Portraits of Wyo youth: Six visions of a future in the state
Wyoming stands at the crossroads of a permanently shrinking coal industry and a historic budget crisis as its dominant conservative politics move further to the right on several issues.
Presented with these factors, a troubling number of Wyoming’s young people choose another route altogether: the one that leads out of state.
The portion of Wyoming’s workforce made up of young people continues to shrink as many choose to leave Wyoming rather than stake out a future in their home state.
“The consensus (among young people) is Wyoming is beautiful, but the communities are very much not welcoming,” said Tanner Ewalt, a University of Wyoming freshman from Casper. “Not to be rude, but it’s a bunch of old people who tell you how good things used to be and they don’t want things to change.”
Ewalt is among the ranks of young people in Wyoming who have attended city council meetings, reached out to legislative representatives and joined grassroots movements to address climate change and advocate for social justice in Wyoming and beyond. He said young people — not all of them — generally want more diverse communities and more diverse job opportunities while preserving the state’s wild spaces and small, home-town familiarity.
There’s no revolution of young Wyomingites organizing to nudge the state’s culture and identity in the direction they want to see. But those who have tried to help shape the state’s future, in big ways and small, are learning from their experiences and assessing how — and whether — they’ll be a part of it.
In collaboration with the Wyoming Humanities Council’s WY It Matters initiative, WyoFile reached out to several young people in the state to ask about their vision for Wyoming and their potential role in it. Here is what they had to say.
Occupation/civic involvement: Student, University of Wyoming
Tanner Ewalt grew up in Casper where his parents worked in the oil and gas industry. Ewalt jokingly said his father, in his 40s, has the body of an 80-year-old due to the physically demanding nature of the work. It’s not a vocation Ewalt intends to follow. Instead, he’s interested in a career rooted in civil rights and law — an ambition he’s certain will require him to leave the state after college.
“If you aren’t planning on going into oil or oil-adjacent fields, and even if you are, it’s really bleak,” the 2020 Natrona County High School graduate said.
Ewalt is finishing up his freshman year at the University of Wyoming, happy to take full advantage of the state’s Hathaway Scholarship program. After earning his undergraduate degree at UW, he plans to go to law school, maybe in Wyoming, but more likely outside the state.
“I specifically want to go into civil rights law and maybe one day run for office, and I don’t see that gelling with where Wyoming is at, and I don’t see that changing in the future,” Ewalt said. “I don’t have my heart set on staying in Wyoming.”
Ewalt has frequently attended local city council meetings, and he often reaches out to his legislative representatives regarding social justice issues and to advocate for Medicaid expansion. He helped form Casper Youth for Change, which in 2020 organized rallies for the Black Lives Matter movement and transgender rights. He said the experience was both exhilarating because of the number of people who came together for social justice, and disheartening for the fact that so many others in his hometown brandished guns at the young activists.
“There’s only so much activism I can do with people screaming at me before I go, ‘You know what, have it your way. I’ll go somewhere else. I’ll take the education that you guys provided, I’ll take it to a different state,’” he said. “There’s only so much that you can pour into a place that hates you before you get tired and say ‘OK, well, I tried. Sorry, I tried. I’ve got to get out.’”
The state’s outdoor opportunities are a “treasure,” Ewalt said, and he loves the small-town feel and sense of familiarity in Wyoming. But those qualities contradict with a political landscape that makes anybody who doesn’t lean far-right feel that they are not welcome, he said.
Ewalt said he’d like to see more “diversity of thought” in Wyoming, particularly in its politics. He said Wyoming seems stuck in a downward spiral where young and more progressive people are made to feel unwelcome so they leave rather than stay and get involved to change the political and cultural landscape.
One way to address the issue, Ewalt said, would be to forgive student loans in exchange for living and working in the state for five years after graduating. More young people might get involved in local civic matters and politics, and maybe the Wyoming Legislature would no longer look like a “retirement home,” he said.
“They’re going to bring diverse ideas, they’re going to bring solutions to the problems we’re seeing, they’re going to bring capital — both financial and idea-based capital — and they’ll have a vested interest in making their community better,” he said.
“I really hope that older people who are leading can connect with the idea that, well (the past) may have been great for them,” Ewalt continued. “For us, Wyoming feels like a place that you get stuck in, not a place that you want to be in, because there’s no foreseeable future for us.”
Occupation/civic involvement: Sheridan Tent & Awning Co.
Meghan Smith exudes confidence about staking her future in Wyoming. But she didn’t always feel that way. After graduating high school in Wheatland, the daughter of a game-warden father and detective mother eagerly moved to South Dakota, sure that her future lay beyond Wyoming’s borders.
