with people in city government, Berlin said. And it’s still relatively new — the council held its first meeting less than two years ago. In 2020, the even newer LGBTQ+ Advisory Committee was created to make it easier for Casper’s queer community to get an audience with local government and staff.

For Casper’s young people, the Casper Youth Council acts as that same kind of bridge. It also started meeting in 2020, and secretary Brooklyn Wistisen says in the short time they’ve been active, she’s gone from not knowing who Casper’s mayor is to regularly attending City Council meetings and even commenting on issues like the city’s new tobacco rules that directly affect young people.

The students meet monthly, and city officials like the mayor, city manager and chief of police have come by to give some insight into how the city is run.

“Lots of kids want to get out of Casper,” Wistisen said. “They feel like there isn’t a lot of room for growth or opportunities. I was definitely one of those kids, but being a little more involved has helped me see there’s more that Casper has to offer.”

Part of Wistisen’s job as secretary is making short videos summarizing City Council meetings, which get posted on the Youth Council’s social media. She calls herself a liaison between Casper’s young people and the “big dogs” in the city government.

‘Come speak to us’

Council members Gamroth and Ray Pacheco work with the Youth Council and are working on ways to keep all Casperites engaged with the city’s decision-making.

For Gamroth, one of the youngest council members, that means an active presence on social media. For much of Casper’s adult population, he said, Facebook is one of their primary sources for information and news. Decisions made at the city level tend to affect people much more than those that make national headlines, but it’s harder to get the right eyes on those updates.

Gamroth said he gets his fair share of angry or at times threatening messages over email or Facebook, things most people would be too scared to say to a human’s face. But he chalks up his activity on Facebook as a win overall, since it’s allowed him to share important council decisions or answer citizens’ questions directly.

But connecting online, he said, can only do so much.

“If you’re that passionate about something, please come speak to us at a meeting,” Gamroth said. “That way we can have a conversation with you, we can capture it on video and make it accessible to everyone else who wasn’t able to watch those meetings live. Feel free to voice your concerns online, but that to me still isn’t the right forum to have impact or create real change.”

Pacheco said over his six years on the council, he’s seen the national political divide creep into conversations in Casper more and more. The City Council is nonpartisan and the members aren’t elected as members of a party, but he said questions of property or individual liberties even at the city level can devolve into a party-lines debate.

“I think Wyoming and in Casper, people have always been active somehow,” Pacheco said. “But the last few years have seemed a little different. A little bit more pointed, a little bit more vocal, if you will.”

Going virtual doesn’t generally mean there’s more attention on issues that already don’t get much play, Rothfuss said, just more people wanting to contribute to certain contentious discussions. But allowing online input does make governing bodies vulnerable to more inflammatory comments on flashpoint issues.

Wistisen said she’s noticed the same trend in Casper, where most issues in front of the council have no public input but the question of what to do with a small piece of vacant land can bring in several people and their opinions every week for a month.

But the beauty of the smallness of local government is that people are forced to work closely with others who may be their political opposite. Council members who advocate for expanding social programs sit next to those looking to cut every extra dollar from the city’s spending.

“How do we work together to deal with these moments where we disagree?” Pacheco said. “We’re blessed as a council that we get along pretty good. There’s some of us that are politically and ideologically on separate waves, but we’re still friends, and we still respect each other.”

The COVID-19 pandemic illuminated wide mistrust in Wyoming. Experts think person-to-person communication might help.

By Morgan Hughes

Casper Star-Tribune

Confusion and misinformation have plagued the past year. Public officials say so. Epidemiologists too.

“I don’t know what to believe,” said Charles Deal, who works at Walmart and has lived in Casper for four years. He’s been nervous with shoppers not coming to the store masked, but he’s reluctant to take a vaccine.

“I’m kind of skeptical on that,” he said, referencing articles he’s read about people dying or becoming ill after receiving their shot.

Federal health authorities have assured the public that no deaths have been linked to the vaccinations. The federal database to record adverse vaccination reactions “has not detected patterns in cause of death that would indicate a safety problem with COVID-19 vaccines,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Still, Deal said he doesn’t know what to trust.

“I’ve talked to my doctor a little bit and even he’s a little skeptical,” Deal said, but added if his doctor recommended the vaccine, he’d take it.

