By Margaret Austin and Kathryn Palmer
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Originally published Sunday, April 18, 2021
CHEYENNE – When Ward 1 Cheyenne City Council candidate Miguel Reyes started knocking on doors ahead of the 2020 election, some residents of the city’s south side were shocked to see him.
“The reason I say that is because (politicians) are not walking on the south side,” said Reyes, who has lived in south Cheyenne since he was about 11 years old. “Once they get elected, for the next four years, (south side residents) don’t hear a peep from them.”
It’s an enclave of the city with one of the highest concentrations of non-white and low-income residents. Neighborhood advocates say people on the south side have historically struggled to find adequate representation in local governmental bodies, which determine how schools are run and tax dollars are spent.
Over the years, Reyes said, that lack of political representation and communication has cultivated a wider distrust in the systems governing Cheyenne’s increasingly diverse population.
“Talking and listening is one thing, and then creating the actions that are going to help them is another,” Reyes said. “A lot of people lost confidence because (elected officials) don’t do that.”
To him, getting more candidates who want to earn that trust interested in running for local office is a good first step to creating a more inclusive and equitable local government.
But that’s turning out to be easier said than done – both for Reyes and Paulette Gadlin, a retired local educator and substitute teacher, who has twice run unsuccessfully for a spot on the Laramie County School District 1 Board of Trustees.
“When I first decided to run, I knew it would be a challenge, like it is for any minority – not just in Cheyenne, but everywhere,” said Gadlin, who is one of the about 1.2% of Black educators who has worked for the school district. “But I did not think it would keep me from being elected.”
Last fall, both Reyes and Gadlin experienced the reality of what it’s like to campaign in Cheyenne as a person of color without the political clout some of their opponents wield. Neither felt particularly called to political office, but both felt compelled to challenge the inequities they see every day in the place they’ve called home for decades.
Reyes performed best with voters in precincts on the south side, ultimately finishing behind Councilmen Pete Laybourn and Jeff White in the primary. At the same time, Gadlin struggled to find support in the district-wide election. Despite raising the most money of any candidate and erecting a massive campaign billboard downtown, she came in second-to-last place of the seven contenders.
Councilman Laybourn, who’s known Gadlin since high school homeroom, encouraged her to run for office in the first place.
“I was devastated when she lost. She’d be a real great addition to the school board,” said Laybourn. In his view, race “unquestionably, absolutely” played a role in the election’s outcome.
“There’s no doubt about it in my mind,” Laybourn said, noting the widespread support Gadlin had from civic leaders. “There is racism in our country, in our state and in our city, and the only way to deal with it is to get on and never give up.”
Reyes still walks by his old stomping grounds at Johnson Junior High, wondering why the kids there are playing on the same football field he did years ago. He’s noticed it’s not like that in other places around town: students north of the train tracks at McCormick and Carey junior high schools are practicing on new, artificial turfs.
“I feel the south side continues to get shortchanged for everything that they do in the city,” Reyes said. “(Local elected officials) are more willing to invest more money in developing the west side and the north side instead of developing the south side.”
For Reyes, a former youth soccer coach and the founder of the Cheyenne Volleyball League, the absence of equitable recreation opportunities on the south side is one of the most concerning results of the City Council’s lack of representation.
It’s also one of the major reasons he felt so compelled to run.
On the campaign trail, he found many residents shared his same concern: there isn’t enough for their kids to do on the south side. Pointing to the city’s West Edge development efforts – which voters approved $4 million for on the 2017 sixth-penny sales tax ballot – Reyes questioned why similar projects and improvements aren’t proposed for south Cheyenne.
“We don’t have a sports facility. We don’t have soccer fields. We don’t have anything on this side of town,” Reyes said. “From the gyms where kids can go play basketball to places they can go to play soccer – that’s all on the north side of town. We have a lot of vacant land. We can definitely do stuff like that for this side of town, but we’re focusing everything everywhere else.”
Reyes said he’d love to see some improvements to Johnson Pool on East Eighth Street, similar to the $5 million renovations from the 2012 sixth-penny ballot initiative that went into the Cheyenne Aquatic Center in Lions Park. Additionally, he proposed that a south side recreation center would offer opportunities for kids to play something other than video games, as well as bring in revenue to the city through tournaments.
While three proposed recreation facilities have been presented to voters on the sixth-penny ballots since 2008, none would have been located on the south side. One measure in 2017 had no proposed location; that same year, another was proposed for the Ice and Events Center, and one in 2008 was proposed for south of Dell Range Boulevard, near Cahill Park and East High School.
“I’m one of those people that if I see there’s an issue, you’re going to hear me on everything,” Reyes said.
Right now, that issue is the lack of representation in local government and how it translates into quality of life.
Not one member of the Cheyenne City Council or the LCSD1 Board of Trustees lives on the south side. For the all-white school board, the lack of racial representation has raised red flags for people of color in the community, especially after a student posted homophobic and racist fliers on the campus of McCormick Junior High School in 2019.
That incident occurred against a backdrop of ongoing inequities.
Non-white students across the district have lower graduation rates than their white peers, and data also shows Hispanic students are 1.7 times more likely than white students to get suspended, and Black students are 2.3 times as likely to face formal discipline, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
Moreover, while less than 10% of educators in the district are non-white, that’s not reflective of the students they teach. Around 22% of the district’s student body identify as Hispanic, 2.4% identify as Black and roughly 5% identify as mixed race. At South High School, some 40% of students identify as Hispanic.
