Hannah Black & Niki Kottmann: Equity for the People of Color Who Call Cheyenne Home

Podcasters! Hannah Blackand Niki Kottmann, both journalists with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, joined us for an in depth discussion about their recent research on how government participation, voting, and elected leadership positions represent the minority voice. And if not, why? In short, the overwhelming answer is no. Listen to the episode to hear their thoughts and findings.

We appreciate you Niki and Hannah for your precious 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?

                 Today, we are talking to two journalists from the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, located in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Niki Kottmann and Hannah Black. Their story and research is made possible by a grant from Wyoming Humanities. This grant is part of our democracy initiative. It's called Why It Matters, Civic and Electoral Participation. Welcome Niki and Hannah. Thank you for joining. And I know, um, two busy journalists. So, I'm lucky to have you on. Thank you so much. [crosstalk 00:01:12] So, I want you each, in your own words, to describe the story you wrote, the research you did and why you chose this story.

Hannah Black (01:22):

I guess to kind of start with why we chose the story, I think it was more of a- a newsroom wide sort of decision that we came to. Um, when thinking about, you know, what are the biggest, um, issues that we feel like, uh, you know, are related to governmental participation, you know, um, voting, people being heard within, you know, city council, the school board, those elected leadership positions. Um, and we, uh, you know, Cheyenne is- is much like Wyoming, is mostly white. But, you know, there is a LatinX, Hispanic, um, you know, and- and Black population here. And, um, we'd kind of heard from leaders, you know, as, had our, um, predecessors throughout the years that, you know, they, those groups did not feel as included in the, um, I guess, civic process.

                 Um, and so we wanted to kind of step back and- and look at that. And talk to some of the leaders in, um, you know, the NAACP chapter here. Um, you know, we have, uh, uh, several other, um, you know, immigrant- immigrants' rights, um, organizations. And, you know, just other community organizing efforts. Um, where those, you know, minorities are more, um, represented than say, you know, your governmental body. And so we- we wanted to reach out to those leaders and ask, you know, "Do you feel heard by Cheyenne's elected leaders? And, um, you know, if not, why?"

                 And I think, uh, as we started to reach out to those people, um, the overwhelming answer we heard from most people was no. Um, and we feel like we have some concrete ideas (laughs). You know, these people are saying to us, "We have some ideas about how we could kind of improve that communication." Um, but, uh, I don't know. Niki, do you wanna kind of take it from there?

Niki Kottmann (03:27):

Yeah, for sure. So I think it kind of evolved pretty organically out of a few different, um, conversations that we had with our colleagues who were also working on the project. So we knew kind of broadly that we wanted to talk about representation. But what kind of happened was, naturally was it kind of broke into two stories. One story that was really honing onto specific representatives of, or people of color in the community who had, were trying to run for office. But then, um, Hannah and I wanted to take a step back and kind look at more of a broad perspective, at, um, kind of what does representation actually mean, in general? Um, but particularly to people of color, of course. And then what does that actually do to the community when you don't have, um, for example any Black individual on city council, or the city commission, or, um, the school board.

                 We have, um, we do have at least one, um, non-white member of our city council but that's all that, you know, of the elected leadership in our city that we've been able to find so far. And just, we felt like, you know, even if there is a small minority population, they still deserve to be represented. Um, but we needed to hear that in their own words. Why is that important? And, um, kind of what issues aren't being addressed if you, we don't have minority representation from elected leadership.

Emy diGrappa (04:49):

And what did you discover in terms of the lack of minority leadership? Is it that they want to participate but they don't feel welcome in participating?

Hannah Black (05:01):

Y- yeah, so, I think, one of the things that we've been really careful about was, you know, we went into this project with assumptions. You know, I think, as anybody has. Um, but we wanted to, obviously, ask a lot of questions and make sure that we weren't, um, you know, we weren't thinking of it the wrong way. We wanted to i- you know, obviously talk to these community leaders and, you know, ask them, "Do you want, do you want this type of representations? And if so, why? You know, why is it important?" Um, and so, I think what we, what we really found was, people, and I think is a historic thing throughout this country. Where, uh, you know, Black individuals or Hispanic, LatinX individuals, um, there isn't necessarily an in- an innate trust in, you know, say an all-white city council.

                 Um, or- or maybe not, uh, an outright mistrust, but a, um, you know, "I haven't seen them work for me. I, you know, I don't, what's the point of going to them for, you know, trash cleanup on my street or something if, you know, I just don't feel like they're gonna listen to me anyway?" Or, "I heard my friend tried to go to somebody on the city council and, you know, they just were shut down or ignored." You know, and th- and then it becomes a community thing of, like, "Well, you know, we're gonna look inward and use our own organizations to try and solve these, um, issues." But then, you know, there's, that can be detrimental if, you know, anything like that. And it just sort of becomes this- this vicious cycle of, for whatever reason, you know, people, uh, obviously it was, you know, more (laughs) racism, obviously, um, in- in decades past.