When asked about frustrations with the pandemic, nearly every person interviewed by the Star-Tribune for this story said getting information they trusted was among their biggest challenges.

Faith Stultz, a Natrona County School District parent who is among those advocating that the district’s mask requirement be lifted, told the Star-Tribune health officials have given her contradictory information too.

Her boyfriend contracted COVID-19 in 2020. When he received a positive test, the person who conducted it advised him to take zinc and vitamin C. Some research does show zinc can help with symptoms of the common cold and other coronaviruses, but experts have stressed the substance is not a cure. So the suggestion took Stultz back.

“It is all very misleading,” she said.

Mistrust is not happening in a vacuum in Wyoming. The state is historically among the least trusting of institutions, and it consistently ranks in the top three conservatives states based on national polling, which tends to align with media distrust. In fact, trust of the media is so low in Wyoming the Society of Professional Journalists launched a months-long project in 2019 to examine why. The findings were largely inconclusive.

Enter the COVID-19 pandemic. About 20% of respondents to a Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center poll say COVID-19 is not a major problem. Forty percent say it’s blown out of proportion. Still, nearly 80% say they closely follow news about the pandemic.

But messages have gotten muddled. Wyoming has the most vaccine-hesitant communities in the nation, Natrona County among them, according a recent federal analysis. State and national surveys suggest those reluctant to take a vaccine aren’t entirely resistant, but they want more information about effectiveness and side effects.

Health officials are trying to share information, but skepticism is still high in Wyoming. Some officials say the high rates of vaccine hesitancy here points to a broader challenge: The public doesn’t always trust what experts have to say. While the pandemic has illuminated this distrust, how to solve it remains to be seen.

“The county health department and the state have done a great job of publicizing this, but there has been so much information out there that people start to just hear noise, and they don’t really absorb what they’re hearing,” Natrona County Health Officer Dr. Mark Dowell said.

“Unfortunately this health emergency was changed from a focused health emergency to having a political undertone, and that’s been the biggest problem,” Dowell said. “There’s no easy answer.”

Changing opinions

Officials are hoping more direct messaging will help. But research from the University of Wyoming suggests already hesitant Wyomingites are going to be a tough sell.

University of Wyoming economist Linda Thunstrom has been conducting research on how Wyomingites respond to different messaging promoting vaccination. Her team surveyed both a sample of Wyomingites and a sample of the national population for comparison. They then exposed respondents to different promotional strategies for the COVID-19 vaccine, including highlighting the vaccine’s importance for things like personal health, community health and the economy.

They found nationally, individuals responded positively to public health messaging focusing on the importance of a vaccine to individual and community health. The trend doesn’t hold when the same survey is given only to Wyomingites.

“We unfortunately don’t see much of an effect of any of the messages that we tried out on vaccine intentions in Wyoming,” Thunstrom said.

Thunstrom said while the research was telling, it shouldn’t give the impression that trying to promote vaccines is hopeless work in the state. Instead, it highlights the need for direct, person-to-person intervention, she said. She added the survey did not provide the source of information to respondents, and it’s likely an individual would respond differently to local sources than national.

Indeed, Wyomingites are more likely to trust local health officials, the governor and even local news media over national sources including President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, according to Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center polling.

But hesitancy toward vaccines is not a new phenomenon in Wyoming. The state ranks in the bottom 10 for flu shot uptake and is in the top half of the U.S. for the percent of K-12 students with a vaccine exemption, according to the CDC.

On top of that, the public’s confidence in most institutions has waned in the last 40 years. Congress, the medical system, public schools, even organized religion have seen steady decreases in public confidence, according to Gallup polls.

And Americans haven’t just lost trust in institutions; they’ve also lost faith in their peers’ ability to make informed choices, according to Pew data.

Acknowledging the broader context around why someone might be reluctant to accept a vaccine or to trust public health messaging might be key to improving that trust, explained University of Wyoming sociologist Jennifer Tabler.

“Just general confidence in an institution I do think makes people more willing to kind of come in,” Tabler said, but added confidence isn’t the only factor.

“I do think dentists likely do a good job,” she said as an example. However, she said, someone may perceive the dentist as inaccessible. “(Maybe) It’s too expensive, I have to go out of my way. It’s not convenient.”

