Michelle Sullivan: Living Intentionally, Advocating For Youth & Loving Wyoming


Michelle Sullivan grew up in Casper, Wyoming.

She has a Master's in Education focusing on early years education.

She studied the Mind, Brain, and Education Program at Harvard.

She is the Director of Wyoming Afterschool Alliance.

She talks about maturity rates of young people today, how she became passionate about early education, and the Wyoming Afterschool Alliance's mission.

Emy diGrappa: 00:08 Welcome to First But Last, brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. I am your host, Emy diGrappa. Wyoming is called the equality state because we were the first to give women the right to vote. 150 years later, we wonder what Wyoming women think about the progress toward equality now. Let's find out and thank you for listening. Today, we are talking to Michelle Sullivan. She is the director of Wyoming Afterschool Alliance. And the Wyoming Afterschool Alliance is actually a priority fund of the Wyoming Community Foundation. Welcome Michelle.

Michelle Sullivan: 00:48 Thank you. It's wonderful to be here.

Emy diGrappa: 00:51 I've been wanting to meet you for so long, so I'm so excited to have this conversation with you. And I know you grew up in Wyoming. I know you're a true Wyoming girl. Where did you grow up?

Michelle Sullivan: 01:03 I grew up in Casper, right in the middle of the state. We used to say that it's the most central place in Wyoming.

Emy diGrappa: 01:10 And all right, how many kids are in your family?

Michelle Sullivan: 01:14 There are three of us. I'm the oldest of three.

Emy diGrappa: 01:17 Oh, you're the oldest of three? Okay.

Michelle Sullivan: 01:19 Yeah.

Emy diGrappa: 01:19 And I know that your dad is a former governor and he speaks so much about his daughter, Michelle. So I knew- I had a feeling you were the oldest daughter.

Michelle Sullivan: 01:30 (laughs).

Emy diGrappa: 01:32 (laughs).

Michelle Sullivan: 01:32 I- It's- It's sort of like a pancake at- you know, the- the first you have to kind of toss out just to get the b- the best as they come along.

Emy diGrappa: 01:41 (laughs).

Michelle Sullivan: 01:41 As my youngest daughter is happy to- to tell me all the time.

Emy diGrappa: 01:44 Well, that's great. So, wh- what was it like growing up in Wyoming,, and what do you find most intriguing about growing up in Wyoming?

Michelle Sullivan: 01:53 Yeah, you know, I- I think, first of all, I don't know that I knew anything different. It was- I feel like I was very lucky and had a very idyllic growing up. We grew up on Durban Street right in the middle of Casper, and I was very, very lucky to have wonderful schools. I mean, I think I had beautiful mentors all throughout my growing up. I would've grown up at a time when we were in a pretty significant oil boom. And at the time, again, I think when you're in a place, you don't really recognize how unique it was, but it would've been a time when Casper would've grown dramatically with the energy business. And it was at a time when unlike today, executives weren't situated in place. And so I think one of the things that was really wonderful about that time was the fact that we had a lot of leaders who had come from other places and come to Casper, and really cared about Casper as a community and wanted to see it flourish and succeed.

Michelle Sullivan: 03:03 And so you had things like the symphony that were well-supported and the arts and theater. And I was lucky enough to be kind of nested within all of that with people who ... I had a wonderful friend and mentor who was an attorney who was kind of an- a bachelor attorney and he would come over every Sunday night for what we called the Sunday Night Fights. (laughs). Wonderful, you know, ruckus debates about all s- manner of topics. And so for me, that really was a very formative time and it shaped a lot of what I love about the world now.

Emy diGrappa: 03:44 Oh my gosh. So just you saying that and just having that freedom and comfort to have those debates and to be able to find, you know, yourself in that, because don't you think that's, what's missing in American politics today that, you know, you don't- you can't have ... people feel like, "If you're on that side, I can't talk to you"?

Michelle Sullivan: 04:10 I certainly- I feel like we lose a lot when we're not able to listen to one another and we're not able to hear varying perspectives. I really am someone who has learned and believe that solutions are always better with a broader set of perspectives at the table. And I- I think just from my own growing up and m- the people who have been important to me in my life, that has certainly born true or has been true as I've seen solutions.

