Melissa Turley: Inspiring Leadership and Mentorship in Girls and Women of All Ages


Melissa Turley is currently the Executive Director of the Teton Village Association.

She grew up in Boulder and Denver, Colorado before following her future husband to Wyoming to spend a summer fishing.

She served on the Teton County Commission and Jackson town council for nearly a decade.

She seems like a person who really loves leadership, having founded and served on the boards of Girls Actively Participating and Womentum, a women's mentoring program in Wyoming with over 350 alumna to date.

Emy diGrappa: Today, we are talking to Melissa Turley. She is currently the executive director of the Teton Village Association. Melissa has quite an impressive background. She served on the Teton County Commission, and Jackson Town Council for nearly a decade.

Emy diGrappa: Welcome Melissa.

Melissa Turley: Thank you Emy, I'm so glad to be speaking with you today.

Emy diGrappa: Well, thanks for joining me and I- I am impressed with your bio, and the many things you've done. And you seem like such a person who loves leadership because I read, also, that you helped found and served on the boards of Girls Actively Participating! and Womentum. And, just one at a time, tell me what each of those programs do.

Melissa Turley: Sure. I'll speak about Womentum first. We started Womentum, started talking about it, about 15 years ago as a way to give back to the community in a collective effort. And it was premised off of the inspiration of, uh, Women's Giving Circle here in Jackson that really intended for women ... Like we were, at the time, younger women who didn't have the financial means to make as impactful philanthropic donations, but had time, and talent, and energy to give to making our community better. So, we did spend quite a bit of time trying to think of how, again, we could have a collective impact that would bring the most benefit to the community. And we landed on the idea of a women's mentoring program, both the, the mentees and mentors are all women. And we found that the value of that has just been exponential. The [Wo-mentoring 00:01:47] program, as we called it, now has over 350 alumna.

Melissa Turley: And, what we didn't realize at the time was, not only do we have the graduates, if you will, of the program who are serving in leadership roles across our community ... I was just talking yesterday about how many are on the front lines of responding to COVID-19 right now, but also that the program has been something that has benefited all of the participants in really personal ways, both mentees and mentors.

Emy diGrappa: And, just building on that, what is the benefit of mentoring younger women? What is the benefit of doing that for women?

Melissa Turley: First of all, I think the benefit that was surprising to us that honestly we hadn't foreseen, and recall that most of the founders were in the mentee category, but really there was this great benefit to the mentors. Where we thought, "Oh, we'll have to convince these women to give their time to, to serve in this teacher sort of role." And what we found was that it was very hard to recruit mentors because a lot of the women that we approached, I would say, undervalued what was that they had to teach and share. And so, right there, just as we started having women participate as mentors for the program, there was more value for them in their experience, and what they had to share.

Melissa Turley: And part of the discussion that we had early on, on, on making this program specific by and for women was that well, men have so much to teach about leadership, and all of us who were initiating the program had great male role models and mentors in our lives, the reality is that there are ways that women lead differently. And there are values that might be different, or behaviors. Certainly, we're aware, I think, more broadly of more of the EQ and, and the emotional connection. And, you know, really I think giving value to that form of leadership, and helping provide a place for both the mentees and the mentors to not necessarily have all of the answers, and be able to work through their challenges with someone similar to them who, you know, might have more, or might have less experience than themselves.

Emy diGrappa: And so, then, what was your desire to help found the Girls Actively Participating!? 'Cause that is another kind of leadership program, isn't it?

Melissa Turley: Absolutely. And my role with Girls Actively Participating! was a little different. I did serve on the founding board, but really all of the credit goes to Amy Manhart, an amazing eighth grade science teacher at Jackson Hole Middle School. And Amy had been providing this program really of her own inspiration in her own time. And, at that point, where she decided to formalize and initiate a 501(c)(3) she invited me and, I believe, five or six others to serve on the founding board. And so, Girls Actively Participating! is an afterschool program for middle school girls that brings in leadership programming, and activities for these girls to, again, really find their strengths in a difficult time.

Melissa Turley: (laughs)

Melissa Turley: I can't remember my own middle school without just thinking how incredibly difficult it was to understand my own identity, and, you know, negotiate just academics, and friends. And I don't think leadership was a word that was in my vocabulary. And so, for these girls to, you know, have inspiring speakers come in, and also be able, you know, in a similar way to Womentum, also have a- a safe place where they're able to ask questions that they might feel embarrassed to ask somewhere else and find the, the support and the information that helps launch them further in their lives.

Emy diGrappa: Well, I- I think it's such an inspiration that you've ... you know, like you said, maybe leadership wasn't a word in your vocabulary, but it's something that has always driven you.

Emy diGrappa: Where did you grow up?

Melissa Turley: (laughs)

Melissa Turley: I grew up down in Colorado in Boulder, and Denver. And (laughs) I was just telling my 11-year-old about this last night and it, it still chokes me up to think that my parents spent several years, while I was about his age, volunteering full-time for an organization with the mission to end the Cold War. And, as I told him, they certainly can't claim all of the success, but thank goodness their work was successful. And (laughs), you know, it created a world for him to grow up in. And so, they've always been such a great inspiration for me.

