Let’s start with the usual: tell me about your childhood and life, and how the way you were raised influences who you are today.
My dad was in the Air Force for 20 years, and I was born on a base in Mississippi, which I guess means I am a southern lady! But my family moved before I started talking, so I never got a southern accent. I have a brother who is two years younger. We moved a lot; when my dad was gone for weeks or months at a time, it was like living with a single parent. Change was normal, nothing was always the same, but even with all the transitions my brother and I felt really supported by our parents. They were loving, kind, and hard working. They tried to better themselves and our lives so they could offer us more, which I didn’t realized at that time, but looking back I see it. Our grandparents on both sides were influential in our lives. Although we lived all over the country, every summer we would visit my grandparents in Palm Springs, California. We really enjoyed that time, getting to hang out and enjoy the summers with them. Every time I would walk in the room, my grandfather would sing: “Here she comes, Miss America”. I never thought of it as in “a beauty pageant queen,” but as his way to encourage me to do whatever I wanted in life: “If you want to be Miss America, go do it. It doesn’t matter if you are perceived as too short, you go do it.” It is just one example of how my parents and grandparents set me up for having that mindset of “If that’s what you want to do, go do it”. So I grew up without a perception that you could fail, or that failure was a bad thing. Today I’m not afraid to try things. Failure is fine but you get to succeed if you try. Whenever I start working on a new project, I start it thinking that it may take a week, or a year, or twenty years, but I will be successful. That’s just how my brain is wired; it is trained to see a situation knowing that it will result in success, never thinking that failure is an option.
My upbringing has influenced how I interact with people as an adult in terms of not taking time for granted. I define myself as an "Air Force brat," which means I don’t have the concept of being friends with the people I went to kindergarten with. I moved in high school, I moved for college... As a result I value relationships and never take it for granted that they will be long term. I make friends quickly and warm up to people quickly, because when you are a military brat you know that you may not have time to “get around to making friends later”, because they or you may not be there later.
I moved out of my parents’ house to go to college. I went to Piedmont College, a small liberal arts school in North Georgia with no football team, in a dry county. That may explain why most people there were done in four years or less (laughs). Don’t get me wrong, we had a great support system, but there wasn’t much going on, no distractions. I lived in the dorms, and did my undergrad in History, English and Photography. I knew I had no patience to be in a classroom and be a teacher, so I went on to do my Masters in Museum Studies and Public History, at the University of West Georgia. We were close enough to Atlanta that we got to do lots of field work at the Atlanta History Center. It was an amazing opportunity to work in a museum in an urban environment. There were eight students in my class, so we got so much attention. My professors there had such optimism, and they too imparted that idea of “You can do whatever you put your mind to. Work hard and success will follow.”
The day I was graduating, literally, I got a call to come interview for a job with the Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic Site in Laramie. I flew out, did the interview, got a job offer, went back to Georgia and moved out here. Saying “I’m going to pick up and move to Laramie, WY” was not unusual at all. My brother just moved to Knoxville and my parents picked up and moved there. When my dad was transferred in the Air Force, it was common for us to go into communities where we didn’t know anybody. They didn’t have a support system; we relied on neighbors and the people that we met, for my dad at work, for my brother and me at school. As an adult, that seems okay. I had never been in Laramie, I didn’t have friends or family here, but that was not a concern or a consideration. You go where the work is. It made me very adaptable.
I started working at the prison in July of 2004, and was there for five years before transitioning to Main Street.
Where does your love for history come from?
Who knows. In the middle of all the moving my dad would always get two weeks off in the summer and we would drive from wherever we were living back to southern Minnesota, where both my parents are from. Many times it was a long road trip, so my parents would let my brother and me pick things to do along the way. And I would always say: “I want to go to a museum!” or “I want to go to this random historic site!". My mom would say: “I don’t know where you are getting this from, but okay!”. And they would take the time to stop and let us run around and explore and geek out about it. They were always really supportive, even if they weren’t into it. In seventh grade, my mom told me that I needed to start thinking about what I wanted to do when I grew up. I told her I wanted to find the gravesite of Billy the Kid… I had this odd fascination with Western outlaw culture and its crazy mythology. May be I was watching Young Guns too many times back then, I’m not sure (laughs). So I studied history. But I didn’t want to teach, and when the idea of public history and museums came into focus for me, I knew that was it; that‘s what I wanted to do with my life. All my skills are complementary to the idea of doing work as a researcher and sharing it with the public; trying to bridge professional historical research with how it influences everyday life. That has been the most influential piece of my development: not wanting to work behind closed doors but sharing what you find, your passion, your discovery with your community.