Emy diGrappa: 04:49 Mm-hmm (affirmative). What is your degree in?

Michelle Sullivan: 04:52 So I have a degree in f- in fine arts, um, from ... My undergraduate degree, it is a studio art degree. I sort of shifted halfway through from a classic- was a classic history politics major to begin, and then was like, "Wait, I- I really love the arts and really want to create art." And so I shifted about halfway through in a typical Gemini fashion. (laughs).

Emy diGrappa: 05:20 Well, I- for a minute there, I thought you were gonna say your degree was in political science. (laughs).

Michelle Sullivan: 05:25 Yeah, no, it's- I- I- I- I think my life has been a degree in political science to a certain extent, but I do also- I went back to school about 10 years ago and got my master's in education, in a program called Mind, Brain and Education. And that- So I have a deep love of education and the science of learning and development.

Emy diGrappa: 05:49 And so what- what exactly is a degree like that about? So when you say the mind ... Wh- What was it again?

Michelle Sullivan: 05:57 So it's called Mind, Brain and Education, and it's really the intersection of what we know about neuroscience-

Emy diGrappa: 06:05 Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Michelle Sullivan: 06:06 ... and cognitive science and how that research can be connected to the practice of education. And in- in my particular case, I took most of my time to really think about adolescent development and really what's happening during adolescent development that makes it such a special time for young people to learn and grow.

Emy diGrappa: 06:29 So do you think how a young person learns, like say before the age of 12, sets up their life for their future?

Michelle Sullivan: 06:40 Absolutely not. (laughs).

Emy diGrappa: 06:41 Okay. Okay.I was just-

Michelle Sullivan: 06:43 Yes, so it's- so it's so interesting because I think it's very important that we spend a lot of time thinking about, you know, kind of the very earliest years, zero to five often gets a lot of focus and attention because it is a time of remarkable growth and development and- and formation. It really sets and creates the foundation for- for what comes next and- and how young people learn and grow. The other really interesting time is the age of adolescence, which is between the ages of say 15-ish and 25. And some of the new neuroscience research, not so new now, but is really showing us that there's as much growth and development and reshaping, reconstruction of the brain that happens during that time as during zero to five.

Michelle Sullivan: 07:39 So it's a huge age of opportunity. It's a time when- when young people have the opportunity to take risks and create identities for themselves and try on new identities and try new skills. And I- I just think it's a- a time we often think of as a- a time that we have to get through. And ultimately, it's this incredible time of opportunity for young people to really be a part of solutions and community and connection. So I love that. Th- So that's the reason I mentioned that I don't think we've got lots of- lots of opportunity to- to continue to grow and form throughout our lives, honestly. And the science shows us that.

Emy diGrappa: 08:28 So is there a truth that young people today are maturing later?

Michelle Sullivan: 08:33 Yes. And there's a pretty large body of research that shows that adolescence is ... I d- Um, I'll get into kind of too much detail here, but there are kind of two things happening that happen simultaneously, there's development and then there is the culture of adolescents. And so- so development has actually t-, uh, which is true in almost all industrial cultures, the development has become earlier. So y- So young women, as an example, mature a little earlier than they might have even 20 years ago, whereas the way our culture treats adolescents has become older. So all the way through 25 is really a time of formation of the brain and- and also young people's identity.

Emy diGrappa: 09:24 How did this become your- your passion? Really- I really hear that in your voice, you're really-

Michelle Sullivan: 09:31 Well, so I was very lucky when my children were still really little, my youngest was three and my oldest was in kindergarten, my husband, Brian, received a fellowship called the Loeb Fellowship to go back to Harvard for the year. And interestingly, I had received the same fellowship when I was in my 20s. And at that time, we were not able to bring families with us. I didn't have a family at the time, but in this case, the fellowship allowed for us as a family to go back to Cambridge for the year, for that school year. And at the time, I was serving on the State Board of Education in Wyoming and was really interested in education and thought, "Well, if I'm gonna be here, I need to figure out what I'm gonna do with myself other than parent, and yeah, let's take advantage of this."