Emy diGrappa: And that is an amazing story, because ... that they did something and it had a profound effect on you 'til today. And so, what, what was that work that they did?

Melissa Turley: The organization was called Beyond War. And they engaged in education and advocacy. As I said, we were living in Colorado, but they would travel all over the Rocky Mountain West, and make presentations, and speak to the media. My dad did a ambassador trip down to Central America, and met with many of the, um, national government leaders across Central America. And they also, in doing that work, were part of a really valuable community of people, like-minded people who were also contributing their time, and energy, and money into this important cause of, you know, (laughs) making sure the world didn't blow up.

Emy diGrappa: Yeah, yeah. And, and then, what was your journey to Jackson?

Melissa Turley: So, from growing up in Colorado I went to college in Montana. And, you know, Wyoming was the place I had to go through in between. And it was actually might college boyfriend who decided he was gonna move to Jackson Hole for a few months to fly fish, and I followed him, and 20 years later we're married and still living in Jackson Hole.

Emy diGrappa: Wow, wow. I love all these Jackson Hole stories. And I love how people come here and they're just like, "Okay, I'm never leaving." (laughs).

Melissa Turley: Well, we tried to leave, you know, we made, we made an effort, but we were not successful, thankfully. So, came back and had the opportunity to purchase a town home with Jackson Hole Housing Trust and that enabled us to put down the roots, and be able to stay.

Emy diGrappa: And what was your ... because it sounds like you developed so many leadership skills throughout your life, and it sounds like your parents were a big inspiration to you in doing that. And then, what made you decide to run for Jackson Town Council?

Melissa Turley: Yeah, I had worked for the town previously in an administrative position, so I was familiar with what went on at Town Hall. And I felt like the mayor and council, at the time when I first ran, really wasn't representing myself and my friends. And really the critical issue for me, at the time, was workforce housing. I had just gotten, again, the opportunity to purchase a Housing Trust home, but had spent a fair amount of time really on the edge of not knowing whether I would be able to stay in Jackson or not. And I didn't feel like the people in local elected government really understood what that felt like.

Melissa Turley: And so, it actually started as a series of conversations with people to try to find a candidate that we would support for council. And those conversations often ended with people saying to me, "Well, if you're so passionate about it, why don't you do it?" And, I think, it probably took 20, or 30 of those before I finally started thinking, "Well, maybe I will do it. Yeah, may- maybe, maybe I can do it." And that actually happened to be while we were running the pilot program for [Wo-mentoring 00:09:52], and Catherine Conover was my mentor. And, through that experience, I think it really did help me connect with myself as a leader, which I don't think I had really identified or, you know, embraced in the past. And that community of women that I was surrounded by through the [Wo-mentoring 00:10:11] program gave me the courage to run.

Emy diGrappa: And, and how are you involved in leadership across Wyoming? 'Cause, 'cause you've been in Leadership Wyoming, which I have too, yay. And (laughs) so, what has your experience been across the state in terms of women serving in politics?

Melissa Turley: Yeah. I also worked as the coordinator for the Wyoming Women's Legislative Caucus for a number of years. And that is a nonpartisan organization that celebrates the women in the legislature, and also works to encourage other women to run. And when we started, I believe, we had close to 20 women in the legislature. And when I stepped away from that work, about five years ago, we were down to nine, and I can't say, you know, the county commissions at the time were just about as bad. I know we have h- had two women on our commission here. Of course, when I stepped down, and I was replaced by a woman, and then there were two women ... I was gonna say in Carbon County, I don't know. So, anyway, just very few numbers of women across the state whether it's in state government, or county government, or city council.

Melissa Turley: We do see a lot of women serving on school boards, and hospital boards.

Emy diGrappa: And why do you think that is?

Melissa Turley: I think part of that gets to the fact that women want to make their communities better for their families, and they see those school boards and hospital boards as a really direct way to impact education and health.

Emy diGrappa: I believe that. When you said that, that's the immediate thought-

Melissa Turley: (laughs).

Emy diGrappa: That came in my head.

Melissa Turley: Yeah, it's not surprising.

Emy diGrappa: Yeah. (laughs).

Melissa Turley: And then, you know, our legislature, I think, just clearly has so many barriers to participation. You imagine being a young, working mom living in Teton County, and trying to figure out a way to go to Cheyenne for 4 to 8 weeks of your winter, basically, without pay. I mean, legislators get paid very small stipends. So, you know, trying to imagine the kind of flexibility you would need with work, or the financial situation you would need to be in, and how you would handle childcare there's not a day care (laughs) at the capital. And then, of course, there's committee meetings and, and traveling all around the great state of Wyoming in between.