                 And- and still can be. Um, you know, can't get elected to certain offices. Um, and then I think that just reinforces itself. You know, people think, "Why would I even try to run if, you know, my communities so small? You know, um, only two percent of people here identify as Black. You know, um, if I can't count on support from the white community, um, you know, what's the point of running?" And so then it just becomes a vicious cycle of you can't get anybody into power. And I think that's really what we heard from those people. And- and, um, about some of those efforts to, um, still try and recruit people anyway.

Emy diGrappa (07:30):

What- what- what did you discover and learn in your research that really struck a chord, maybe a personal chord with how can we do things differently?

Niki Kottmann (07:43):

Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think, um, it's how we think about representation. Especially, um, as white members of the community. Um, I think it was important for Hannah and I, both as white identifying women, um, to go into this knowing, like, we have our own idea or definition of what representation means. And we have put in some work to try to understand that, but then we had to put in even more work to understand what that means specifically for people in our community. You know, I think, especially last summer after all of the protests, um, Black Lives Matter protests, I think there are more and more people, um, kind of challenging themselves to do more reading or just to kind of better themselves and better their understanding of what it is like to be a person of color in this, um, in America right now.

                 Even though, as a white person, you'll never fully understand, of course. But I think we need to take it a step further and think, "Okay, well, we're also not from here." Hannah and I are not from Wyoming or from Cheyenne, we've only been here for a little while. Um, and so we kind of had to, kind of really just go into it thinking, "Okay, we- we can't have any preconceived notions, um, we have to go in with a completely open mind. And just make sure that we are really listening to the people of color in our community, but also give a shot to one or two, um, white members of the community to kind of get a sense of the full picture." And what we ended up doing in that regard was talking to a white man on our city council who had been brought up in some of our interviews with people of color as a person who they did trust. Um, as somebody who had helped with some issues.

                 Um, and when I say issues, I think it's important to clarify, we kind of went into, um, this not- noting, like, that there are some s- sort of "minority issues". Or even nationally issues that disproportionately affect people of color. But, um, I think both Hannah and I kind of had this eureka moment, realizing that this isn't really a story about minority issues, it's about everyday issues that anyone could be facing in their neighborhood. But the barrier here is that if you're a person of color it's harder to get those issues addressed often. Um, becau- whether that's because, um, you feel like you don't have any sort of connection to your city council member, if they're not reaching out to you. If you've never met them, you know, a lot, we, something that came up in our research was, um, some of our sources saying, you know, "We don't have anyone coming to knock on our doors."

                 Um, they, you know, there's no city council people coming to introduce themselves. So how d- you know, they might not even know who their representative is. They'd have to do research to figure that out. Um, and so it was an interesting kind of back and forth kind of figuring out, well, um, that white man on city council who we spoke to, for example, was saying, you know, "Well people just need to speak up. If there's an issue, I'll listen. Just speak up." But speaking up is easier said than done, from our understanding. Especially after all this reporting.

Emy diGrappa (10:46):

Do you think that people feel ostracized if they do speak up? Do you think they, you know, they feel intimidated, for example?

Hannah Black (10:57):

I think that could be part of it. Um, I think there's a fear of being ignored. Or just, like, a, you know, why- why should, if they haven't reached out to me, you know, they're my city leaders. You know, um, you know, why should I feel like they're... I- I guess, I guess to sort of clarify that, you know, there's a, um, part of Cheyenne on the south side, um, that I guess historically has had fewer resources dedicated to it by the city. Um, and the residents who live there are, uh, a lot of people are lower income and a lot of people that, um, live in that area are, um, Hispanic or other people of color. And, um, I think there's been, whether it's been intentional or not, uh, maybe it started that way. Um, I, you know, I don't, certainly do not wanna say that today's you know, l- leaders are- are purposefully, you know, overlooking certain areas of- of the city.

                 'Cause we don't know that for sure, but I think historically there's just been less resources, um, dedicated to that area. And so, m- when people are living in that area or just, you know, in maybe some of the, um, lesser developed areas of town, they maybe feel a little bit more disconnected from- from, um, you know, anybody who would be making decisions for- for that area. If that makes sense. Um-

Niki Kottmann (12:45):

Yeah, and that disconnect kind of comes into, one thing that popped up that we didn't really expect was sort of status. And how there can be diff- there, d- I shouldn't say can be, there are definitely different, um, "statuses", or, like, levels of connectivity among people even within the same, um, background. Like, we talked to several Black individuals who said because they were very involved in their community, they actually felt like they had a connection with their elected leaders. Like, for example one of my sources, um, works with the VA. And he's very, um, like, he talks to our governor several times a year, he knows him personally. Um, same with local leadership, he knows them very well. Just because of the nature of his work, he's also a retired airman.

