Ashleigh Snoozy & Kristen Czaban: Furthering The Power Of Community

Ashleigh and Kristen recently joined us to outline their stories and research with the Sheridan Press and their most recent project spotlighting humanity in our own communities. Their natural repartee is perfect for a podcast environment highlighting the Center for Vital Community (CVC), and its position as the "nonprofit for nonprofits." As we all know the pandemic is coming to an end, but political unrest is still at an all time high and Ashleigh and Kristen do an amazing job at creating a safe space for civil discussions around community, voting, and other subjects. Kristen is the publisher of Sheridan Press located in Sheridan, WY and Ashleigh is the managing editor of the same media source.

About the project:

It is a three-part series about the Center for a Vital Community, a nonprofit for nonprofits of sorts that promotes civility, leadership and democracy in the Sheridan County community. The CVC is unique to Sheridan County, and the articles published dove into why it hasn’t been replicated elsewhere, things that have worked and haven’t over its more than 20-year life and its upcoming plans of hosting community conversations centered around mental health. Check out the articles below!

Civic engagement: CVC promotes leadership, cooperation in Sheridan

Finding what works: CVC success hinges on human potential

Buy-in: Community finds own solutions through study circles

Thank you both so much for your time!

Emy DiGrappa (00:00):

Hello, my name is Emy DiGrappa. Each week, we bring you stories, asking our guests the question why. We learn about passion, purpose, and the human experience. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with the generous support of the Wyoming community foundation. This is, What's Your Why?

Emy DiGrappa (00:36):

Today. We are talking to Sheridan Press publisher, Kristen Czaban, and reporter and editor Ashleigh Snoozy. Their story research was made possible by a grant from Wyoming humanities. This grant is part of our democracy initiative, why it matters civic and electoral participation. Welcome Ashley and Kristen. So the first question I have for you is that I want to learn from each of you, tell me about how you chose your story for this project and what was the research that you put into it?

Kristen Czaban (01:13):

So the idea for the story first came about, because I serve on the CVC board, the Center for a Vital Community board. And when we saw what the Humanities council was looking for in terms of stories and impact, it just seemed like an obvious fit. The CVC works really hard. It has multiple missions, but a center piece of it is to solve community problems. And as a board member, I knew that the other communities have attempted to replicate the work the CVC has done and has just struggled to do so. Sheridan is just super unique in its philanthropy and its level of involvement, so it seemed like an obvious fit for what the grant was seeking to talk about. So I pitched the idea to Ashleigh and she ran with it. So I'll let her talk about the work she put into it.

Ashleigh Snoozy (02:03):

Yeah. So a lot of the research was just talking to human beings because there's so much human capital that goes on with the CVC, that's pretty much the base of it. So I spoke with all of the former executive directors, the current executive director, current staff, people who were part of the initial board of directors, and current members, things like that. So a lot of conversations with a lot of different people, in addition to looking up all of the different elements that they've been a part of as far as community services and things like that.

Emy DiGrappa (02:38):

So tell me a little bit about the Center for Vital Community before we go further into the different stories you did.

Ashleigh Snoozy (02:48):

So the Center for Vital Community, Kristen could probably say this a little bit better, because she's deep into the program. So the CVC is a nonprofit of nonprofits of sorts. So working with other nonprofits to help bolster their community impact, working to engage others in leadership opportunities, training people for boards that host community conversations to help bolster civility in the community and bring up tough topics. What else am I missing, Kristen?

Kristen Czaban (03:21):

Those are the three main branches. Like Ashley said, there are three pillars that are primarily supporting nonprofits. So that includes training for nonprofits, in particular, nonprofit boards, fundraising, marketing, all of those things they talk about in some of their trainings. The second piece is leadership training. One of their key programs is called the Civic Leadership Project. And they bring in trainers from the Blandin foundation out of Minnesota about once every three or four years. And it's completely free to participants. It's pretty competitive to get into. And it teaches about community leadership. They also do a leadership program over the summer for graduating eighth graders. So folks who are entering high school the following fall.

Kristen Czaban (04:08):

And the last piece is having conversations about things going on in the community. So one of their, again, key programs is called Study Circles and they've held several of those where they're very intensive month long programs, essentially, where they rely on the community to come together and talk about specific issues. So they've done one on poverty and several initiatives came out of that. They've done one on creating a dementia friendly community. And this fall they're actually going to host one on mental health and ways the community can help address some issues around that topic.

