Robin Sessions Cooley: Change Begins Outside Your Comfort Zone


Robin Sessions Cooley is the Director of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services.

She grew up in Park County and is from Powell, Wyoming.

In this episode, Robin talks about the impact that working in local government has had on her life, her advice for young women who want to go into politics, and why the people in the Workforce Services Office are the best thing about the job.

"It's incredible where women are going in Wyoming." - Robin Sessions Cooley

Emy DiGrappa: 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.

Emy DiGrappa: Today, we are talking to Robin Sessions Cooley. She is the director of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services. Welcome, Robin.

Robin: Thank you. It's my pleasure to be here.

Emy DiGrappa: You know, the director of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services is an appointment by the governor. And tell me what, what is your job? What does it mean to be the director of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services? I know you have quite a big staff.

Robin: We do. We've got, I think at last count, it was 569 employees spread across the entire State of Wyoming. So it's, I will tell you that every day that I walk into this job, it's a little daunting. But it is, it's an exciting time for Wyoming right now and for the role that workforce services can play in moving Wyoming into the future. So, you know, it's, you know, somebody said to me the other day, they said, "Well, whether we're in a boom or bust in Wyoming, workforce services is front and center, because whether you've got to provide unemployment insurance benefits and reemployment help to individuals or if you're helping businesses find employees, whichever circumstance it is, you're, you're really front and center of those types of discussions and concerns."

Robin: So it's really an exciting appointment. And I, I have just enjoyed it from day one. The people are so passionate and committed. They have made my job ... You know, I stepped in having represented Department of Health, Family Services, you know, human-services-related agencies for the State of Wyoming as an attorney in the Attorney General's Office. And so this role was, was really, you know, fit right with that because you're providing services to Wyoming citizens. And I was very in tune to that role and what that means to Wyoming.

Robin: But you step into this position and, and I just can't say enough about the people in this, in this agency and their excitement, their passion, and their desire to really do good work for the citizens of Wyoming. So if I had to, if I had to really highlight something in my first 10 months of this job, it would be meeting the people in this agency. It's really been, it's really been an awesome experience.

Emy DiGrappa: So, yeah, I can see why you are front and center across Wyoming. What are the, you know, what is the spread? I mean, you're not just in Cheyenne, but you have your workforce across Wyoming. And so what-

Robin: Right.

Emy DiGrappa: What kinds of jobs are they doing to help people with employment?

Robin: Well, we've, we have 20 workforce centers throughout the state in the different regions. And so what they're doing is within these workforce centers, and we really want to, we want, really want to change the, the discussion around what these centers provide. When you hear people talk right now in, you know, in the current times, what you hear them talk about are these workforce centers as the unemployment office. But it is, they are so much more than that. They are the vocational rehabilitation office where individuals go to get help in that areas for training, for employment, for help with their resumes.

Robin: It's where people go that are on unemployment, so you can apply for unemployment in these offices. But you also can then get on our, our program called Wyoming at Work. And you can actually apply for jobs. You can go into these offices and you get help with your resume with you can do mock interviews with some of the staff in these offices. You can learn about how to answer various interview questions when you do get that interview. You, you apply for jobs. There's so much more than just the unemployment office. They're a re-employment or unemployment office.

Robin: So we're all over the state with whether it's vocational rehabilitation, it's employment services, it's the veterans programs helping veterans with employment and other issues. But we also work very closely with the Department of Family Services, the Department of Health. I mean, there's a real nexus in, in those types of services. So, you know, as I, as I visited individuals, staff that are in these work for services 20 places around the state, what you realize is they have the- these direct lines into these other services, you know, that many individuals are going to need if they need re-employment, whether it's, you know, help with, with finding, uh, mental health services or help with finding child care services or even, you know, we've also got a strong nexus with all the community colleges and with the University of Wyoming.

Robin: You know, if an individual needs upskilling and upscaling in some of their education services, we're there to help them, to help them find funding for that financial help, but also to help them just look at what do the individual community colleges provide, what kind of services, what kind of career guidance do they provide in terms of the programs that they have in the interest of the individual.

Robin: So, boy, I, I feel like I could just keep going on and on because the, the nexus between all of these types of assistance services that people need with whether they're, they're going to or they need help getting from high school into college or into a job, um, we have youth services for those individuals. Or, there are individuals that are just looking at a change in career or the necessity of a change in career. So the, the services are just pretty phenomenal that are out there across this state. And it's been one of the biggest barriers that I, I've seen is just getting the word out about the number of services that are out there to help people.

