Ray Kasckow followed their taste buds to Laramie nearly a decade ago.
“French fries have always been a very important factor in my life,” Kasckow said. “I chose to go to a Catholic high school because the fries were good. And then I chose to come to the University of Wyoming because the fries were good.”
Kasckow let out a big laugh before adding that a scholarship and a campus visit on a beautiful summer day also helped lure them to Wyoming from their childhood home in Kansas.
“The weather was nice, the fries were good,” could be the title of their autobiography about life in Wyoming, Kasckow said. That might sound like a joke, but Kasckow is known for following through on zany ideas.
Friends and colleagues say an unrelenting desire to see the good in places and people defines Kasckow, along with a touch of good-natured sarcasm.
Nearly a decade after starting at UW, the now 27-year-old Kasckow is a driving force behind efforts to maintain and enhance the vibrancy of Wyoming communities, including Laramie.
Their community advocacy ranges from rallying volunteers for downtown Laramie cleanup days to supporting historic building preservation and the proliferation of public art.
Kasckow, who identifies as a transmasc non-binary queer person, also advocates for safe and healthy spaces for the LGBTQ community, especially youth.
When we met at Night Heron Bookstore and Coffeehouse for an interview on a snowy spring day, the lapel of their tropical shirt was adorned with a “they/them” pin. They encourage curiosity about pronouns.
The thread that ties their work together is a desire to connect with people and to connect them with each other.
“I’m a connector,” Kasckow said. “I’m a networker.”
But Kasckow’s tenacious commitment to Wyoming took some time to take hold. They almost went back to Kansas within a year of moving here.
A business major wasn’t a good fit, Kasckow’s grades took a nosedive and they thought about leaving UW altogether. A class with Professor Isadora Helfgott ignited a passion for history that convinced Kasckow to stick around.
“It wasn’t just dates,” Kasckow said. “It was a story about how these small details can totally change our world. I was just awestruck.”
And Helfgott was awestruck by Kasckow’s enthusiasm.
“I always ask students to come to office hours,” she said. “I beg them, explaining they’re paying for it and it’s my responsibility to figure out how to help them enrich their university experience.”
Very few ever come, Helfgott said, but Kasckow showed up immediately and came back often.
“Once Ray made that discovery of the complexity of history and the pageant that makes up the American past as opposed to a singular narrative,” Helfgott said, “then there were so many questions about where that takes you and what you do with it.”
Kasckow has done so much, Helfgott said.
“I think if anyone has taken that insight that history is complicated and inclusive, and applied it … it’s been Ray,” she said.
As the president of the UW History Club, Kasckow hosted speakers, movie nights and public events to create a space for a diverse group of students — some history majors and some not — to engage with the past and consider what it means for the present moment, Helfgott said.
“Being enthusiastic is one thing, but being able to mobilize other folks to explore new ideas and new ways of applying them is another,” Helfgott said, and Kasckow has a “keen ability to bring others into a kind of collaborative spirit of intellectual adventure.”
Shaking up the old ladies’ game
Kasckow’s history degree led to an internship with the Laramie-based Alliance for Historic Wyoming, an organization devoted to protecting historic places and spaces.
“I immediately fell in love with it because it was physical history,” Kasckow said. “You can walk around downtown, and you’re looking at certain details, bricks, materials … and the buildings tell a story.”
Kasckow’s curiosity is a force to be reckoned with, said Jessica Brauer, who serves on the Laramie Main Street Alliance board.
“They have this exuberance and willingness to connect with literally anything,” Brauer said, recalling the time Kasckow staged interviews with Laramie’s historic buildings as part of a fundraising campaign for the Alliance.
In the video Kasckow addressed the buildings and a voice off camera answered the questions resulting in a goofy and engaging delivery of what would otherwise be dry details about architectural styles and building materials.
Another one of Kasckow’s creative ploys to entice interest in historic preservation involved astrology. The Irma Hotel, a “resourceful, brave and passionate” building “was built on November 18, 1902, making it a Scorpio,” an Instagram post crafted by Kasckow read.
Kasckow brought “new audiences to something that can feel like a little old ladies’ game,” Carly-Ann Carruthers said. Carruthers, who now works for Wyoming State Parks and Cultural Resources, was the Alliance for Historic Wyoming’s executive director when Kasckow started as an intern.
“One of Ray’s biggest contributions to the organization was our underrepresented communities program,” Carruthers said. Starting with a focus on Cheyenne, Kasckow examined gaps in historical knowledge about the African American community.
“I think it was an idea that had always been on the board’s mind at AHW, that we needed to be looking at all the layers of history,” moving beyond just preserving the prettiest buildings, Carruthers said. “But it hadn’t happened until Ray showed up.”
Kasckow’s eager curiosity is contagious, Carruthers said.
“It’s not generally a kind comparison to call someone a tornado,” Carruthers said. “Usually it means there’s this hot mess blowing in and it’s not good, but it’s hard to come up with something that describes their electric spirit.”
Kasckow’s energy is big but not overpowering, Brauer said.
“They’re always asking, ‘What’s the story here? What stories do these people or buildings have to tell?’” Brauer said. “They see a need for change but they don’t make change by just going into a space and bulldozing. By asking lots of questions they make people feel safe to explore things.”
Even the little old ladies of the historic preservation world weren’t scared off by Kasckow’s often neon-died hair, funky eyeglasses and plentiful tattoos, Carruthers said.
“I don’t feel like I’ve ever seen a negative interaction,” she said. “I think it’s relatively hard to be upset with them because they bring such passion and positivity to anything they do.”
Carruthers notes that one of Kasckow’s tattoos is a historic building — the Scandinavian Lutheran Church in Laramie’s West Side neighborhood.
Connection, not confrontation
After several years working in historic preservation, culminating with a position as the AHW’s executive director, Kasckow now coordinates Wyoming Equality’s Safe and Healthy Schools program — “connecting educators and students statewide with the resources they need to succeed and thrive,” according to the organization’s website.
Much like their work to promote a nuanced understanding of Wyoming history that includes diverse perspectives, Kasckow is working to support LGBTQ communities across Wyoming.
“We want them to know they are not alone,” Kasckow said.
Brauer, who is also the executive director of the Laramie Plains Civic Center — a historic building that houses artists, small businesses and nonprofits (including WyoFile) in Laramie — recently called on Kasckow for support addressing vandalism in the building.
Brauer had repeatedly found “safe zone” signs signaling the building is an open and affirming space for the LGBTQ community ripped off doors and torn up on the floor.
“I called Ray because I was so mad,” Brauer said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Kasckow’s response was to first ask Brauer how she was doing and then to acknowledge how upsetting it must be to find the signs destroyed.
The way Kasckow leads with curiosity, taking time to check in before jumping to solutions, is something Brauer said she deeply appreciates.
Brauer’s initial anger made her want to find and confront the vandal. Kasckow questioned whether that would actually help the situation and suggested another path forward.
“You can’t let it pull you down,” Kasckow told Brauer. “It’s probably going to happen again, and we’ll just keep putting up more signs.”
Kasckow’s unflappable spirit is something Brauer finds herself returning to as she thinks about her own community advocacy.
“I think about how much bravery that requires to not ruminate on how awful people are,” Brauer said. “And instead trust that, with time, progress will be made.”
For Brauer, after all, witnessing Kasckow’s unconventional and unapologetic approach feels like an invitation to be truer to herself.
“I can try something that maybe requires courage, and is scary,” Brauer said, “because I see Ray doing it.”
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