Breaking Ground 108 - The Art of Collaboration

by Lisa Primm, Executive Director, Disability Rights Tennessee

I first met Wanda Willis 9 years ago when I was applying to become the Executive Director of Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT). Wanda was a DRT board member and part of the Executive Director search committee. At the time I had family connections to the disability community, but I had worked mostly in mental health and public policy. As I embarked in a career leading a statewide organization which impacts a diverse community of people with disabilities (yes, she gave me the job), I realized that I had much to learn!

Wanda immediately took me under her wing. She was my greatest supporter, my fountain of knowledge, and my shoulder to cry on. She introduced me to the wider disability community, from leaders in Tennessee state government to heads of other statewide disability organizations. Wanda helped me in any way she could so that we could collaboratively have the greatest positive impact on Tennesseans with disabilities. Also, she did this just because that is who Wanda Willis is—always a team player.

Wanda’s collaborative style has been demonstrated time and again, but most notably in her role as my Developmental Disabilities Network partner. Together with Bruce Keisling of the University of Tennessee Center on Developmental Disabilities and Elise McMillan of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, we are the “DD Network” in Tennessee. And Tennessee’s DD Network is undisputedly the best one in the entire country. Tennessee has been cited numerous times as the gold standard for what a strong Network should be.

Wanda, wearing a black top and gold-colored skirt, accepts a round, glass award from Lisa Primm, a white woman with wavy blond hair and glasses, wearing a blue geometric blazer over a blue top. A large podium in the foreground, and the background is black curtains.
Lisa presents Wanda with Disability Rights Tennessee’s Freedom Award in 2018.

I have also worked closely with Wanda as part of the TN Disability Policy Alliance, where Wanda created a unique space for statewide disability agencies with national representation to join together for candid conversations about policies impacting the populations we serve. Wanda and her colleagues have also collaborated with DRT on important issues like supported decision-making. In that project, Wanda brought subject area experts like Jonathan Martinis to the collaboration, which ultimately lead to the creation of the TN Center for Decision-Making Support.

Most recently, we worked together on in-home access to COVID-19 vaccines. This project was largely the brainchild of Wanda. When she learned of the state’s work to connect Tennesseans with disabilities to COVID-19 vaccines, she knew this was the perfect opportunity for our community to protect some of our most vulnerable citizens. She began talks with leaders in the state and connected all the partners so that we could join forces. With Wanda’s ability to gather community support and collaborators, we have been able to offer vaccination across the state to people with disabilities and supporters in their own homes.

I share these examples to illustrate the incredible mark that Wanda has left on the disability community. She is a true collaborator. Under her leadership, the TN Council on Developmental Disabilities, a small but mighty organization, has honed the art of collaboration to yield far greater results than their budget and staff members could have accomplished alone. Wanda possesses a unique ability to bring people together. She sees the strengths in everyone and understands how they can best contribute. And ultimately, she has always understood that we are stronger and more impactful together. In her work as a great connector, she has laid the groundwork for success in our community for years to come, and for this I will always be grateful.

Lisa Primm joined Disability Rights Tennessee as the Executive Director in December 2012. She previously served for four years as Policy Director for the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services, and before that she was employed as Director of the TennCare Partners Advocacy Program. Lisa has pursued social justice for oppressed and disenfranchised populations throughout her career, focusing primarily on client advocacy, health care policy, mental health treatment, and civil legal services. She holds a master’s degree in social work from the University Of Tennessee College Of Social Work in Nashville (1998) and a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from Alma College in Michigan (1989).  She has been a Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker since 2010.