She continued: “Sometimes we interpret like just these basic barriers to care as if people don’t trust the institution, but it’s more complicated than that.”

The cost of medical care may also contribute to hesitation, she explained. While vaccines are free, most medical care is expensive, even more so in Wyoming than most of the country.

“How do you build trust when you don’t know if they’re putting your needs above theirs? And so I do think that cost of care really erodes trust just in general,” she explained.

And health messaging doesn’t often acknowledge those outside concerns. The focus tends to be solely on health benefits without necessarily weighing the other priorities a person might have. Tabler calls this the disconnect between the health world or “the voice of medicine” and life experience.

If someone needs a surgery that would put them out of work for several weeks, they’re likely going to weigh the cost of being out of work against the cost of a prolonged illness. A lack of familiarity with information can also be a barrier.

“Confidence is usually built through familiarity,” Tabler said. “Confidence can then also be that stepping stone to trusting.”

Research bears this out. A Pew survey gauging Americans’ willingness to get a vaccine shows that as confidence in the method improves, so does likely uptake.

One-on-one

How to develop that familiarity and improve confidence seems to be the million-dollar question. The consensus among those interviewed for this story is that person-to-person communication is key.

“A lot of one-on-one between patients and their health care providers will make a big difference. Peer pressure, if you will. Information between friends and families” will help improve uptake, Dowell said.

Renee Griffith, education faculty at Casper College, said the future educators who come through her classroom are taught to build one-on-one relationships with students, which Griffith said helps when dispelling misinformation and developing trust. But her students are also taught to be “critical reviewers” and how to encourage those skills in their future classrooms.

“I feel that is an important skill set that they also need to teach their students how to be critical reviewers, not to just look at whatever information you Google and (what) pops up on your screen when you’re searching,” Griffith explained.

Griffith looks at it like this: Misinformation exists. Social media is going to help it spread, and there’s nothing she can do about it. So preparing the next generation of educators to be discerning and to teach those skills themselves has become a priority.

“You can find information very quickly today. It’s just we have to develop the skill set to be a critical reviewer of that information,” she said.

Dr. Joshua Hansen, a family physician at Sage Primary Care, said he’s seen the spread of misinformation this past year manifest in his office. More people have more questions.

He’s heard a few far-fetched theories dealing with microchips, but most of his patients want to know if the shots are effective and what the side effects will be like.

“In regards to … skepticism and mistrust of medicine, the medical community, medical advice, I’ve definitely seen an increase of that,” Hansen said. “This is understandable when patients hear multiple different threads of advice and data that says something’s effective or not effective from so many sources. They don’t know who or what to trust.”

When COVID-19 emerged in late 2019, it was entirely unknown. As researchers studied the virus, the collective understanding of what it was capable of and how to limit its spread shifted.

The CDC first said masks were only recommended for the ill or vulnerable and that healthy people should not use them, to ensure health care workers had adequate supplies. When more information about how the virus spread made it clear masks were important for all, some governments mandated them. When variants began to spread, epidemiologists suggested people wear two masks for added protection.

Hansen said it’s reasonable for someone to be confused by the evolving recommendations, particularly in an environment where new information is constant and social media can spread false information to millions of people.

His duties as a family physician have shifted more toward education in the past year because of this. His patients want someone to listen to their concerns rather than explain them away. Hansen added that making it clear medicine is a dynamic industry that changes from month to month can help too.

“(Medicine) is a very evolving process we call it an art,” he said, “but I think of it as an evolving science and process of discovery.”

Article published by The Casper Star Tribune: https://trib.com/news/state-and-regional/govt-and-politics/covid-has-altered-the-way-we-engage-with-government-what-else-about-that-process-needs/article_4969c435-aedd-5b0f-b23d-c1ee69ae415e.html

Deming Draws on Humor to Expand Vocational, Life Skills

Douglas Budget, 4/21/21, text and photos by Zach Miners

In early 2016, Trevor Deming, then a freshman at Douglas High School, had a meeting with Temple Grandin, the prominent American scientist and activist.

Special education teacher Cheri Lehner arranged the meeting because she was looking for Deming to meet someone who had struggled early on and was now successful. She also wanted to know how he could progress through high school and work through, as he called it, “the boring stuff.” Grandin’s insights mattered to Deming because they had something in common. Both are on the autism spectrum.

