When talking about young people in Wyoming, the same questions seem to come up again and again — why is the state’s youth leaving in large numbers, and how can we convince them to stay?
This weekend, ENGAGE Wyoming’s annual summit aims to find some answers to those questions, foster connections between young people and find ways to make the state’s future brighter for those who will inherit it.
And while ENGAGE and the event are geared towards Wyomingites between 16 and 35 years old, all are welcome to attend the summit regardless of age.
“Anyone who feels invested in the next generations of Wyoming, which you hope would be everyone, has something that they can take away from this summit,” said ENGAGE Wyoming president Amber Pollock.
The event kicks off Friday evening with a reception at ART 321, where an exhibit featuring young Wyoming artists will be displayed through October.
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Participants can choose from 18 different panels and sessions to attend throughout the day on Saturday, before the summit concludes with a roundtable discussion on how to move forward.
The sessions cover everything from reasons young people have chosen to stay in Wyoming, to running nonprofits and grassroots organizations, multigenerational farming, addressing issues like youth homelessness and LGBTQ safety and running for local government.
Saturday is set to end with ENGAGEfest from 5 to 9 p.m. at David Street Station, which will be full of vendors, food trucks, performers and local leaders between the ages of 16 and 35.
Participants can also attend the sessions virtually, and those coming in person will be required to wear masks for all indoor events.
In past years (the summit was cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic), the annual event has allowed ENGAGE to collect valuable insight on one of the biggest questions facing the state regarding its youth — why do so many young people leave, and how can we keep them here?
“I feel like sometimes we ask that question a little bit rhetorically,” Pollock said, “and we don’t actually seek an answer… So we try to be helpful and gather some actual data.”
That includes asking young people what their barriers to staying are, or what they’re looking for that they can’t find in Wyoming. It also means hearing some talk about feeling out of place or unsafe in their home state, Pollock said, especially among those who don’t fit into a narrow image of what a Wyomingite should be.
When Jon Updike, a Wyoming native and founding member of ENGAGE, left the state for school, he found that out-of-state perceptions of Wyoming centered on the billionaires in Jackson or recalling bigoted incidents like Matthew Shepard’s death. He knew those stereotypes didn’t represent the whole state, Updike said, but also knew there was a lot of work to be done to make sure everyone feels welcome here.
Panelists and presenters at the summit represent a wide range of sectors including energy, agriculture, tourism, politics, nonprofits, arts and health care. Many young Wyomingites leave the state for school or job opportunities, Pollock said, so making sure there are career options here in a variety of fields may help bring some back home.
Tyler Cessor, treasurer of ENGAGE and the executive director of ART 321, said that making connections with other ambitious young people early on also makes it easier to put down roots in Wyoming.
“If that demographic has stronger networks, then they are more likely to one, succeed in their aspirations and ventures, and two, be more likely to stay and build stronger relationships,” Cessor said.
This year, ENGAGE members also have a chance to sit down with the Wyoming Business Council for a work session on the eve of the summit. Hopefully, organizers said, that will lead to an ongoing relationship with the council that will eventually give youth more seats at the table when decisions are being made and help fund youth-led projects going forward.
“Getting bright-eyed people together who have their careers ahead of them, and hearing what they want and how they plan to make that a reality is inspiring. I think that doesn’t happen enough in Wyoming,” Updike said.
ENGAGE Wyoming was formed in 2018 as a way to include young voices in the state’s Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming (ENDOW) Council, which was started by then-Gov. Matt Mead in 2016. The council was founded to develop a 20-year plan for economic diversification in Wyoming, a conversation that continues to dominate local and state government.
Follow city and crime reporter Ellen Gerst on Twitter at @ellengerst.