                 Um, so, first example, he was, he, you know, very outright said, "I recognize that I kind of have even some more privilege than some of my neighbors even because I'm in this position within my community where I'm forced to interact with these individuals more. So I've gotten to know them better. So I know that they'll listen to me, because they respect me through the work that I do every day and have been doing for a few decades now." But he was saying he recognizes that many members, um, of his community, who also, um, identify as Black individuals here in Cheyenne, might not feel as connected because, um, you know, just because of the nature of their own jobs. And if they don't work with as many people in "higher status" or people who closer to elected leaders, whether they're elected leaders themselves or being in a place like Wyoming, you know, everyone kind of knows everyone or has some connection to people.

                 So, you know, if he was, um, his neighbor might not, um, you know, be working for the governor but he could work for someone who (laughs) is related to the governor. And that would still make them more connected to their leaders. So it kind of just depends, um, on, you know, what you're also doing for a living and so we had a v- a lot of very interesting conversations about that. And kind of how "status" within your community is at play there.

Hannah Black (14:45):

I think also, um, if I could just add something really quickly that- that I found in a couple of my interviews was a recognition that, you know, um, uh, for example I talked to a former, uh, elementary school principal, um, who now is the vice president of the, uh, Wyoming Independent Citizens Coalition. And they do, um, work to try and, um, you know, speak out against inequities in the state and, um, assist individuals with, you know, issues- issues they're having along those lines. Um, and she said, "You know, I used to do this thing where, I- I feel like we always assume we know what the people on, you know, living on the south side want or need. And not en- not often enough do we ask them." Um, and that was a big point that she made. And I, and- and kind of going along with that was a recognition of, you know, maybe we should be making our meetings, our, you know, school board meetings, city council meetings, um, commissioners meetings, whatever, um, more accessible to people who work all day or have a, have several kids that, you know, when they get home from work they need to feed those kids.

                 And- and it's just the last thing on their list, if it's even registered, to make their voice heard about, you know, some issue that maybe they're concerned about in the city. But i- it's just not, it doesn't rise to the level of being able to, you know, cancel other things on their schedule, or get a babysitter, or anything like that. To, you know, go speak out. And I think, um, you know, it is easy for elected leaders to say, "You know, I g- my door is open, you know, I would love to hear from you." But, um, I think when you're in those positions, what I've been hearing is that people want more of an effort to, for their leaders that have been elected to kind of go to them. Because, um, you know, there's just, even with, you know, um, pe- people that, non-people of color, you know, I think anybody, especially if they're low-income, um, is gonna have a difficult time, uh, really getting that [crosstalk 00:17:08] in their schedule to- to go to a government meeting or- or interact with an official like that.

Emy diGrappa (17:15):

So it's, it- it sounds like accessibility happen- happens on a couple of different levels. It- it sounds like accessibility isn't just that you can call your, uh, local mayor, or people on town council, or your local representatives. But the- the conversation on accessibility is more about office hours. If- if you work nine to five and they work nine to five, or whatever, and you are picking up your kids and you're going to soccer practice, or you're running home to make dinner, or maybe you work two jobs, or three jobs even. Then where is your accessibility point? Because that's where people become unreachable.

Niki Kottmann (18:03):

Absolutely, and it's kind of interesting too, this, I won't talk too much about this 'cause it's very fascinating, easy to get off on a tangent about. But something that came up too is how, because there are so few, um, people of color here in Cheyenne, that means that those communities, um, it's harder, it's almost, you'd think it would make it easier for them to be more tight knit. But actually, several of our sources said the opposite. It, especially for the Black community, you know, there's a history there of, um, church playing such a huge role as a community gathering place. And we learned that, um, the Black churches in Cheyenne are actually really struggling with membership. Um, they don't have very high attendance. There are a few of them. Um, there's not just one, but still.

                 They have kind of been declining and haven't really served as much as a community gathering place as, um, they often have in the past. And I think that's another thing, is we need, uh, literal spaces for people to, um, kind of come together and figure out what those issues are that they're, um, you know, that people that look like them are facing. Um, but like we said earlier, that could mean, um, people of their own family, um, but also people how don't look like them and who just happen to live in the same neighborhood. Like, one of my sources brought up how there was just a big issue in her neighborhood of, um, abandoned houses being places where people were, you know, drug addicts were using to shoot up heroin. And that was, you know, you don't wanna have your neighborhood, you don't wanna find needles all around your neighborhood. That's not good for anyone, especially for the children living there.