Michelle Sullivan: 10:24 And it turned out that our apartment was right around the corner from the College of Education at Harvard. And so I ha- since I had been there before, I kind of knew that you could introduce yourself to the professor and sit in on a class, which is what I did. And I sat in on a- on what was the core class for this Mind, Brain and Education program, and I can still remember it, sitting in that classroom, learning this information and thought, "Wow, this is what I really wanna do. This- Like, this is what I really wanna understand." And so took the class, came back to Wyoming, just sucked in as many podcasts and lectures as I could, and finally send to my husband about a year and a half later, "I've got to go back and do this degree." And he said, "Okay." And so he stayed in Wyoming with our three children (laughs) and I left and went to Cambridge for the year and took this degree program. And it was magnificent. It was- It shapes everything I do now.

Emy diGrappa: 11:37 Oh my. And you know, how old were you then?

Michelle Sullivan: 11:40 2011 was when I finished, so I was in my late 40s.

Emy diGrappa: 11:45 Okay.

Michelle Sullivan: 11:46 Yeah.

Emy diGrappa: 11:47 Isn't that amazing how you continually learn to embrace new ideas and have a new passion as you- as you grow, and you know, what you thought yesterday might be different, you know, about tomorrow because you're learning something new all?

Michelle Sullivan: 12:05 Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. And I think- I- I think it's- it's one of the things that I think is really, really important as it relates to how we continue to both contribute, but how we contribute in a way that we're growing and recognizing that- that we always have something that we can learn.

Emy diGrappa: 12:24 And kudos to your husband for, um, (laughs)-

Michelle Sullivan: 12:28 Oh my gosh. Yeah. My husband is a saint and he's ... Although they had- I think it was one of those things I learned an- a really important lesson, which was, you know, I think as women, oftentimes, we think that we kind of own parenting, or I- I- I should speak for myself. I was like, "Yeah, you know, this is- only moms can do this." And what I learned is a l- a lot of it is about practice. And so he was able to bring a kind of relationship to our kids that I know that I can't do. They had so much fun, they laughed a lot, they ate a ton of pizza, (laughs), and learned how to make a really good lasagna. (laughs).

Emy diGrappa: 13:12 That's great. Yeah. (laughs). Yeah. As- At least you can have leftovers if you have something like lasagna, right?

Michelle Sullivan: 13:18 Right. Right.

Emy diGrappa: 13:19 (laughs). That is so great. And so what are you doing right now? How long have you been in the position of director at the Wyoming Afterschool Alliance?

Michelle Sullivan: 13:30 So I have been the director for just a little over a year. So it's a new position for me and I'm really enjoying it. We're having a lot of fun, and hopefully, beginning to make a- a difference for young people. It's been an interesting time to- to have been a new director given the pandemic, but it's allowed us to really think carefully about how we wanna support young people in a variety of contexts, whether they're in school or out of school.

Emy diGrappa: 14:00 What's kind of the general purpose of the Wyoming Afterschool Alliance? I- I didn't even- Does it exist throughout the state or is it just in one city?

Michelle Sullivan: 14:10 No, so- so we are- we're a statewide organization. And sometimes I think when we think of afterschool, we limit really- I really like to think of it more as extended learning. So- But our mission really is to help create the conditions for young people to reach their full potential. And we do that in a whole variety of ways. We do that by convening, like increasing the quality of experiences that young people have available to them. So we- we do a lot of work to foster high quality experiences for young people all the way through high school and really even into early college age. So right now, we've got a big entrepreneurship initiative that we've just started, and a program called the Million Girls Moonshot, which is about developing an engineering mindset in girls and STEM. We do a lot of advocacy to really help increase awareness about the importance of afterschool and summer learning as a compliment to what happens during the school day.

Michelle Sullivan: 15:18 We know, especially for young people who- who are coming from working families, that that extended time after school is a time where they can begin to explore passions and practice things that they love, like music or the arts or STEM. And we also try to do as much as we can to help support programming through funding and that kind of thing as well, which is a wonderful compliment to the Wyoming Community Foundation. But we do it all through the- the lens of the whole child. Again, recognizing that kids are not brains only, they're about identity. It's like, how do you say this? We- W- We need to begin to think about how we are creating conditions that embrace the whole context of a child's world, not just a class or-

Emy diGrappa: 16:12 Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Michelle Sullivan: 16:13 ... one experience. And- And so we- we always look through that lens as we develop our programming.