Emy DiGrappa (04:49):

So with the current climate in the nation on civility, how do you think this group is addressing those issues? How are you tackling those difficult issues that maybe sometimes can be very hidden in a community? How do you bring them to the surface so that people can talk about them?

Ashleigh Snoozy (05:08):

That's a great question. And they are so good at answering this question because they do community conversations. So they started this well before I think the unrest that we've experienced in the past year in the nation. They started community conversations about two, three years ago and trained up trainers in the community to host these conversations, to have an open space where everybody has an equal voice to talk about their experiences. So they call it Community Conversations. We started with really softball stuff. I can't even remember what the first one was, but it was something really, everybody could speak to it. It was a very non politicized topic. And then came up to the end of last year, where they were having conversations about the different sides of the political party and what that looks like. And so they have this really good format where they give everybody a certain amount of time around a table to talk about certain aspects of whatever topic they've discussed.

Ashleigh Snoozy (06:10):

And then you can ask questions of curiosity. It's very civil. It promotes a healthy way of conversing and speaking to your own experiences rather than attacking others. So I've seen that through my project as well as participating as just a participant and a facilitator as well. So it's been really encouraging to see the participation from the community in that, as well as a bit of a bummer I think, and I mentioned this in my articles as well, of seeing the lack of participation on the really hard topics. So they're doing a good job, they have a really good format and I think they may have been a little disheartened toward the end. We're in the middle of a pandemic, the political unrest is at its height, and they wanted to talk about it in this really safe space. And I think people just didn't necessarily, I think they were Zoomed out and I think they probably had, they just didn't want to talk about it or didn't feel like it was actually going to be a safe space, but it has proven to work really well.

Emy DiGrappa (07:11):

So when you're you're talking about democracy and in this initiative where you're getting stories to talk about civic and electoral participation, what have you found is the electoral participation in Sheridan? Are you doing any kind of initiatives that really reach across the aisle to get out and vote, to participate in the community in that way?

Kristen Czaban (07:39):

And when you say we, do you mean we as in Sheridan, or we as in the Sheridan press or the CVC?

Emy DiGrappa (07:44):

The CVC.

Kristen Czaban (07:45):

The CVC actually lives with Sheridan college. So it's based with the Sheridan College Foundation and operates in space held by Sheridan College or the Northern Wyoming Community College District. So by nature, it cannot be political. We talk about issues that are non-partisan and things along those lines. We haven't done anything specific in terms of get out the vote or anything along those lines. We've simply tried to hold conversations around issues that we've identified as important to our community, and then encourage people to have civil discussions around those before they make their decisions in the voters box.

Ashleigh Snoozy (08:29):

And who were the people that you highlighted in your stories? You did three stories and highlighted different individuals. Why did you choose those specific stories?

Kristen Czaban (08:41):

Great question. So the first story talked about the bigger picture of how it was founded, who those players were. So talking about founding board members, organizations that helped contribute to some of the content that we do, so the Blandin Foundation like Kristen mentioned. And there's another one. Anyway, there are a couple foundations, some of the founding board members, some of the old executive director. So that was kind of the initial article. The articles after that talked about why it's worked in Sheridan versus why it hasn't worked other places. So talking to the other folks in other communities. So Cody and Laramie, I spoke with, nobody in Gillette is currently working on it or had worked on it recently so they didn't have anybody in particular to speak to. So I spoke with the Cody mayor who I think they tried to get it started in Cody and it didn't work.

Kristen Czaban (09:38):

And then in Laramie, spoke with a fellow who was hopeful and tried to get it started and then the pandemic happened. So I think he's still optimistic that it can be replicated in Laramie, especially with the university in that kind of mindset and the community and seeing how it works with Sheridan college and kind of following that path. And then spoke with folks who work in part of the CVCs project. So leadership things that they do with the local school district and those students. So spoke with a teacher there and wanting to get all perspectives, from the beginning of the organization to now finding that history, the people that it impacted, things like that.

Emy DiGrappa (10:21):

What is the process to become a member or to participate?