                 So she was saying how that was an issue that was effecting everyone and not just, um, her and the one or two other Black individuals in her neighborhood. But she had struggled to kind of figure out what route to go to, um, get that cleaned up. And she finally, she did find one, um, one individual on the city council who really helped her. So that was an example of what we were saying earlier about how it's not just "minority issues". These are just issues that could affect anyone, but they often, you know, just happen to be happening in these neighborhoods.

Emy diGrappa (20:09):

Well, I think, i- in your story and, you know, because you're journalists, how do you develop trust with people to open up to you to really, you know, explore a story?

Hannah Black (20:27):

Yeah, I mean, I think, I think with things like this, especially because we are white reporters, um, going into a story that we knew was gonna, um, deal with race. Uh, and talking to largely people of color. For me, I sort of, I try to make it clear that I'm going in with an open mind, and that I just want people to tell me about their experiences. And that I, you know, I'm genuinely curious about, um, you know, these things. And I think I- I try to be as, kind of as sensitive as possible. Um, but I also, hopefully, you know, give people room to correct me. And I think I, um, try to, and, you know, generally, in all of my interviews, come off as, um, personable and open to learning. And, um, I think that, hopefully, that has really facilitated, um, good answers, good discussions. Um, I've certainly learned a lot, um, just from people who have different background and have, uh, different perspectives.

                 Because, you know, they've lived in Cheyenne their whole lives or, you know, they are Black or Hispanic. And, um, yeah, I think I just, I really just try to express that I am, um, you know, I am curious and want to know about what they think. And that I want to do my best to correctly convey, you know, what they're saying to me. And I'm- I'm- I'm doing my best to get the story right. And that's one of the most important things to me. Um, and I feel like I've been able to establish that trust. You know, we've re-interviewed some of these people, you know, and, um, I think those bonds just kind of get stronger when you talk to, uh, people in your own community multiple times. And, um, yeah, and I think it's a learning experience. But I think it's really just about going in, um, and expressing that you are there to learn.

Niki Kottmann (22:40):

Mm-hmm (affirmative). And we also had kind of an advantage going into this because, um, I think it's fair to say that not a lot of these types of stories have already been written in our area. So a lot of people who we were contacting were kind of pleasantly surprised. Like, I know I had a few people actually thank me for the fact that we were actually just even pursuing this kind of story, um, in the first place. So, I think that kind of motivated us to keep going and to take the same approach of just being, like Hannah said, really open. And, um, but I think it's also tricky as journalists, we have to walk that line of, like, being really sensitive but also knowing when to, um, maybe not push back is the right word. But to kind of push people to explain things a little bit further, or to maybe, um, question why they might have felt a certain way in a certain moment.

                 Um, because I know I- I'm in charge of our social media for the paper, for example. So I'm always (laughs) already thinking one step ahead. Like, what are the- the things that people are gonna kind of get upset about in the comments. Or, you know, and obviously our reporting isn't driven by that, but it's just one thing that I think about as, even more so from a point of view of, like, people who might read the story and have more questions and might not understand. Because, I mean, primarily our readership is white. That makes complete sense, it's prim- primarily a white city. So, um, we just wanted to make sure that we were covering all of our bases and kind being as specific as possible. And giving as many concrete examples as possible so our c- readers could really understand where these people were coming from.

Emy diGrappa (24:08):

You two have done an excellent job. I love hearing this. And- and Hannah, tell me how long you've lived in Cheyenne? And- and where did you grow up?

Hannah Black (24:18):

So I moved to Cheyenne in October, actually. And so I've only been here about, I guess, six-ish months. Um, and I grew up in Kansas City, uh, Missouri. And, um, then I, uh, my first job out of college was in Minneapolis. Um, and I- I was there for two years and then came from there, uh, to here. So, been, um, you know, kind of moving around, but, um, certainly haven't lived in a place like Cheyenne before. Uh, so it's definitely been a learning experience to understand, you know, the city dynamics. And, um, an adjustment. But, you know, I've- I've really enjoyed my time here so far.

Emy diGrappa (25:04):

And how about you, Niki?

Niki Kottmann (25:06):

Yeah, I'm originally from the Chicago suburbs. Um, but I moved here in 2019 actually from Sarasota, Florida. I lived there for three years working at a paper down there after college. Um, so I've kind of been all over the place a little bit. But, yeah. Same as Hannah, I actually had never even stepped foot in Wyoming before moving here. So I definitely, um, (laughs) had a lot to learn. I had spent a lot of time in Colorado, but obviously they're, um, still very different places. Even though Cheyenne's right over the border from Colorado. But, um, yeah, it's been a good place to, um, kind of challenge ourselves as reporters.

Emy diGrappa (25:42):

That's- that's great. And it has been so wonderful talking to the two of you. Thank you so much.

Niki Kottmann (25:49):

Yeah, thank you.

Hannah Black (25:49):

Thank you for having us.

Emy diGrappa (26:06):

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