By Kristin Windbigler, Vice Chairman, Western Folklife Center Board of Trustees
Several trustees and staff members got together last year in Salt Lake City, Utah, to talk about our dreams for the Western Folklife Center. We asked ourselves what could this organization be in five years? How about 10? Who do we want to reach and what are our goals? In my role as vice chairman of the Board of Trustees, I gave a short talk at the annual Stakeholders’ Breakfast at the recent National Cowboy Poetry Gathering to share our progress and plans for the future. We were thrilled by the enthusiastic feedback we received, and thought it would be a good idea to make this information available to the whole community. That’s because we hope you will want to get involved!
It can be difficult to get where you want to go if you don’t have some kind of map, so we wrote a new strategic plan that will help us set priorities and focus our collective energy to ensure we are working toward the same goals. It includes fresh vision and mission statements that were polished until they became so crisp and clear that anyone could learn them, even the most memory-challenged among us. If you weren’t sure what to say in the past when someone asked you what the Western Folklife Center does, try these on for size:
Vision Statement: Explore and give voice to traditional and dynamic cultures of the American West
Mission Statement: To use story and cultural expression to connect the American West to the world
Don’t worry. If I see you on the street, I won’t ask you to recite them, but there is nothing like a little clarity and focus to get everyone headed in the same direction. I would like to note, though, that when we say “the world” in the mission statement, we mean that we value both the connections the Western Folklife Center fosters among individuals within the West as well as between the West and the rest of the country and, of course, the world. Not many of us will forget the memories of incredible experiences made possible at the Gathering because of the cultural exchange program, and we hope there will be more of those to come in the future.
What We Do
The strategic plan also spells out what the Western Folklife Center does. Most folks who attend the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering know it's our signature event, so that, of course, is highlighted, but the Folklife Center has a long history of producing rich and robust programming throughout the rest of the year. In order to make sure we were all in agreement about what it is that we do, we focused our scope to these four points:
● The Western Folklife Center provides a platform for rural and urban communities to communicate and exchange new ideas and avenues of expression.
● We produced the first Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 1985. Our National Cowboy Poetry Gathering continues to celebrate and promote the artistry and ingenuity of life in the American West. It remains our signature event, with programming changing to reflect contemporary realities and issues of the American West.
● Throughout the year, our fieldwork, research, exhibits, website and archives preserve, document and share the heritage of the West.
● Our media and educational programs entertain and engage, deepening the understanding of the vitality and challenges of Western communities.
Priorities for the Immediate Future
Using these guidelines, we set priorities for the immediate future. Remember that part above where I said we hope you’ll want to get involved? Well, the first thing we want to do is invigorate and grow our community by creating more opportunities for anyone to volunteer or contribute. We have a wonderful, passionate community who feels a deep connection to the Gathering and our organization. It’s not uncommon to hear from folks who have just attended their first Gathering that they were surprised by how inclusive it is. We want to extend that feeling year-round.
We’ve already partnered with other organizations in Reno and Yountville, Calif., to produce shows we’re calling the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering on the Road. We want to expand this concept and are exploring possibilities for shows in Texas, Montana and other sites around the West. These events create opportunities for us to showcase our community of talented artists as well as reach new audiences who may not be aware of the scope of our work or the rich diversity of voices we represent.
Another way to expand our reach is by leveraging social media even more to highlight both new and existing fieldwork. There is some amazing stuff in our archives that most of the world has never seen and many of you may have forgotten. Some of that could be repackaged for an online audience, but we’re also hoping to both bolster our preservation efforts and make the entire archive more accessible by partnering with a program or facility that values its contents as much as we do.
We also want to experiment with new content and programming that can be distributed online. The Moving Rural Verse poem-films that were unveiled at this year’s Gathering and our recent collaboration with StoryCorps are great examples of content with the potential to reach people who have never heard of the Western Folklife Center. We might also examine how we can use live video streaming most effectively or consider a podcast. Nothing is off the table. I, for one, am particularly interested in educational formats that can encourage the kind of skill-sharing that will continue to nurture the traditional forms of Western cultural expression on which the Western Folklife Center was founded. We must cultivate as well as preserve the wealth of knowledge within our community for the future.
And finally, in order to better understand what you want from the Western Folklife Center, we plan to field a survey soon to learn more about how we can better serve you. We want to hear your ideas, we hope you will volunteer to help, and we want to make sure that everyone is recognized and appreciated for his or her contributions. You are part of our family and we want to make sure you feel included. If you would like to chat, feel free to reach out by contacting the Western Folklife Center office or find me on social media. I would love to hear from you!