Emy DiGrappa: I think that's really true. And I think it's true about, you know, when, when you think about the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, that's why I wanted to hear you define it, is because you do automatically think of the unemployment office. And-

Robin: Right.

Emy DiGrappa: And I love that you want to change that characterization to be the employment office or the place of opportunity or something that really is, is a better depiction of the actual work that you're doing.

Robin: That's exactly right. That whole discussion needs to change. Unemployment is just a small part of it. But we want people that want to get out into the workforce. I mean, we're there to help. And there are so many ways to do that. So we just need to get the word out.

Emy DiGrappa: Yup, I think so. Well, where did you grow up?

Robin: I actually grew up in Park County. I, I am from Powell, Wyoming. My folks had gone to school and landed for a short time in Idaho. But then by the time they actually went from Big Piney, Wyoming, where I was born, my folks went to school in Utah, landed in Idaho for just a short time. And then my folks moved to Powell when I was in fourth grade. And I, I have lived there all, all throughout my, my formative years (laughs) into, into high school and then also into college, actually, during summertime. So I'm from Park County. My husband is from Park County. And we go up there often to visit.

Emy DiGrappa: So your, your parents and your grandparents, and how many generations have been in Wyoming?

Robin: Oh, my gosh. I think we trace that back to three generations. My great-great-grandfather, I believe I've gone back enough (laughs) generations, was actually Byron Sessions who helped, was a pioneer in the Bighorn Basin and helped settle that area, and the town of Byron is named after him. So I have many, many relatives in the Bighorn Basin and in that area. And my husband has his, you know, a big part of his family is still in that area as well in Park County. So we have a lot of roots in that area and throughout Wyoming.

Emy DiGrappa: Oh. (laughs) Jeez. Yes. And you can definitely call Wyoming your, your home, your home state in so many ways just to hear you say that.

Robin: Exactly.

Emy DiGrappa: Well, since we're celebrating Wyoming as the first state to give women the right to vote, and I know from reading your, your bio that you've worked for the Wyoming Attorney General's Office, you've just had a lot of experience working for a state government, it looks like. And, and what has your experience been as a woman? D you think that's been a different journey and a struggle to rise in the ranks as a woman?

Robin: You know, I, I, that's kind of a difficult question. I, I think of it in these terms. I have had the incredible fortune of seeing so many firsts for women in Wyoming. And, you know, as I am thinking about the question, I, I thought of, you know, the first woman AG, Gay Woodhouse. And, and I saw her appointed the first woman on the Wyoming Supreme Court, Justice Kite. You know, so many firsts for Wyoming and Wyoming women. But then I also took a step back from that. And I think, you know, "Wow, it was, it was, that should have happened, you know, even before my time, before, you know, those, that should have happened before I was even aware of that."

Robin: So I think it's incredible where women are going in Wyoming. And there's a lot of momentum for women in Wyoming. But I, I, I also, on the flip side of that, think, "Wow, that's, it, it shouldn't have taken this long." But, you know, I, a lot of people, both men and women, think that same thing. So, so here we are and we're making great strides now. So I think that's, that's wonderful. From my perspective, my challenges as a woman and as a woman lawyer in, in Wyoming, you know, it's when I first started, I'm a little embarrassed to say this, but I guess I, I, I would admit that I kind of felt a need to just get along and to just go with the flow and not make a lot of, you know, I just, I didn't want to make any noise about some things that I saw. And, you know, being, you know, called by judges, you know, by my first name when other, you know, the men were called Mr. So-and-so or what have you.

Robin: You know, those things, I just, you know, I just wasn't going to make an issue of it. And so I, you know, seeing today where those things are noticed and they're corrected and they're addressed, I think it's, it's a wonderful thing. But I have been fortunate, I will tell you, to work in state government. I have always been treated equally in state government, I must say. And that's, that's been a very fortunate part of my career.

Emy DiGrappa: I think that is excellent. And I think, you know, those little things that come to the surface are age-old habits of the way, of the way women and men have been treated differently across the board. I don't, I don't even think it's even necessarily that you were just being quiet. It's just maybe you felt like there were bigger fish to fry (laughs) or something.

Robin: And I, you, you know, you're exactly right. Those are, those are minor. And, and you're right. You know, you pick your battles. (laughs) And, and those weren't the battles that I was going to pick. So you're absolutely right. I think they're kind of an age-old way of considering issues. But, you know, that's changing.