I love history but I don’t have as much time for it now, which makes me sad. Not only the idea of researching something through the past down a rabbit hole; of starting with a question about a person, time, or place, and digging and digging and digging... not knowing where the end is or how many different roads you are going to take. I love the surprise in that. But also the methodology of tracking things down: if I go to this source it’s going to give me a clue. There is something reassuring about that.
How much of that interaction with the public did you get when you were working at the territorial prison?
A lot of my work was doing research at my desk or in the archives, going through objects and cataloguing them, making sure they were in good condition… at some point I started to talk to the objects as if they were people, because I was so lonely. Human interaction is so important for me. In that sense, I’m not surprised that I transitioned into my current position as the Director of Laramie Main Street, because I was missing relating with people and the sense of community that the job at the prison didn’t have.
Tell me about Laramie Main Street; how you got to work there and what was it before you came along?
I didn’t even know what it was before I applied for the job. It turns out that they started in 2005, and since then they’ve had the same mission, they’ve been focused on economic development, historic preservation, social vitality, but their structure was so volatile in the beginning. It started because the city (elected officials, city staff, businesses, building owners downtown) was interested in an organization that could bring to fruition a model of economic development for our community. There was great momentum in the formative years; everyone had high hopes for it. It was just circumstantial that they went through five directors in the first five years: somebody got sick, somebody didn’t like the weather, somebody’s husband moved and he had the good insurance so they followed his job... In 2010 the former director asked me to apply, and I don’t think the community knew what the organization was about and what it did back then. I had to do a lot of digging to find out exactly what it was doing and how my skill set could fit in. Once I took the job I realized there was a perception that Laramie Main Street was not as established as an economic development organization so even today, when people define what a Main Street manager does, they say things like: “you plan parties,” or “you do clean up days and pick up cigarette buds,” and “you apply for street closure permits...” That is a very small part of what I and my peers do! I am recruiting businesses, growing jobs, making an impact on the economy… For years I had to fight to make people understand that Main Street is an economic development organization, equal to the Laramie Chamber Business Alliance or the Wyoming Small Business Development Center, etc. I sense a change in the last two years, but before then it was an absolute struggle to be taken seriously. I very much kept going back to the “Fake it ‘til you make it” motto: I would dress the part, take my seat at the table, and memorize my data so I could be quick to respond. Now, every meeting I go to with the City Council or a partner organization, I know exactly how many businesses are in downtown, how many we recruited, how many jobs have been created, how much growth and how much investment has taken place for whatever period is relevant, and I can answer questions that many others at the table can’t.
That’s why you are the force-to-be-reckoned with that you are! I remember the first time somebody talked to me about you: they referred to you as “Momma Trey.” I immediately envisioned you as this powerhouse; this hen with chicks under her wings, making thing happens for our town against the Wyoming winds…
(laughs - funny now 'cause I have chickens!!!) I don’t ever think that something happens because of just one person. The change in the organization has been a combination of having outstanding board members, many of which were here in 2005 and are still involved today, holding on to that vision, holding me accountable, pushing and encouraging me… and new people from the community bringing up something interesting that they want happening and asking how they can influence the development of downtown, lend a hand, jump in. The City Council supported Main Street in 2005 and they do even more so now. There is a great crew of employees and volunteers lending hands. The support system, the organization, and I have created the success.
