ELKO – Newly appointed Western Folklife Center Executive Director Kristin Windbigler has been attracted to cowboy culture since she was young.
Windbigler recently moved to Elko but considers herself a native of cowboy culture, as she grew up in a small logging town in northern California and remembers hearing stories from her great-grandfather.
“I came from a family that really valued the ability to tell a story and valued our own local culture,” she said. “On both sides of my family, we were loggers going back to the late 1800s. My great-grandpa saw the logging industry go from oxen to helicopters in his lifetime, and he was a really amazing storyteller.”
In search of the type of stories she used to hear as a child, Windbigler began attending the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 1999. She said she fell in love the first year she attended.
While working for Wired Magazine in the Bay Area, the visits to Elko every year reminded her of home.
“I felt like I had found my tribe of word nerds that came from the same background as me, and they looked like the people I knew at home,” Windbigler said. “They valued the same way of life that my family did.”
Before coming on as executive director at the Western Folklife Center on July 1, Windbigler served on the organization’s board of trustees and worked for the nonprofit as a filmmaker. She fills the vacancy left when David Roche retired effective June 30.
Previously, Windbigler worked for the nonprofit TED. As the lead of its translation program, she oversaw nearly 30,000 volunteers who translated TED Talks into more than 100 languages.
Despite working for a company that specialized in producing motivational speeches, Windbigler is still getting comfortable speaking in front of crowds.
When she presented a film about a bootmaker at the gathering, Windbigler said she was up late the night before rehearing what she would say to the audience.
“It was sort of ironic that I ended up there in a high profile job because when I made my first film here, I did not like public speaking,” she said. “I was terrified that I had to get up in front of this crowd at the gathering. The whole night I practiced saying, ‘Hello, my name is Kristin Windbigler.’”
Going forward, Windbigler wants to find ways to keep the Western Folklife Center relevant and introduce it to a wider audience.
One of her goals is to make use of technology and find new ways to present information to the audience while still keeping the traditions of the gathering intact.
Program Manager Katie Aiken said she is excited to work with Windbigler to bring the gathering into the 21st century.
“She comes to us from TED and works on that model of stories based on people’s experience and knowledge,” she said. “We’re working on a keynote address for our big event at the gathering this year, and its going to be different speakers based on that model.”
Although people travel from all over the country to make it to the gathering, Windbigler said she thinks the center can engage people year-round.
“Our mission is to connect the American West with the rest of the world, but that also means connect one another because the American West is such a huge place,” she said. “The people who are part of the Western Folklife community are spread out all over, and one of the things I’m most excited about is figuring out how we can use technology to connect to people year-round.”
Windbigler is looking to make Elko home after years of involvement with the cultural center.
“I’m loving Elko. I have a place close by while I’m waiting on a house, and I’m loving all the great food,” she said. “There is a nice little scene happening here, and I want to make sure we do our part in helping make sure this is a community where there is fun, creative stuff going on.”