“One of my biggest headwinds about living in Wyoming was just, it’s kind of notorious for being close-minded; this is the way things have always been done, so this is how they’re always going to be done. Not a whole lot of room for growth,” Smith said.
But South Dakota wasn’t a fit, either, so she returned to Wyoming to continue her education at the University of Wyoming. From Laramie she moved to Cody where she worked at the Silver Dollar Bar, then to Sheridan to work as a security officer at the Wyoming Girls School.
Along the way she grew, with the help of trusted mentors. Smith said she’s gained confidence in herself and learned how to seek out the things she loves about her network and community, even though there are still a lot of things about Wyoming she’d like to see change.
“If I could change one thing, I think I would try to provide a platform that allows people to feel more comfortable to gain knowledge about stuff that they’re not very confident about, politically and otherwise,” she said.
Today, Smith works at Sheridan Tent & Awning Co. She recently bought a home and feels comfortable about her future in Wyoming.
“I would really like Wyoming’s future to involve land and wildlife conservation,” Smith said. “I don’t want to live in a day where hunting is no longer common practice. And I imagine a Wyoming future with more opportunity, opening its mind to other [uses for] natural resources.”
She said the first and perhaps most profound act toward one’s community is finding your place in it, with room to be yourself. From there, you have the power to support and help shape your community without necessarily being an activist.
“I guess I’m kind of just dipping my feet into sharing in the community as a whole,” she said. “It’s easy to stand on the outskirts of some communities and say this isn’t going to work out for me. But, if this is truly what you love, and this is really where you’d like to call home, I think it’s definitely worth the effort.”
Occupation/civic involvement: Sunrise Movement
David Holt said it’s difficult to clearly see whether his future lies Wyoming or somewhere beyond. “I don’t have anywhere near enough money to move anywhere,” Holt said. “So I‘m hoping I’m wrong about (the potential for) change in Wyoming.”
His ambition is to help bridge the gap between science and politics. “That, in my opinion, would help create a brighter future for a lot of people.”
Holt grew up in a conservative household outside of Douglas. He now lives in Glenrock, a town of 2,600 on the banks of the North Platte River. When he does socialize, he avoids conservative circles and says he feels like an outsider in his own home state. Conservatism in Wyoming, Holt said, feels “cultish” and unquestioned.
“I do like to chat with people who are not as (progressive) about things so that maybe I can open them to a different point of view, and a lot of people are willing to listen,” he said. “At the same time, there are those people who will not budge.”
Holt volunteered for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in hopes to make Wyoming’s conservative politics less relevant nationally, he said. Recently, Holt has shifted his attention to another matter he’s passionate about: climate change. He helps out with local chapters of the Sunrise Movement, a youth organization seeking social justice in fighting against climate change.
To better envision a future for himself in Wyoming, Holt said the state needs to come to terms with a transition away from fossil fuels. “Invest very heavily into the [fossil fuel-dependent] communities so people don’t get left behind,” Holt said. “I hate seeing people suffer. But at the same time those fossil fuel companies got to go.”
Wyoming must continue to use its mineral wealth to invest in education, he added. Schools must do a better job providing a solid education in all areas of science and education must also be more accessible to those with disabilities, he said.
Holt said the biggest obstacle to changing Wyoming’s course to a more sustainable future is a culturally ingrained conservative attitude.
“I talk to people who are a little bit more open than you’d think, so I think there is hope. But it’s slim,” Holt said. “Young people know what’s up. They know they’ve been shorted, and there’s a lot of anger and resentment about that. Even though those are not necessarily good emotions, they can be channeled to do good somehow.”
Hometown: Green River
Occupation/civic involvement: Student, Western Wyoming Community College
Like a lot of young adults, Emilee Thomas is learning all she can about herself. She’s not as religious as her parents. She’s an advocate for the LGBTQ community and for women’s rights. She also cares deeply about climate change and the environment, as well as the future viability of her larger southwest Wyoming community where both non-energy and energy-related jobs are disappearing.
Thomas recently risked alienating herself from her community by penning an op-ed that appeared in several Wyoming news publications. She poked at the notion that a new Biden administration pause on federal oil and gas leasing is to blame for recent economic woes in Wyoming and stands in the way of the state’s future prosperity.
“People in Sweetwater County sometimes talk like there are no other options aside from working in the oilfield or the mines,” Thomas wrote. “If we want other options in Wyoming, we are going to have to create them ourselves. But we can’t do that if we’re obsessed with keeping things exactly the way they’ve always been. The world is changing, and we have to change, too.”
There were critics, of course. But Thomas said she was surprised at the volume of positive responses, and especially at personal feedback from people she knew but didn’t realize shared her concerns for a more sustainable Wyoming.
“It just made a big impact on me and made me feel a lot better about staying in Wyoming, because I do love Wyoming. I just hadn’t felt very welcomed,” Thomas said.