During the informal meeting held at an educational conference in Casper, Deming also showed Grandin some of his early efforts at drawing comics. That encounter helped set Deming on a new path toward success.

Since then, Deming, now 20, has progressed through high school and has earned enough credits for his diploma – a powerful statement coming during World Autism Month which began April 2 with World Autism Awareness Day.

And Deming has developed into an accomplished, published cartoonist. His original comic strip, “Toon Trev Strip Shorts,” appears on the editorial pages of the Douglas Budget on a bimonthly basis.

“I’ve always been into art and fan art,” Deming said during a recent visit with him at The Bridge, an extension of Douglas High School where older students with special needs work on life skills.

“Art makes me happy,” he added.

Deming works part time at Safeway in Douglas, where he checks the expiration dates on stocked items.

Deming spends several days a week at The Bridge with other special- needs students where he works on his comics and learns vocational and life skills like finances, setting a budget, cooking and laundry.

Though Deming’s social communication skills are less developed than most, his comics communicate a range of human emotion. They are witty, playful and topical, often drawing on the current season, holidays and other events.

In his comic for Earth Day 2021, for instance, the two main characters – Toon Trev and Sparky – discuss where they are supposed to properly dispose of their trash.

They are dismayed to discover that it is merely taken to “Trash Island.”

Deming has steadfastly produced the comic strip for the Budget since last year.

His sources of inspiration are quite varied – many pre-date his birth – perhaps owing to the eclectic nature of his comics. They include the 90s animated series “The Twist- ed Tales of Felix the Cat,” 1950s-era science fiction, the 1963 Japanese television series “Astro Boy,” and fan art in general.

When he is not working on a new comic, Deming has pursued other creative projects.

He recently designed a CCSD#1 T-shirt with his Toon Trev characters on it to raise money for Special Olympics Wyoming athletes.

So far, more than 30 shirts have sold to members of the community. Shirts can be ordered by contacting Bridge Coordinator Mary Ann Maidl at mamaidl@ccsd1.org

Deming also works part-time at Safeway, where he checks the expiration dates on stocked items.

Deming earned his high school credits last year, though he will likely spend another year at The Bridge several days a week. During that time, he will continue to work on mastering life skills, before he officially receives his diploma.

Maidl, who has worked with Deming since this past August at The Bridge, explained he initially had some difficulty adjusting to the program.

“It’s been an adjustment for him, partly because it’s so different from high school. If he doesn’t like some- thing, he lets you know it,” she said.

“But he’s matured a lot,” she added.

Deming is more of a visual learner, she said, so those working with him often use visual aids, pictures and notes to communicate with him.

He also likes having a daily schedule and knowing when his various activities will begin and end.

In recent months Deming has become more independent and has also started to do his own laundry, Maidl said.

Over the next year, Maidl, aides

and his family will look to identify other job opportunities for him that are more in line with his interests in art and technology. They will also continue to help him become more independent.

His mother, Melissa Deming, said he has been drawing since he was 4 years old. When he was younger, he used to write letters in a Walt Disney-styled font.

“He’s always had that artistic slant,” she effused.

But one of his biggest challenges continues to be his fear of stepping outside his comfort zone, she said.

Still, she’s optimistic about the future.

“Autism,” she said, “is full of un- knowns and it’s scary. But it’s not the end of the world. Anything is possible.”

Deming himself does not seem sure where he wants to take his Toon Trev comic strip next.

But he is interested in taking a trip outside Wyoming, to see and experience new things.

“I want to go to Mexico,” he said.

Finding What Works

CVC success hinges on human potential

By Ashleigh Snoozy | ashleigh.snoozy@thesheridanpress.com Feb 25, 2021 Updated Apr 19, 2021

Editor’s Note

This article is the second in a series of three articles on the Center for a Vital Community, how it affects the community and attempts to replicate its success. Reporting is made possible through a grant from Wyoming Humanities funded by the “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Sheridan Press Publisher Kristen Czaban is president of the CVC’s advisory board.

SHERIDAN — As Sheridan nears a tipping point — one in which a critical mass of residents have leadership training, nonprofit leaders have the skills necessary to achieve success and youth mature into leadership positions — other communities have tried to replicate one of the programs behind fostering that growth — the Center for a Vital Community.