Melissa Turley: So, I think, you know, some of the things that I've talked to folks and, actually in the Leadership Wyoming, I had some really good conversations with people around the state about how we could look at changes to the legislature to make it more representative of the people of the state. I mean, one way to talk about would be change the timing when the legislature meets. You know, the winter schedule was set many, many years ago when the majority of those serving in the legislature were ranchers, and February was the best time to be away from the ranch. As our, makeup of our legislature changes and if we are interested in seeing more diversity, I think, we would have better participation if we were to schedule the legislature in a month where travel is more easy. Or, perhaps, even in a month where school's not in session that parents might be able travel, or teachers might be able to serve.

Emy diGrappa: I think that's a great idea. And I've thought a lot about that because people have said that. And as long as it's not in the summer because we are so desperate for summer in Wyoming.

Melissa Turley: (laughs).

Emy diGrappa: (laughs).

Melissa Turley: I know, I said that and I thought, "Ah, but it's really hard to ask people to ... you know, and then go lobby and, and advocate in the summer."

Melissa Turley: But, you know, and then of course, the salary, which I certainly understand that there's no, you know, magic number that's right to pay people to serve in politics. But I do think that having a salary that allows people, working people to serve is really important. You know, I was able to take advantage of, of that ... I mean, that was the only way that I was able to serve, I guess, in elected office is because the Town Council and the County Commission do pay a salary here. And so, it was not, you know, a lot of money. It was not enough to be a full-time job. I needed to work in order to, to also put food on the table, and I think that's important too. I think it's good to find a balance, so that [elected-s 00:14:32] are able to be compensated for their time in some way. But it's also important to be out working and really understanding the community as well.

Emy diGrappa: So, do you think that was a real barrier to you because you were on the Teton County Commission, you were on the Jackson Town Council? And did you have a desire to serve statewide, but you wouldn't because you needed to support your family?

Melissa Turley: I don't know that I had a desire to serve statewide. But, I can say, those barriers kept me from pursuing it, or really thinking of it as a possibility. And sometimes I tell people, I mean, I got elected when I was 30 years old, and I had my son while I was on the Town Council. And then, ran for reelection on the council, and round for County Commission. And I can see how much, obviously, being the mother of a young child complicates your life, and how much your child very much takes (laughs) much time and attention. And so, had I not already been in office it would have been really difficult for me to take on a campaign with a young son. But because I had run a campaign before, and because I was already in office it was absolutely doable to run two campaigns with a small child.

Emy diGrappa: Well, that's a really honest answer because, I think, that when I think about running for office, and the time it takes, and the energy you have to put into it, and a lot of Town Council meetings are in the evening when you want to be home, when you want to be with your kid who's been in school all day. So, I can see how you'd be torn on that.

Melissa Turley: Yeah, yeah. And, again, it worked out well for me because while I was on Town Council, as I said, my son was born while I was on Town Council, and then he was a small. And so, honestly, a lot of the time he was going to bed at 6 or 7 PM (laughs). So, it kind of worked out for me to have the flexibility to be with him more during the day, and then go to the council meetings at night. But that changes as they get older too.

Emy diGrappa: Well, yeah, for sure. Just wait Mom, just wait. (laughs). You're just getting into it right now, he's only 11. Yeah, you're gonna be waiting up for him when he misses his curfew at night. You're gonna be like, "Where were you? What are you doin'?" (laughs).

Emy diGrappa: So, my last question is, what wisdom and what opportunities can we provide for young women growing up today? And not just in politics, but just in life, in general, to encourage women to be strong for themselves, really.

Melissa Turley: Yeah. Well, I think, leadership really begins with self-awareness. And so, I would really encourage young women to take the time to learn what's important to them, what they do well. Identify some weaknesses to overcome but, maybe too, identify some weaknesses that are okay to have (laughs) and be okay with that. And to also identify a good community of support.

Melissa Turley: And sometimes that community of support is one or two people, it doesn't have to be large. But I think that that's also it important, having a place where it's safe to ask for help when you need it.

Emy diGrappa: And, Melissa, you obviously have done that for yourself to put together a community of support. Was it women your age, was it older women? How did you identify who was gonna be a person that you would trust and be able to talk to?

Melissa Turley: Wow, I just feel so fortunate that I have had so many extraordinary women in my life, and they've just come into my life in these wonderful ways, and I feel very fortunate that I was able to hold onto those relationships. I would say, [Nik-ki 00:18:23] Babcock is, I call her, my spirit mom. She calls me her spirit daughter. And she definitely helped change the course of my life. We met one another, probably, about 16 years ago. And she is a force to be reckoned with in women's issues here in Wyoming, and in our community, and in other communities as well. And so, she certainly has been a great role model, and supporter, and the wind beneath my wings, and encouraging me that when I thought I could do something that I absolutely could.

Emy diGrappa: Well, it's good that you had that kind of inspiration. So, thank you so much for talking to me.

Melissa Turley: Oh, thank you, Emy. It was a pleasure.

Emy diGrappa: Well, have a good night.

Melissa Turley: Thank you, you too.