Emy DiGrappa: That is.

Robin: I, I absolutely believe that's changing. So that's a, that's a wonderful thing to see.

Emy DiGrappa: Well, one thing as I've been talking to women across Wyoming, and especially the fact that there aren't a lot of women in politics and not that you're a politician, but in a sense, you know, you work for state government and you are part of that in that political arena, especially during the legislative sessions when you have to account for your budget, for example. And-

Robin: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy DiGrappa: What do you think are the barriers for women entering into politics?

Robin: You know, I, I think there's a lot, a lot of history there. I think one of the big barriers, at least from my perspective in talking with women across the state is, is just the reality of, and I, I suspect men have had this issue come up as well. And that's the reality of a part-time legislature having to leave work when they're, you know, either, you know, a breadwinner or, you know, shared responsibilities in the household, children at home. And, and, you know, even just taking off from work to do that. I, I suspect that's, that's part of it.

Robin: There's also, (laughs) you know, the, the campaigning. That's, that's getting out of a comfort zone that a lot of people, again, not just women, but a lot of people just aren't willing to do. Asking people for money, asking people for support and help. That's a difficult thing to do. And I suspect that that's a little bit more difficult for women than it is for men. And I think that's, that's an incredible barrier to putting yourself out there and asking for assistance. So I think there's a, a number of barriers. But I think if I had to think about the top two, those, those would be the two that come to mind first.

Emy DiGrappa: Yes. And, and you put it really succinctly. But I was also thinking you're a mom of three kids and you've had a successful career path. And what do you think is your success story in being able to do that?

Robin: Oh, I think my success story is twofold. I had employers that were supportive of that, and I also had a husband who was very supportive of that. So, you know, a husband but a partner. I mean, it was a very equal split of all responsibilities. So I think that's what makes it work. That's what made it work for me. And I am very proud of the fact, you know. I, there are very few, if I can't think of any, activities that, you know, one or the ot- other of us weren't there and, you know, splitting yourself up between three different kids and activities for all three different kids.

Robin: So for me, that's, that's the thing that's been vital. And I, again, I have to go back to the great employers that I've had, the, the bosses that I've had, men and women, that have recognized that, you know, life isn't all about your career and your work. It's you know, you've, you've got a family at home and, and that comes first. So it's been a, a number of things that have, that have helped me in my career. But my husband and my, my work I think are the, the two top.

Emy DiGrappa: Well, and that, that is very wonderful that you've had people along the way who have just supported you. And, and when we talk about lifting women up around the state and teaching young women how to grow and be successful, what's your best advice to make that, a young girl think about her life?

Robin: I think my best advice is to recognize that no matter what your goals, there will always be naysayers. There will always be people that question whether you are ready. But if you, uh, I guess if you can dream it, you can do it. And you need to be willing to put yourself out there, get out of your comfort zone and just, just do it. That was probably the hardest, the hardest way of thinking for me to come around to. And I suspect for many young women, it's the same. You don't, you know, you, you hear people that don't think you can do it when you know you're there, you're ready. And, you know, you, you have a tendency to think, "Well, I guess maybe they know me better than I do." But you, you, you can't even go there. If you're ready for it, if you're, if you're thinking about it, you need to go out there and you need to do it.

Emy DiGrappa: That is such good advice, Robin. That is such good advice and so true. I mean, every person, and just stepping out is, is hard no matter, no matter who you are. And I think, I think I've read and learned enough to see that all people have some kind of insecurity about themselves no mat-

Robin: Right.

Emy DiGrappa: No matter who they are. And-

Robin: I think that that's absolutely correct. Yeah.

Emy DiGrappa: Yeah. And no matter, even no matter how successful they are, people have to always be overcoming their fears.

Robin: And I think that's right. And I think you need to surround yourself with that group of people that is really going to, to let you know and support you and let you know that you are ready for that, that you need to go for it. And, you know, surround yourself with the, with the people that support you. I think that's, that's a critical component of, of putting yourself out there. Um, you need to hear the good 'cause you're, you're guaranteed to hear the bad, but you need to hear the really good also. (laughs)

Emy DiGrappa: That's true. Well, it's been such a pleasure talking to you, Robin.

Robin: Thank you. It's been my pleasure. I, I, uh, these are tough issues for Wyoming, tough issues for the country. But we're making progress.

Emy DiGrappa: Yes. And I love your attitude. Thank you.

Robin: (laughs) Thank you.

Emy DiGrappa: 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, 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.