Appreciation for Phyllis Brunson

With the passing of longtime CSSP friend and colleague Phyllis Brunson on March 26th, the world became a less bright place. She is mourned and celebrated by CSSP’s board and staff and by family and friends across the country and around the world. We send our deepest sympathy and condolences to her family. 

Phyllis was a fierce advocate for community voice and power for all her working life. She came to CSSP in 1995 from the Maryland Governor’s Office for Children, Youth, and Families, where she helped create a system of local governance boards to bring community voices to the decisions of government. For the next 25 years, Phyllis pioneered innovative ways for community residents, particularly young people, to have power in the important decisions that affect their lives. She helped create CSSP’s network of states experimenting with citizen-based decision-making in government; formed the parent and youth coalition supporting CSSP’s early work on racial equity in child welfare systems; and, working with Consumer Reports, created a body of work on “customer satisfaction” to bring the principles of consumer accountability to the public sphere. From 2007 to 2018, Phyllis worked with colleagues in Los Angeles and with the Best Start program of First Five LA to help LA communities achieve more genuine ownership of supports for their youngest children.  Phyllis also shared her learning about community decision-making internationally, first with the International Initiative on Children, Youth, and Families, and later with the Intercultural Cities Program of the Council of Europe.  Phyllis left CSSP at the close of 2019 to start a consulting practice focused on “upstream solutions,” carrying on her commitment to community power in yet another form.

Phyllis helped shape CSSP’s racial equity awareness, commitment, and body of work from its inception, leading CSSP’s Internal Racial Equity Committee, and helping to shepherd and measure CSSP’s progress in embedding racial equity in all aspects of our work. For years, Phyllis was the “living archive” of this activity, and her meticulous documentation of the early years of CSSP’s racial equity journey helped us to track how this work grew.

Everything Phyllis did was indelibly imprinted with who she was and how she lived her life. In the words of one close friend, Phyllis’s life “sparkled,” and she shared that glow, that love of life and the people in it, with all of us. Family was at the center of Phyllis’s life, and she embraced friends with equal fervor, loving those around her generously and over many years.

Phyllis’s life blazed with color, flair, and, occasionally, drama. It was not accidental that a sign saying “DIVA!” hung permanently on her office wall. Yet her office and home were places for thoughtful, consoling, and inspiring conversations with friends and colleagues. Phyllis knew the pain of life as well as its joys and could help her friends deal with both.

Phyllis will be deeply missed. Her fingerprints on our lives, though, are indelible. We celebrate her with gratitude, knowing that her good works and good way of being in the world live on.