In terms of how people see me, I appreciate how they describe me. Sometimes I reflect back; for the most part I have a good laugh. I don’t use the word powerhouse to describe myself and I don’t think of myself as nurturing. I think I am a hot mess sometimes! I do recognize and claim the word passionate. My persona, how I embrace life, how I am with my friends, how I laugh, how I giggle, how I work, it’s all passionately. I work hard with my team and consider myself a cheerleader: for our community, our businesses, our buildings. I am a cheerleader for downtown; I go in and add my passion to the situation that is presented to me and hope that that opens the door for something to happen. I am really uncomfortable with the idea that “I” get stuff done and always laugh when somebody says “Trey did this.” Again, it is never one person. People think that when I insist in addressing the whole team I am being nice to recognize the volunteers and my staff, but I am not just being nice, I absolutely believe it to be true. There is no way one person alone can get things done in this world, it doesn’t happen that way. The problem with this idea of “powerhouse” is that it doesn’t leave any room in the conversation for the reality of the hard stuff. It sounds like magic just happened. Gary Negich, President of First Interstate Bank, did an interview with the Boomerang a few weeks ago and called me a magician. And I thought that it is great that it looks so easy, but what about the hard pieces? It is not just me making this big magic happen, it is a whole team working and failing, and not letting that failure stop us from going forward.
I recognize that, working for a nonprofit, you have to talk about the good parts, about what worked, because you want to show that the money and resources you receive brought success. But that is not the whole story. I think Carly* is the only one who knows where I fail; most people think we just get stuff done, just like that (snaps fingers.)
People may give you more credit than you have, but I think you give yourself less credit than you and your magic deserve…
That will be my next nickname. Big magic momma (laughs.) I gain a lot of strength from people around me. They say you are attracted to things in other people that you wish for yourself, and for me having an engaging team of people around me is what is defined as my success. I take strength from my friends, my peers, my coworkers. Who you surround yourself with helps define who you are. I struggle with finding a balance between acknowledging my personal success and the team’s. If I stop and think about myself or the word “I”, I feel so uncomfortable. It makes me squirm.
Wow, I don’t feel comfortable even thinking about it. I don’t do a good job in the work-life balance either, that’s why I have dogs: they need very basic things and they distract me from my work. I don’t practice self-care, I don’t put myself first, I don’t make time for myself. I know it is the healthy thing to do, but even when forced by external circumstances I struggle with nurturing myself. In June of last year my Achilles snapped. At first I thought I had twisted my ankle and I tried to ignore it, but my husband insisted in driving me to the hospital and it happened to be that I had to have surgery. It was the first time in my life I had surgery, the first time I was immobilized in any kind of way, the first time in my adult life that I had to depend on someone else for my care. It was so challenging. But I didn’t really take any time off. I sat on the couch and worked from home. Friends brought me knitting supplies and movie recommendations, they encouraged me to use this as an excuse to binge-watch Netflix and teach myself how to knit. After two hours I couldn’t do it anymore! Working on job-related projects was more fulfilling. A business owner told me “Now that you are forced to sit still I want you to think about what your life would be like if you played as hard as you worked.” It’s been almost a year now and I still haven’t figured that out. I find so much joy in my work, I get up in the morning and I am so excited to tackle something… What would it be like if I… hiked as hard as I work? Would I be climbing mountains in foreign countries? Who knows. I don’t make time for play and I don’t put as much energy into it as I do into my work, and that seems fine because I am very fulfilled by what I do. But I know it is not necessarily healthy over the long term. I am afraid of burn out. I just celebrated my seven year anniversary with Main Street and I am proud of that; most directors last three years on average, and the Laramie ones before me lasted one. But I do ask myself how long I can do it. What needs to happen for me to retire from this job, and what does that look like?
Do you leave work at 5 pm most days?
No! (laughs.) I struggle horribly with the 8-to-5 schedule and I am judgmental of people who stick to it. It’s not about the hours; it’s not about the clock. Sometimes people tell me at 4 pm: “Go, you’ve worked really hard this week, go do something nice for yourself,” but I can’t get myself to do it because I would not say that to somebody else. And if I do it as a one-time thing, as a treat, I feel guilty. If I take more than one hour for myself I start feeling guilty. How do you erase your genetics? The stereotypical mid-west work ethics is just part of who I am. It doesn’t matter how many hours it takes to get the job done, my philosophy, my father’s philosophy, my grandfather’s philosophy is: “Work until the job is done.” If it takes one hour great; if it takes two weeks that’s what it takes.
