Civic Engagement

CVC promotes leadership, cooperation in Sheridan

By Ashleigh Snoozy | Feb 24, 2021 Updated Apr 19, 2021

Editor’s Note

This article is the first 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 — Communities often display assets that set them apart. Jazz was born in New Orleans. Palo Alto sits at the heart of Silicon Valley. Deadwood boasts a history of gold mining and outlaws. Cody claims the history of Buffalo Bill Cody as its own.

Sheridan, though, offers something even less tangible — something other communities have struggled to replicate.

The Center for a Vital Community, a nonprofit that operates under the umbrella of the Sheridan College Foundation, promotes leadership training, civic engagement and support for nonprofits, with a focus on the people of the community.

“One of the reasons Sheridan has been so successful is that we not only have the doers — the people with the vision and the ideas and the ones that are going to roll up their sleeves and the volunteers — but we also have that financial background,” said Anne Nickerson, one of the organization’s original board members. “And neither group can be successful without the other one.”

That combination of doers and funders gave life to the CVC as a pillar of the Sheridan community that seeks to address some of the community’s biggest challenges.

The spark of an idea

More than 20 years ago, members of the Scott family and trustees of the Homer A. and Mildred S. Scott Foundation met with Curtiss Meadows, a Dallas, Texas, attorney and the director of the Meadows Foundation, which funds arts and culture, civic and public affairs, education and health and human services initiatives.

From there, the Scotts provided the funding and recruited advisory board members to create what became known as the Center for a Vital Community at Sheridan College on Jan. 18, 2000. The original board included then-Sheridan College President Steve Maier, Russell Carlson, Ky Dixon, Jo Scott, Anne Nickerson, Linnet McGoodwin, Steve Carroll and Bob Berger. Lollie Plank, Roy Garber and Jay McGinnis also participated in the creation of the organization.

Most foundations fund tangible projects in communities — for example, affordable housing, food banks, early childhood education centers, animal shelters. The CVC, though, offers a different perspective centering around concepts that are difficult to quantify.

“It’s easy to build buildings,” said Susie Ponce, who served as the CVC’s first director. “It’s a lot harder for a foundation or even an individual to say, ‘Hm, I’m going to put my money behind this idea,’ and especially when it involves people.”

What’s worked

The CVC has found success in programs that fit each of its core missions.

The CiViC Leadership Project, the CVC’s flagship program, focuses on training emerging and existing leaders in Sheridan County, helping them gain the skills necessary to identify and mobilize around community issues to create change.

Initially, attempts to expand the Minnesota-based Blandin Foundation’s leadership program to Sheridan failed, but a by-chance meeting solidified the now decades-long partnership.

When visiting an alma mater function at St. Olaf College, two alumni — Sheridan’s Scott Nickerson and Blandin’s founding Executive Director Paul Olson — found each other and began discussing civic leadership and the similar scope of their organizations’ work. From there, Olson convinced the Blandin Foundation to allow for a pilot program in Sheridan. Ever since, trainers from the Blandin Foundation have visited Sheridan to conduct CiViC Leadership Project trainings roughly every four years.

According to Sonja Merrild, who lived in Sheridan at the time and now works for the Blandin Foundation in Minnesota, Sheridan had the positive culture necessary to fit the foundation’s rural leadership program.

“The flourishing of a program like this, and an idea like this, is always going to be dependent on the quality of the leadership in that soil,” Merrild said. “And Sheridan had history to build on. Sheridan had history to build on, and Sheridan had the CVC.”

The CVC has since graduated dozens of individuals from the CiViC program, with the idea that at a certain point, Sheridan will reach “critical mass,” meaning enough people in the community will have gone through the training and have a shared language that can assist in furthering community projects.

“It’s knitting together this group of people that have such potential and power and the ripple effect to then make things happen in the community,” said Jenny Craft, the CVC’s second executive director who now serves as executive director of the Homer A. and Mildred S. Scott Foundation.

Other programs that have found success include the youth leadership program CampFIRE, board training for local nonprofits, study circles and collaborations with the John C. Schiffer Collaborative School.

CVC employee Julie Greer coordinates leadership training with students at Schiffer, instilling the idea that everyone is important and a sense of community contributes to an organization’s success.

“To be known in the community is new to our students,” Schiffer educator David Petersen said. “These adults wanted more and more of our students, and they wanted to be more a part of the process.”

In the leadership class, students define what leadership means to them, then outline a course structure meant to help them grow in those areas. As part of the class, Greer helps pair students with leaders in the community and plans off-campus visits to see people in their place of work.

“You get the kids thinking at a deeper level that their influence on the world is more important than they think it is,” Petersen said.

What hasn’t worked

Not all projects the CVC has tackled have worked, but according to Ponce, that’s part of the process.

Ideas work their way through a funnel, which begins with the initial concept, workshopping the idea with CVC staff, more review with the CVC’s advisory board and generating buy-in from community stakeholders before implementation.

For example, one idea focused on organizing a retreat for nonprofit executive directors. The goal was to provide respite and camaraderie. But with no continuing education planned, the concept faded.

Other projects have experienced a mix of success and challenges. During Craft’s tenure as the CVC’s director, the organization hosted Earth Day events. Those, though, eventually petered out.

Another program — Community Conversations — has had both well-attended sessions and sessions where just a few community members outside the trained facilitators attend.

A few years ago, the CVC brought trainers from Essential Partners to Sheridan to teach community leaders about facilitating civil conversations about difficult topics. Since then, the CVC has hosted conversations on topics ranging from affordable housing, a well-attended program, to what community members want to see in their leaders. Those events shifted from in-person sessions to Zoom during the pandemic, and CVC staff said part of the challenge with attendance could be virtual meeting burnout.

While additional Community Conversations are planned, Craft said CVC projects beyond CiViC often come and go as needs arise in the community and the CVC staff and board members continue to generate new ideas and partnerships.

“We don’t make the community, we make it better,” Albrecht said. “We don’t get to own a lot of stuff, but we get to look at the successes and know we had a piece of it.”

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.

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