Ashleigh Snoozy (10:26):

There's no real process. In terms of board members, we operate much like any other nonprofit, in that we recruit and we try to have a diverse board. But in terms of participating in programs for the CVC, it depends on the program. So for the nonprofit training, if you are on a board of a non-profit or volunteer regularly with a nonprofit, or just seeking to be play a bigger role with a local nonprofit, you're welcome to attend. For the leadership training, for the civic leadership training, that's the one that happens every few years, there's a application process that folks go through for that. And for the eighth grade leadership program, I'm not sure they've ever turned anybody away, but there's a small essay that the kiddos have to write.

Ashleigh Snoozy (11:11):

And then for broader things like community conversations or the study circles that will become a coming up in the fall, you just show up, there's no particular process to get involved. We post all of our events on the website and we share them on social media and with local media organizations to get the word out. But otherwise there's no membership per se.

Emy DiGrappa (11:36):

So how do you reach out to underserved communities or do you think you are reaching those communities?

Ashleigh Snoozy (11:42):

I think it depends, again, when they did the study circles on poverty in particular, there is a very real understanding that they couldn't talk about that issue without having folks who were in situations at the table. So they worked really hard to include those folks, have them talk about what they needed from the community or with the community. Same with dementia friendly projects, they made sure they had folks at the table who have either dealt with that with a family member or are maybe in the early stages themselves and what their fears were and those sorts of things. So I think they are working pretty hard to, in particular around the study circles, include the folks that we are seeking to help. So it's not prescriptive and is really addressing the needs that those folks experience on a day to day basis.

Emy DiGrappa (12:34):

What do you think can be a good addition? It sounds like you're doing some amazing things, and I know Sheridan is such a beautiful community, to see this kind of interaction is, is really encouraging. And I'm glad you're spreading the love to other communities around Wyoming. What do you see are the biggest things you have to overcome at the Center for Vital Community?

Kristen Czaban (13:00):

Honestly, right now, I think the biggest challenge the CVC faces is burnout from the community itself. As Ashleigh mentioned earlier, for much of 2020, the programs that the CVC offered were done digitally, so via Zoom or something along those lines. And I think it was really hard to convince people to tune into something like that, or participate in something like that when it had already dominated so much of their lives at work and whether their kids were in school or anything along those lines. So I think that was one of our biggest challenges in 2020. And looking forward, I think it's a burnout of a different kind. We're asking people to talk about different, difficult topics. And I think everyone's tired. They want to just laugh and enjoy the sunshine and get outside and have a good time with neighbors and friends at events. and getting them to sit down and talk about really difficult subjects right now, I think is asking a lot, just given the trauma and stress of the last year or so.

Emy DiGrappa (14:02):

I could not agree more.

Kristen Czaban (14:06):

We're all there, right?

Emy DiGrappa (14:07):

We're all there. Yeah. Wyoming has long winters and when the sun starts shining, yeah, the last thing you want to do is be inside on a Zoom call, right?

Kristen Czaban (14:21):

And we do take a big break, not a big break, we focus more on the leadership programs over the spring and summer and leave the more in-depth topics for those colder months where we think we'll be able to get everybody's attention. So we're not diving into our study circles on mental health until the fall to hopefully give folks a breather and a chance to soak in that vitamin D and get back on track.

Emy DiGrappa (14:49):

What is the population of Sheridan?

Kristen Czaban (14:51):

The county is about 30,000. I think the city itself is just under 20.

Emy DiGrappa (14:58):

So do you feel like the CVC has done a good job in touching a lot of people in the county?

Ashleigh Snoozy (15:10):

I think they have to an extent, but I think we can do more. It's hard to sometimes explain to folks what the CVC is and what they do without having a more in-depth conversation with them. If they're not directly involved with a non-profit or non-profit board, they don't think it's for them. And sometimes the projects or the programs that we put on can frustrate people. For example, community conversations. We propose these topics such as public land use or mental health, or what we want from our leaders. And they're strictly conversations. We're not bringing folks together to solve anything. We're just sharing information.

Ashleigh Snoozy (15:53):

So at times they come in thinking they're going to have this conversation and solve all of our social ills only to discover that is not the purpose of those. It's strictly to teach people to have a civil conversation. So I think there's some of that. I think we've done the teaching part now, and now we need to dive in and really work on awareness and information around those topics, as well as how to move forward as a community and addressing them.