Today, people ask how is it that I am so successful. The answer to that question that never gets verbalized is “I beat up on myself so that everything in my life is successful but me, as an individual.” My husband has a job that he loves very much too; we are both absolute workaholics. We get so much fulfillment from our jobs that our relationship revolves around giving each other room and permission to work and making life decisions around that, like deciding to not have children. I have 270 children: that is how many businesses are downtown.
What is your view of women in our society today, of the role they play vs the role men play?
I have been thinking about what I’ve heard among my Laramie female friends recently, some raw and real stories from local business owners, and I feel like women, in particular here in Laramie, have so much to bring to the table. We as a group can’t wait for somebody to make space for us, we have to force our way to the table, take a seat, claim ownership and act like we belong there and know that our voices are essential. Ladies: don’t take “no” for an answer! We need to see more balance between men and women on non-profit boards, the UW boards of trustees, and in the legislature… We have the ability to create change and goodness in society. For a multitude of reasons we don’t see enough women at the table, raising their voices and saying “I can make a difference, get out of my way.” I want to encourage other women to be powerful and to be change agents, and I hope I’m setting a good example for other women.
Looking around at the National Main Street conferences, eighty percent of the directors attending are women. Because of the nature of this job, there are not a lot of men in this field. And that makes me think about my first year on my job with the State of Wyoming, working as a historian out at the prison, I had so many people comment on my age and my gender. Over and over and over again. They would say things like: “Aren’t you too young to be doing this job?” or “I think this is the first time a women has had this position.” I never understood why those things were relevant to what I was doing. I heard that so often and I tried to brush it off and walk out of the conversation. Looking back, I wish I had called it out every time, but I was so new in my career… Towards the end I was in the position to get an advancement and my supervisor told me that he would never allow a woman to have the job that I was going after. I couldn't believe that someone had the nerve to tell me I couldn't do something, much less because of my gender! I went through the process of filing complaints with HR but nothing changed, so I left that job. Most people don’t realize that I left because I was told that as a woman, I would never advance. It seems asinine in this century, this time, and this place something like that could happen. It makes me wonder how many other women has something like this happened to?
Good question. Any final thoughts to our community members?
I want to take away the mystery: anybody can be as successful as I am. I don’t think there is a barrier for that. People around me striving and working to make the community better pushes me to do more and be better myself. There is room for multiple “powerhouses” to exist in a community, and for them to encourage each other and push each other to go further. I love collaboration. If somebody out there has an idea for our downtown, walk in the door and talk to me. It’s always so exciting when that happens.
And back to the idea of being real and honest, I want to ask people to leave room for both the failure and the success we all face everyday. What we express publicly may be different from what we feel behind closed doors. Most people would say I am optimistic, passionate, happy, always cheery, but I am an absolute closet pessimist! I have gotten my grandmother's worry gene like nobody’s business. Often, when I’m by myself I get sad or worried or depressed, although I never put this forward as my public persona. When you are this emotionally and passionately driven, the positive pushes you forward while the worry is a frenzy that cannot be described rationally. When I'm feeling down, I always go back to my favorite phrase “Fake it ‘til you make it”! At the end of the day, being a workaholic and finding fulfillment in my job provides a distraction so I don’t have so much time to worry on the one "oops" that’s bringing me down.
The best advice I ever got was from Jodi Shea, a local attorney and board member of Main Street. She is one of the smartest, brave, calm, and collected persons I’ve ever met. She said to me: “When you are faced with an annoyance, a problem(real or perceived), a mistake, a failure, somebody else projecting their issues on you, think and ask yourself: is this going to affect me in an hour, in a day, in a month, or in a year”? This question quickly puts the whole situation into perspective for me! If somebody walks into my office to complain about a bike rack location, I tell myself: “This is not a life or death issue, it’s an annoyance, and it might be an annoyance for a day or a week until we get the bike rack moved. It’s not a critical issue like, having to have surgery” (laughs.) And then I can let it go.