Emy diGrappa: 16:20 You know, I think that, I don't remember the term, but I do remember that, uh, when I was raising my girls and I was a single mom, and one of the biggest struggles is, because as a working mom and- is that time between school and dinner, and they- there was a name for it. Like kids who went home by themselves and were all alone during this like 3:00 to 6:00 time was a very hard time for kids. And especially as they got older. Especially as they got- You know, especially through junior high, when kids can get into trouble, and there was a special term that they called those kids that went home by themselves.

Michelle Sullivan: 17:05 I remember the term, the latchkey kids-

Emy diGrappa: 17:09 Yes.

Michelle Sullivan: 17:10 ... is one- one term that gets used.

Emy diGrappa: 17:12 Yeah.

Michelle Sullivan: 17:13 Well, and we know a l- a lot of the research shows that actually the kind of spike in crime happens between 3:00 and 6:00.

Emy diGrappa: 17:22 Yeah.

Michelle Sullivan: 17:23 And there's a correlation between crime rates, juvenile crime rates specifically, and that time after school. And we know that one of the things I love about working with organizations around the state who are working with youth, there's a quality to the people who choose to work with young people in those extended learning contexts that have extraordinary expertise around how to develop relationships with young people, especially middle and high school students, I think in particular. But- And I think we're learning through the pandemic, that those relationships are really the foundation for protective resilient conditions that kids need to really be successful. And so I marvel all the time as I'm watching and talking with afterschool program directors or, uh, youth workers, they're just creative, interesting people who love kids-

Emy diGrappa: 18:27 Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Michelle Sullivan: 18:28 ... and that makes this work very, very rewarding.

Emy diGrappa: 18:31 Mm-hmm (affirmative). So that makes me wanna ask, because you don't directly work with kids, but you oversee a program that inspires this work. So who has inspired you in your life choices and career paths?

Michelle Sullivan: 18:49 Hmm. I- Well, let's see. There've been many, many, many. Um, (laughs), I think I have to, first of all, say that my father and my mother are like the pre- they- they are the foundational inspirers. (laughs). And I- I think what I really see in both of them is a deep desire to give back. And so that has really been kind of a foundational piece for me in terms of why I s- ... Excuse me, I- I get a little bit choked up. (laughs). So I- I think it's part of the reason I stay in Wyoming, why it's important to be in Wyoming is- is that deep desire to contribute to a place over time. And they certainly have demonstrated that for me.

Michelle Sullivan: 19:37 You know, it's interesting, one of the people who I've been thinking a lot about recently, who was kind of a f- an accidental m- mentor for me was a guy by the name of Edward T. Hall. And Edward T. Hall was a cultural anthropologist who came to Jackson when I was out for a number of years, ran something called the Snake River Institute. And part of how I would ... The Institute kind of came about because I was young and I wanted to be in Wyoming, but I also wanted to meet interesting people. And so I would go into the Valley Bookstore and sort of look through the bookshelves, and every once in a while, I would find a book that was really interesting. And one day I happened to pick up Edward T. Hall's book and thought, "Wow, this guy is really interesting." And I ended up calling him, finding his phone number and calling him and inviting him to come to Jackson, which he did. And he spoke and we ended up becoming great friends, and that cultural anthropology lens was so interesting to me because it was all about curiosity.

Michelle Sullivan: 20:53 And he taught me a lot about curiosity and how in order to really understand a culture or a system, you have to look around the edges of that culture and system. And I use what he taught me every single day. He talked a lot. Like one of the first pieces of advice he gave me was, "Make a friend." And then he said, "And I mean a real friend. Americans don't know how to do that." (laughs). And so anyway, I- I would say someone who I've thought a lot about recently, who- who was a mentor in a k- kind of different way was- would've been, he went by Ned Hall. Yeah.

Emy diGrappa: 21:38 Oh my gosh. That's an excellent story. And what great advice, "Make a friend."

Michelle Sullivan: 21:42 Yeah.

Emy diGrappa: 21:43 And that probably means you have to be vulnerable and learn something from somebody else-

Michelle Sullivan: 21:49 Yes.

Emy diGrappa: 21:50 And walk in someone else's shoes.

Michelle Sullivan: 21:52 For sure.

