Corrections: The original version of this editorial said the Voices From The Rural West project was recent. In fact, it was done in 2017-18 by Dustin Bleizeffer and Felicity Barringer. Bleizeffer, who is currently education reporter for WyoFile.com, referred to the project in a recent article. Barringer was and still is Writer in Residence for the Bill Lane Center for the American West. The mistakes were due to editor error. The Wyoming Tribune Eagle regrets the errors.
“... it takes a very intense effort to get back to Wyoming, and the rewards I don’t think are quite there. You have to take a huge financial pay cut, and the job opportunities just aren’t as advantageous as they would be somewhere else.” – Casper native Bryan Fields in a 2015 comment to WyoFile.com
The past week has been filled with tears of joy and sadness, pride and anticipation, as hundreds of young people across Wyoming prepare to transition to the next phase of their lives.
In some ways, this year’s high school graduations were – like last year – different due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Although things are starting to get back to normal as more people get vaccinated, some facial expressions were, unfortunately, still covered by masks. Even the hugs felt different, somehow, as if we weren’t really sure it was OK to give or receive them.
But in many ways, this year’s graduations were no different from any other year. And that’s both good and bad.
It’s good because it means our teenagers are eager for something new. Many can’t wait to head to college, whether that’s here in the Equality State or beyond our borders. Some are looking forward to being tested by a stint of military service or the challenges that come with entering the workforce. They’re ready to experience new places, new cultures and new situations.
For parents, grandparents and other loved ones, this is both exciting and, if we’re honest, more than a little bit sad. We want our kids to leave home, spread their wings and live life to the fullest, but a part of us wants to keep them close, to protect them as much as possible and to enjoy their company as long as we can.
Ultimately, we hope that after they get some experience out in the world, they will realize how great things are here and want to move back home (maybe not literally under the same roof, but at least within a short drive). But the truly sad part of this year’s graduation season is that Wyoming is no more prepared to welcome our young people back today than it has ever been.
Where are the job opportunities in a variety of industries not in decline? Where is the affordable housing and health care? Where is the openness to inclusivity and acceptance of all people, regardless of their political affiliation, skin color or gender identity?
Most of all, where is the willingness to embrace change?
Unfortunately, these things are as few and far between today as the people in Wyoming. And that’s beyond sad; it’s disheartening.
It’s disheartening for those of us who love the place we call home, and it’s discouraging for those who would like to envision a future here.
Back in 2017-18, Dustin Bleizeffer and Felicity Barringer undertook a project called Voices From The Rural West, in which they asked high school seniors in Hot Springs County what they liked about living there, what they wish would change and whether they saw a future for themselves there. (For more on the project, go online to voicesfromtheruralwest.com.)
What they came away with is a sense that the feelings of these young people can be summed up by “Love it. And leave it.” While many of them would love to envision a life lived in Wyoming’s wide-open spaces, they either don’t see enough economic opportunity to make that possible or they feel so out of place there that they have to leave for their own well-being.
Consider these words from one senior girl from Thermopolis: “Why do people want to leave? This is an old community. There’s a lot of old people, and they are opposed to change. So we need a new hospital, and the town had to vote on it, and they voted against it. We’re renovating it, but we’d do better to get a new one. But a lot of old people here are just so opposed to change. … It’s money. And if we change something at the school (like the color of the football uniforms), they get mad. Society has to evolve. But they’re opposed to it. It’s frustrating ...”
Think she’s an outlier? We wish. Here’s another comment, this time about the prospects for change: “I feel like the community will just mostly stay the same, because most of the time when people move to Thermopolis or Wyoming [it’s for the last part of their lives,] so they don’t come just to experiment with their lives, they come here ... because they like it the way it is.”
And there’s the overwhelming challenge. How can we expect Wyoming’s leaders to put any real effort into diversifying its economy or restructuring its tax system when any suggestions of change are met with a stern look, crossed arms and a shake of the head from side to side?
And this isn’t just happening in small towns like Thermopolis, either. Consider how many times the majority of Laramie County voters have rejected proposals to use sixth-penny sales tax money to build new recreation facilities. Because they wouldn’t use them, those voters didn’t want to see their tax money spent that way. (”Why can’t you just be satisfied with what you have already? If it was good enough for us, it should be good enough for you.” ”OK, Grandpa. See ya later!”)
Wyoming has a long history of trying to change things for the better, only to have the effort stall out or result in a report that sits on a shelf and gathers dust, such as Tax Reform 2000 and the more recent ENDOW/ENGAGE committees. Leaders also tried to learn what it would take to entice Wyoming natives back to their home state through Gov. Matt Mead’s Wyoming Grown initiative. The result? Not much, as far as we can tell, because the latest Census numbers showed 11,775 more people left the state than moved in during the last decade.
So good luck, graduates. We hope the world treats you well, and you find much happiness wherever you end up. We wish it were here, but we get why it might not be. If the majority ever wake up to reality, we’ll shoot you a text.