Nothing focuses the thoughts of an old retired guy on the future of Wyoming like holding your month old granddaughter in your arms. While watching little Eydie June sleep I thought about the controversy percolating over former Governor Freudenthal’s initiative to create a community-based dialogue about “Building the Wyoming we want.”
With the exception of living briefly elsewhere after high school and a year in Nicaragua, I’ve lived here nearly all my life. I suppose that’s evidence Wyoming is the Wyoming I wanted. Yet I have the sense it’s missing something I would hope would be a part of my granddaughter’s life. Wyoming lacks an open mind. Curious isn’t it, how these wide open spaces generate a sort of confined thinking.
Theologian Kathleen Norris captured the essence of the dilemma in her book Dakota, which could as well have been about Wyoming. She said the internal conflict natives feel is reflected in their attitude toward outsiders who attempt to bring new ideas to a community. “Local folks are clear they’re not interested in the way it was done somewhere else, saying, ‘we live in the best darned place in the country…but if you’re so damn smart, why do you live here?”A case in point is the reaction of Goshen County resident Cheri Steinmetz to Freudenthal’s effort to talk about the state’s future. It’s a part of a United Nations conspiracy to take away property rights, contends Ms. Steinmetz, a loud opponent of any dialogue that might result in change. She believes, “The very name, Building the Wyoming We Want (BW3), implies we do not HAVE the Wyoming we want, and suggests we are unable to “build” it on our own. I disagree. We cherish our family, friends, freedom, and our independent rural way of life. BW3 was started by Governor Freudenthal under the guise of “protecting” the things we hold dear. Last time I checked, we were perfectly able to do that on our own.”
In other words, if anyone has any new ideas, keep them to yourself. There you have it! “If you’re so dam smart, why do you live here?”
A second case in point is the letter written by a couple of legislators lodging a complaint with the President of the University of Wyoming about a piece of art work they found objectionable. The University has had its own struggles with accepting the free exchange of ideas. These legislators probably thought their complaint, coming from officials with control over the school’s budget, would result in the removal of the sculpture. To UW’s credit, the complaint fell on surprisingly deaf ears. But the fact that elected officials would use their position to complain about the expression of ideas through even the rather ambiguous medium of art is symptomatic of a troubling lack of openness.
It’s an invitation to openness I want for my granddaughter and yours. I’d love to have them grow up in a state where the opportunities for free expression and creativity are as many as the antelope and as big as the sky. But there’s a reason why Wyoming’s greatest export is its children even while it has the fastest aging population in the United States.
Look at small communities around the state and you’ll see bright, promising, well educated young people leaving the state. They’re finding futures in communities that are open, where new ideas are encouraged, where there’s an opportunity to use ones youthful enthusiasm, intellect and creativity to contribute to a growing sense of personal and community identity.
We will get the Wyoming we want but it may well not be the Wyoming our grandchildren want. A state with fewer new ideas than people doesn’t hold much of a future for young people. But it does cling tightly to the past and maybe that’s why Wyoming is fast becoming the grayest of all states.