To date, though, no other communities in Wyoming have effectively started organizations with similar missions.

This fact has caused some to wonder what makes Sheridan special in its ability to support the CVC.

As founding board member Anne Nickerson said, having both the “doers” and the funding plays a key role.

Without a foundation like the Homer A. and Mildred S. Scott Foundation willing to take a risk on a concept as abstract as the CVC and a partnership with Sheridan College, the organization likely wouldn’t have gotten its start.

The CVC’s executive director, Amy Albrecht, and its only other staff member, Julie Greer, are both employees of the college. But, the duo raise money for their own salaries alongside funds for the organization’s programs. The CVC’s annual budget is typically $165,000, but in years it hosts the CiViC Leadership Project, Albrecht and Greer must raise an additional $110,000.

The initial investment from the Scott foundation and ongoing funding from the foundation and other donors are likely the most difficult aspect of the CVC to replicate.

But, Sheridan is not the only community in Wyoming with generous philanthropists.

“It’s about building bridges in the community — whether it’s in between individual nonprofit directors or two individuals who sit down in a Community Conversation or in a study circle group together or if it’s just between organizations,” Greer said. “But that’s what makes it so unique. In other communities, nothing like it is that bridge-builder.”

Scott Henkel, associate professor of English and African American and Diaspora Studies at the University of Wyoming; director of UW’s Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research; and Wyoming Humanities Board Ex Officio; hopes to one day bring the CVC concept to Laramie, as does Cody Mayor Matt Hall and a group in Gillette.

While Albrecht has worked with each of these groups, the capacity to spearhead starting up a similar organization in another community extends beyond the finances and time availability of the two-person staff in Sheridan County. Likewise, the right combination of financial backing and motivated citizen has yet to emerge from these three communities.

“I couldn’t really find anyone that I could get to champion the whole idea and putting some real substance together to get it going over here,” Hall said. “I had a lot of interest…but it couldn’t really get a lot of traction from those people to take it on.”

In addition, nonprofits often compete for funding in a community, Hall said, which is something Albrecht said doesn’t exist as much in Sheridan. That lack of competitiveness among nonprofits in Sheridan aid in the success of CVC’s model.

“It broke down all of that scarcity mentality — this is mine, this is my donor, this is my money, these are my programs, we can’t talk to you about it,” Albrecht said. “It went from, ‘Oh, they’re with that nonprofit,’ to ‘Oh, well that’s just Susan Carr, I’ll just give her a jingle,’ because they’re friends and colleagues.

“That has made a huge difference,” Albrecht said.

Gillette, despite efforts to rally around energy to establish a CVC in the community, couldn’t gather funding needed to support the initiative.

“I think it’s a combination of things,” Albrecht said while reflecting why it hasn’t worked elsewhere. “On the one hand, you have people who really get it, they see the value in it and they try to get other people on board with it.

“And then they hit the wall. And sometimes the wall is money, and sometimes the wall is…a partner.”

Albrecht said what people don’t generally like is another standalone nonprofit with which to share funding. Having an established foundation to contribute funding helps.

“Gillette just kept hitting the wall of ‘We don’t have the money. We don’t have the money,’” Albrecht relayed. “‘We see the value of this; we can’t find the money.’”

COVID-19 temporarily halted efforts to resurrect a CVC in Laramie, but until then Henkel said he believes in the mission of the CVC and its potential implementation outside of Sheridan County.

“All of that doesn’t come by accident,” Henkel said of the CVC’s success in Sheridan. “All of that comes by design and it’s a result of all the work, like Amy, put into it.”

Henkel said he would love to implement the CVC’s first sister organization in Laramie and build the skill of community-wide leadership and civil conversations.

“There really is a design and work behind having good conversations,” Henkel said. “Some public fora, they assume that a free-for-all is the best way to approach things, and granted sometimes that may be the case. But when a community conversation is designed and structured carefully in order to foster quality information, it really is a delight to see.”

Ashleigh Snoozy joined The Sheridan Press in October 2016 as a reporter before moving into the managing editor position in November 2018. She is a native of Colorado and graduated from Biola University in Los Angeles.

Article written by the Sheridan Press: https://www.thesheridanpress.com/news/local/cvc-success-hinges-on-human-potential/article_59e72d86-76ca-11eb-a426-63d848040e51.html