Remembering the Indomitable Force for Good That Was Tessie Brunini Schweitzer
October 15, 2020
October 15, 2020
Tessie Brunini Schweitzer, founder of Mississippi Families as Allies, passed away earlier this month. The world has lost an incredible advocate. I will always remember how much Tessie gave of herself through her tireless advocacy to make the world a better place for children with mental health challenges and their families.
Tessie meant so much to me in my formative development as an advocate. I began my career as a therapist, then a trainer on techniques for working with difficult to serve youth, and then as a state official working in children’s mental health for the North Carolina Division of Mental Health. I was 30 years old, completely wet behind the ears, yet full of self-importance when I participated in the first Families as Allies project, hosted by another hero of mine, Barbara Friesen, at Portland State University (PSU). Barbara had received funding to bring together eight “professionals” and eight “parents” to create a curriculum that could help parents and professionals learn how to work together effectively. Sounds funny reading this in 2020, but back in the ’80s, this was indeed a novel concept!
Tessie (one of the eight parents) and I were assigned to a training team, along with Fred Jefferson and Jane Getz, and our task once the curriculum was completed, was simple – spread the gospel of Families as Allies throughout the nation. Each of the four training teams was assigned to a region of the country, and our team focused primarily on the southeastern United States, but we went anywhere we could stick our foot in the door before it could be slammed shut. Rebels with a cause!
At the PSU training, I realized that my path was destined for advocacy and not mental health administration, and Tessie was a big part of me seeing the potential of advocacy as a path. Not because of financial reward (not much of that) or prestige (totally overrated), but of devoting one’s life to a calling of doing good for others. Plain and simple. Tessie lived and breathed a steadfast and unwavering commitment to doing what was good, and more importantly, what was right and just. Like other champions in children’s mental health advocacy, Tessie had that rare combination of charm, intelligence, and graciousness, wrapped around a steel rod of internal strength that would not back down to anything or anyone who was putting up obstacles to families getting what they needed.
What stood out for me about Tessie as my 30-year old self, who thought he knew everything that there was to know, was how incredibly graceful and patient she was with me. Tessie was first, and foremost, a teacher. Armed with her flip chart, multi-colored markers, masking tape, and easel, it didn’t matter where we were – church basement, airplane hangar (true story), or fancy board room, give Tessie five minutes, and she would have the space organized and prepped for teaching. And she was one heck of a teacher! I affectionately called her “Teach” in private and would constantly tease her about her colored markers. She would smile, and say, “That’s right, once a teacher, always a teacher,” and listen patiently while I would explain to her in earnest how we should approach the training in another way (cuz remember, I knew everything). She would smile, give a little bit here or there, but ultimately, our training would roll out with Tessie’s mark on effectively communicating a message. Cuz, after all, Tessie was the ultimate teacher.
That is just one small example of her negotiation skill, give and take, respect, clarity of message, all wrapped up in the process of bringing two sides together to create something better.
What Tessie helped me do through her grace and gentleness was to learn through example, how to set aside preconceived notions of how something should go, let the process breathe, so you could ultimately come up with a solution or product where everyone felt heard, no matter how close or how far the end result was to the original idea.
We need more teachers like Tessie Schweitzer. And I am humbled to have known one of the greatest teachers of all.
Tessie Schweitzer – Sixty-four year old me is forever grateful to you for being one of the select few advocacy giants that helped nurture thirty-year-old me in my transition from mental health “expert” to mental health advocate.
Love ya, Teach!
My passion is helping to shape policy and practice in children’s mental health. For the past 40 years, my journey as a mental health advocate has traveled from volunteering at a suicide and crisis center, professional roles as a therapist in an outpatient clinic, in-home family therapist, state mental health official, Board Chair for a county mental health program, and national reviewer of children’s mental health systems reform efforts. As the founder of the Children’s Mental Health Network (2009), I lead the Network’s efforts to grow a national online forum for the exchange of ideas on how to continually improve children’s mental health research, policy and practice.
In addition to my role with the CMHNetwork, I host The Optimistic Advocate Podcast, a weekly interview show where I explore how innovative people find ways to improve mental health for themselves, others, and the community at-large.