Emy diGrappa: 21:53 Yeah. And my last question to you is, because we are celebrating Wyoming being the first state to give women the right to vote, what do you think about women in Wyoming and the work that we have yet to do? Because we are last in many other ways, and- and we have, you know, I think the fewest number of women in the legislature and in the US and so how- how do you think we can work better to promote women in our state?

Michelle Sullivan: 22:30 I think one of the things that we as women can do, and I think we do very well, but perhaps we need to think about how we do it in a more strategic and organized fashion, we need to be able to begin to model working across our differences and in community for what we want to be true for our children, no matter where we sit along the political spectrum. And I think we have allowed the kind of macro context to get in the way of being clear about what we want to be right in our communities at their very core. And I- I think we need to get back to having that conversation in a really meaningful way. And yeah, I- I'm stuttering a little bit because I just think it's- it's such a profound challenge that we face here, that we have this kind of banner of equality, and yet we have not been willing to provide equal pay-

Emy diGrappa: 23:42 Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Michelle Sullivan: 23:43 ... equal voice, equal structures for 52% of our population. And I think the only way that we can begin to overcome that is by looking really hard at how we as women perhaps need to th- rethink how we work together first and then how we really hold our male counterparts accountable for our voice.

Emy diGrappa: 24:09 Well, I think you've done a couple of things, Michelle, and maybe at the moment, you didn't think about the wisdom behind your choice, but what you were saying earlier about going off to college for a degree, and leaving your husband in charge the kids and changing your mindset to say, "I'm not the only one that can do this, like he can do this too. And- And he's as capable as I am." And maybe that's one of the barriers, is that we think we are the only caretakers.

Michelle Sullivan: 24:39 And as caretakers, we often make choices to work in different parts of the system. I mean, look at the non- not-for-profit community, it's largely run by women. And to a certain extent, this is something maybe you're making me think about, I think to a certain extent, perhaps women have opted out to care for their communities in different contexts where they can make progress. And perhaps part of what needs to happen now is a recognition that if we really wanna make progress, it's going to be important for us to think about how we elevate women, young, middle age, old, to positions of leadership throughout our political system.

Emy diGrappa: 25:33 So do you think there's an issue between supporting a woman who's a Democrat or supporting a woman who's a Republican? Do you think people are making devices decisions and not supporting all women?

Michelle Sullivan: 25:47 Well, I can tell you that when a Republican woman is censured by her party for participating in a bipartisan effort to support women candidates across the board, yes, I believe that that is happening. I also think just as we're talking, this hadn't occurred to me, but I think we are a state where there are insiders and outsiders, and as a political insiders and political outsiders, and we haven't grown that pie very much over the years. And because sort of, if you wanna call it, a lot of those insiders are men, if we're not growing and inviting a broader base of people to participate in our political system, we are going to, by- by our very nature, have fewer women, because most of those insiders are- are men.

Emy diGrappa: 26:46 Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right.

Michelle Sullivan: 26:48 One thing I want to say about that insider, outsider piece is it's- I'm very aware that we often say, or we hear people who weren't born in Wyoming say, "Well, I know I wasn't born here, but I got here as fast as I could."

Emy diGrappa: 27:03 (laughs).

Michelle Sullivan: 27:03 I feel like we have to get over this feeling that you have to be a fourth generation Wyomingite to really be a Wyomingite. We need everybody to participate. And until we begin to really celebrate those who have chosen to be here and take advantage of all of the skills that they bring, we're gonna be in trouble.

Emy diGrappa: 27:26 Right. We're cutting ourselves short. We're- We're not letting ourselves expand and grow. And- And it's really what is necessary for Wyoming as we come into these critical times that we're facing.

Michelle Sullivan: 27:38 Absolutely.

Emy diGrappa: 27:39 Yeah. Well, it's been great talking to you today. Thank you so much, Michelle.

Michelle Sullivan: 27:44 Thank you, Emy, and, uh, have a wonderful rest of your day.

Emy diGrappa: 27:48 All right. You too. Thank you for listening to First But Last, brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. Please join us again next week as we continue our conversations with women from around the state. You can also find us at thinkwide.org, where we continue the conversation on our blog about the history, journey and the challenges of Wyoming's intrepid women living in the equality state. And if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the show and leave us a review on iTunes. Thank you for listening.