Emy DiGrappa (16:26):

So when you say teach people how to have a civil conversation, do you actually have a professional who is instructing people how to facilitate a difficult conversation? So you have professionals that are leading the conversation?

Kristen Czaban (16:44):

So we have. Ashleigh had referenced that or alluded to it at least earlier in the conversation where a couple of years ago, the CVC brought in trainers from an organization whose name is going to escape me at the moment.

Emy DiGrappa (16:57):

Essential Partners.

Kristen Czaban (16:58):

Essential partners, thank you, Ashleigh. Essential Partners. And they came in and taught about, I think there were about 40 people, 40 to 50 people in that training who learned the process that we now use in community conversations. How to facilitate those? How to deescalate? And really just the structure of those conversations that allows for space for everyone to speak, allows for questions of curiosity, without attacking or name calling and things along those lines. So those 40 to 50 people who were trained in that format are now the facilitators for the community conversations that we have had for the last couple of years.

Emy DiGrappa (17:38):

That is so excellent. And I do remember Ashleigh alluding to that. I just didn't realize that it was this professional process, which I think is excellent. The fact you're taking that time to really, and you are doing something, which I was asking you earlier when I was talking about, it's not quote unquote politics, but it is. Having people have those difficult discussions are political. Maybe you don't see yourselves as a political organization, but how you deal with mental health or how does certain things in your community affect people one-on-one or in a group. And those are decisions that people in the town council or the county commissioners, those are decisions they make on your life, whether it's land use or other things. So even though you don't say it's political, it really is. And having that, being able to have those community conversations is really important in the encouragement of people to participate at the level of voting.

Ashleigh Snoozy (18:54):

And I think when I mean, not political, I mean non-partisan. Everybody brings their political views to the table for all of these conversations. Our goal is to help them have the conversations with folks who may not be in the same political spectrum or on a different end of the political spectrum than they are themselves. So yes, we deal with topics that are extremely political, but we do not insert any sort of agenda into those. We're just seeking to teach folks how to have conversations around those difficult topics.

Emy DiGrappa (19:27):

So, Ashley, this last question is specifically for you. How long have you lived in Sheridan?

Ashleigh Snoozy (19:35):

Since 2016, so five years.

Emy DiGrappa (19:38):

Five years, okay. And so getting involved in the CVC and doing these stories, what did you learn? What was surprising? But what did you discover that you didn't know before?

Ashleigh Snoozy (19:53):

So I think, about the CVC specifically, I discovered that it takes money and empowered people to get something like this done in a different community. And the moving forward part that you mentioned earlier, I think is the part that I kind of took from it, in that Sheridan is so unique and so special, which I knew after a couple of months of living here, but I think it's just been reiterated. And I think CVC is a perfect example of what Sheridan is and does. So it's a really unique community that has really gracious philanthropists and also really good, well trained leaders. So I think CVC plays a huge part in that. So CVC functions because it has the financial backing and the stability of the Scott foundation and other foundations and other individual and private donors, as well as the people who are highly motivated and well skilled at leadership to train other leaders to do that in the community.

Ashleigh Snoozy (20:52):

And I think there's this assumption that if somebody has an idea for a non-profit, if they have an idea through a poverty circle or something like that, a study circle, that it's going to happen. Even just this month, somebody I know started a new nonprofit and even without the financial backing chose to talk to the press about it, which was so fun. And she was easily empowered just because she knew that it was going to work out. And the second that she said something, the community would back her because it was a good idea and she had the opportunity to speak or she felt the authority and the leadership to be able to speak. So I think CVC plays a huge role in that it's hard to replicate in other communities, but that's a good... Yeah, and so that kind of makes it stand out.

Emy DiGrappa (21:41):

Definitely. And I think it does empower people and it makes people want to get involved when you see that kind of encouragement when someone has a great idea and they can put it out there in the world and feel confident that people are going to get around them. And that really speaks a lot to the community and the warmth of the community that you're embracing people. So thank you so much for talking to me today.

Kristen Czaban (22:09):

Yeah, thank you for having us.

Emy DiGrappa (22:26):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of, What's Your Why? Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with support from the Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to thinkwhy.org, subscribe, and never miss the show.