A wide body of research, including a 2019 report from the Journal of Education Sciences, shows that when children have role models who look like them, they’re more likely to engage with academic material and succeed in school.
“I didn’t learn anything about my culture when I was growing up, except that we were slaves and Lincoln freed us,” said Gadlin. “I never really saw anyone in books that looked like me.”
She was the only school board candidate to explicitly call for diversifying the district’s curriculum in an effort to create a more inclusive learning environment for an increasingly non-white student body.
Addressing some of these ongoing disparities is why Gadlin, who is an active member of the Cheyenne NAACP, the Wyoming Independent Citizens Coalition and Unity Missionary Baptist Church, wanted to run in the first place.
“I thought I could be a voice for some that were not confident enough to speak out,” Gadlin said. She worked in the administrative office of Johnson Junior High on the south side for a full decade, which also influenced her decision to run. “I thought I had some insights into what happens in that neighborhood and what happens to people of color.”
Bringing new perspectives to the leadership of Wyoming’s largest school district also motivated a vocal group of activists – including Gadlin, many other non-white Cheyenne residents and people from the south side – to push last summer to convert three of the seven at-large seats on the school board to residence-area seats representing each of the school district’s three triads.
Those in favor argued it would make it easier for candidates with fewer resources and less name recognition to run competitive races, with the idea that it could result in bringing more diverse perspectives to the school board.
The majority of board members rejected the proposal on multiple occasions, originally arguing losing candidates just needed to campaign harder and that creating residence areas would factionalize the board, which has a responsibility to represent all 13,840 students in LCSD1.
But public pressure kept the issue alive and eventually changed the conversation.
“As a Chicano man in this community, I’ve experienced everything from police brutality to racists threatening my life for raising my voice for my community,” Antonio Serrano, advocacy manager for Wyoming’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said at a school board meeting in June. “The community is growing more and more diverse – we’re changing. If we want our kids to feel like they belong here and they are part of Cheyenne, it’s up to us to make sure they see themselves represented in a place of power.”
By October, the board passed the proposal – which will impact the 2022 election cycle.
To those who advocated for it, changing the school board election process is a promising step toward diversified political representation. But it came too late to help Gadlin, who lives on the east side of town, but has lived, worked and socialized on the south side.
Electing candidates to local office who are acutely aware of the racism and classism some residents face, Gadlin said, is key to making life in Cheyenne work for everyone. Her days working as a secretary at Johnson before she earned her teaching credentials proved that to her.
“I remember when families from different countries would come in, they would ask to speak to me. I think it was because they saw a person of color and there was a trust factor,” Gadlin recalled. “Many times, teachers would misinterpret communication from families as being disrespectful, but I felt the opposite. I would be able to interpret the feelings of those families, especially if they were minorities or (low-income). … Because I lived in their community and they knew me personally, they would open up.”
Although neither Reyes nor Gadlin won their races in 2020, their experiences haven’t deterred them from trying again. Both have witnessed the problems facing south Cheyenne and minorities in the community, but neither think leaving is a solution.
Instead, they hope to make Cheyenne a better place for future generations.
As a mentor to dozens of children on the south side, Reyes’ goals center on building a better future for those kids. That’s already reflected in his work with the volleyball league and through his nonprofit, Wyoming Advocates for Youth, which advocates for kids in foster care.
“I want them to understand that they will always have a voice and somebody to watch over them and to understand them better. That’s what I’m all about; it’s about helping people,” Reyes said. “We’ve got to do more for the kids on the south side of town.”
However, Reyes made it clear he doesn’t want the south side to be put on a pedestal. He said he simply wants all kids in Cheyenne to have an equal shot at the “American dream.” For residents in Cheyenne who may doubt the disparities affecting kids in different parts of the city, Reyes suggested spending some time south of the train tracks.
“(D)rive down to the south side and count how many bars, count how many liquor stores and count how many used car lots we have. Just do it; you’ll be surprised,” Reyes said. “We’re trying to raise families on this side of town with all of that, and that’s one of the big reasons why I was running.”
Gadlin, who had attended segregated schools in Virginia before enrolling in Central High School in the 1960s, has considered Cheyenne home throughout her adult life. She raised her family here, has made many strong community relationships here and has no plans to leave.
Despite all of those positive experiences in Cheyenne, she said there’s still room to grow.
“We have a very white culture in Wyoming, and I think we just don’t talk about the issues (of racism and classism) we have. We just ignore them,” Gadlin said. “I think Wyoming wants to learn, but we too often allow the outside stereotypes to seep into our state.”
Margaret Austin is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s local government reporter. She can be reached at email@example.com or 307-633-3152. Follow her on Twitter at @MargaretMAustin.
Kathryn Palmer is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s education reporter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 307-633-3167. Follow her on Twitter at @kathrynbpalmer.
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.
Coming next Sunday
Some Cheyenne residents of color say they don't feel heard by largely white leadership in local government and schools. This lack of representation makes it easier for leaders to, even unintentionally, overlook the issues that affect them, they say. In part two of this series, residents express why this kind of representation matters and how they're working to achieve equity.