Thomas is getting more comfortable with the idea of participating in civic matters, but is careful to focus her efforts. She’s an active member of the Eco Club at Western Wyoming Community College, which has worked to boost a local recycling program and raise money for conservation efforts in Yellowstone National Park. She frequently participates in group and public discussions regarding Wyoming youth and economic transition.
Thomas recently shifted her studies to sociology as a way to pursue her passion for helping at-risk youth. She also sees her studies as a way to advocate for more diversity that she believes must include greater acceptance of migrants, the LGBTQ community, young people and women in elected positions.
“We’re supposed to be all for women’s equality, but I really don’t feel equal in Wyoming,” Thomas said. “I feel uncomfortable going anywhere, even though it’s a small state. I want to feel comfortable going places. I want to feel comfortable being by myself.”
Occupation/civic involvement: Student, Montana State University
As a high school senior in 2017, Stormy Cox was determined to leave Wyoming to pursue a career as a special effects makeup artist. Today, though, she finds her path bending back to the state, albeit temporarily. She’ll earn her art education degree at Montana State University in December. From there, she plans to do her student teaching in Cody, 84 miles from her hometown of Thermopolis.
“I can see myself living in Wyoming for a little while,” Cox said. “But I definitely don’t see myself settling permanently. I am hoping to live somewhere a bit more diverse, with more to do and with more opportunities in art.”
For Cox, the four years of experience and perspective she’s gained since high school graduation has only solidified her views on her hometown and Wyoming. Although she still loves the small-town familiarity of Thermopolis, she longs for more worldly experiences and a place where she can feel both secure in a career and exposed to new opportunities.
Cox said career opportunities in Wyoming seem tied to what’s practical; agriculture, energy extraction, tourism and the myriad services to support them. Those vocations aren’t always stable, and many don’t pay well. Wyoming schools are an exception, for now, she said. That’s why she’ll do her student teaching in Cody.
“Wyoming relies so heavily on the oil and gas industry that I think a lot of young people kind of see that as their only option,” Cox said. “That or something practical, like teaching or medicine. I also think, with issues of sustainability and climate change becoming a growing concern among younger people, a state that is so reliant on oil and gas is not the most alluring.”
Wyoming, and a lot of small towns in the state, could definitely draw more tourism and businesses seeking a rural quality of life, she said. But it feels like there’s a disconnect between those in power and those who see potential for an evolving Wyoming.
A big part of the gravitational pull on young people to leave the state is the opportunity for more worldly experiences, Cox said, which isn’t unique to Wyoming. But whether the state can draw those young people back relies on job opportunities and a more welcoming and diverse culture.
“I think there are many reasons young people struggle to imagine their futures in Wyoming,” Cox said.
Occupation/civic involvement: Student, Thunder Basin High School
As freshman Wyoming Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette, contemplated whether to support a measure to expand Medicaid during the Wyoming Legislative session in March, Jack Burchess sprang into action with a small team of fellow volunteers to canvas McKeown’s constituents regarding their level of support.
“Most of them were open to the idea,” Burchess said. “But he (McKeown) ended up disappointing his constituents.”
Door-knocking in conservative Gillette — the coal and “Energy Capital” of the nation — isn’t easy, particularly if you’re advocating for progressive political causes or candidates. But connecting with neighbors, urging people to register to vote, organizing and fighting for social justice is already second nature for Burchess, 16, a sophomore at Thunder Basin High School in Gillette.
“I am very involved in my community, and I try to volunteer when I can,” Burchess told WyoFile on a recent afternoon after hanging posters and banners at school in his bid for student body president.
His family moved to Gillette from Nebraska two years ago, joining relatives already living in northeast Wyoming. Burchess said he was impressed with the school and community amenities in Gillette; they far exceed community assets of his former home in Nebraska.
Despite his drive to affect change, Burchess said he doesn’t see a future for himself in Wyoming. “There’s something to be said about Wyoming,” he said. “But I plan to leave the state for college and probably for my career.”
Burchess said he’s stunned at the outsized role energy has on Wyoming’s economy, culture and politics. “A lot of people are scared to even discuss or talk about the future or renewable energy,” he said. “I think people are afraid of losing their jobs, especially under the Biden administration, and I understand why this state voted for Donald Trump, again.”
There’s definitely an awareness and a lot of anxiety in Gillette over the prospect of economic calamity, he said. But there are inroads to talking about change without offending those who are skeptical or resentful about changes that are driven from far beyond Gillette.
“When young people realize that their futures are at stake and [they express] those concerns to their family, that is where a lot of this change can happen,” Burchess said.
Reporting was made possible through a grant from Wyoming Humanities, funded by the “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.