When Mindy Greiling first retired from her long career as a state legislator, all she really wanted to do was step back and take it easy.
So when longtime leaders of NAMI Ramsey County, a struggling affiliate of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Minnesota, asked if she’d be interested in joining their organization, Greiling gave them the answer she was giving everyone at the time. Even though she’d been involved with the organization back in the late 1990s and early 2000s when her son Jim was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, she said no.
“I was in my post-retirement phase of, ‘I’m not doing anything. I’m just sorting out my house,’” Greiling said.
But the folks from NAMI Ramsey didn’t give up that easily. Though the state NAMI office had landed a grant that paid for a part-time organizer to help reinvigorate affiliates in Ramsey and Washington Counties, NAMI Ramsey was hanging on by a thread.
“The woman who had asked me before asked me again,” Greiling recalled. “Even with the liaison, there were only about four active members in the group.”
She learned that the affiliate “was not doing much more than having a holiday party and a summer picnic and a support group for families and people with mental illnesses. Those things were the bread and butter, but basically just the bare minimum.”
Greiling knows what it means to be an advocate. In her two decades in the Minnesota House of Representatives, the Roseville DFLer made a name for herself by authoring and supporting legislation focused on the needs of people with mental illness and their families. Her son’s diagnosis spurred her involvement with NAMI, but her own grandmother’s struggle with mental illness inspired her empathy and her interest as a legislator. Greiling often took on challenging or unpopular causes — and eventually managed to get many of her fellow lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to rally around them.
Greiling believed that with the right people involved, the affiliate had the potential to transform itself into a key organization with the ability to influence decision-making. And while people tend to focus their attention on larger groups that lobby state and federal governments as a voice for people with mental illness, she saw the potential that existed at the county level.
So she thought it over and decided to get involved — under one condition. “I said if I would be getting involved I would want the group to actively lobby the county. They’re the ones the money gets shipped off to. … I was only interested in getting involved if we could take a more advocacy-based approach.”
A growing board
To be able to influence change at the county level, Greiling wanted to stock the NAMI Ramsey board of directors with volunteers who were committed to using activism to make positive change. While the existing board was a committed group, its size was a sticking point: More people were needed.
“I recruited platoon leaders and we all recruited potential board members who were wanting action,” Greiling said. “That’s the secret sauce for our county. We don’t just want to talk amongst ourselves and support each other. We can do that, but we also want more.”
When they got to 15 board members — the maximum number allowed under the group’s bylaws — they felt there was more that could be done, so they changed the bylaws to allow for as many as 18 members.
The board’s rapid growth reinforced Greiling’s belief that people who live and work in Ramsey County want to improve the lives of people with mental illness. “We have really strong board members that want to do things and follow through and are incredibly motivated,” she said, “which I think is a huge strength for any NAMI board.”
Recruitment efforts also focused on building a board that better reflected the community and the population NAMI serves, including bringing on members with various mental illnesses and people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds.
“We want to reflect the demographics of Ramsey County in our advocacy and policy work,” said Joan Cleary, who joined the NAMI Ramsey County board in 2020, just after Greiling took the helm. “We are making progress in that direction, but we have more work to do in our board recruitment.”
As someone inspired to activism after watching a close family member struggle with mental illness, Cleary said was excited to be part of the group. “We’re in a wonderful growth stage,” she said.
Growth brings change and renewed energy, she added: “What we’ve been able to do … is to expand our focus, building on this very dedicated core group and being able to do more advocacy work, more education.”
In her career supporting adults and children with mental illness, Lynn Carey has learned that mental illness doesn’t discriminate, that people of all ethnic backgrounds struggle with their mental health. But too often the perspectives of people of color are not included when policy decisions are made. So she was happy when her mother-in-law told her that NAMI Ramsey was looking to diversify their board of directors.
Before she joined the board, Carey had an interview with Greiling. “She explained that the board was mostly older white women,” Carey recalled. “She said it would be nice to have a younger perspective as well as someone who has worked with adults and children. As a biracial woman who’s worked in mental health, I fit that description perfectly.”
Carey said that she has been pleased with the shape that the board is taking. Change feels much more authentic when those who are influencing the decisions look more like those who will be impacted by them. “I think it is really important to include different perspectives that reflect the population that you are working with.”
An activist approach
In the year since NAMI Ramsey’s reboot, the group has been busy. They’ve focused on issues they could influence at the county level, including encouraging Ramsey County officials to support a new voluntary engagement law that provides trained staff to work to encourage people struggling with mental illness to seek treatment and intervention.
“Ramsey County was the first county in the state to opt into this engagement program because of our efforts,” said Greiling.
Another issue that the NAMI Ramsey decided to tackle is affordable housing for people with mental illness. When Greiling’s own son was looking to move into an apartment, his social worker said they should look in Hennepin County because, “there wasn’t anything available in Ramsey County that she would house her dog in,” Greiling recalled.
“We sent a letter about affordable housing,” Greiling said. “There is a lot of movement around affordable housing in Ramsey County, so we were not the only advocates in that case but we certainly lent our shoulder in. When it comes to affordable housing, people with mental illness are usually the last in line. Because they often aren’t able to advocate for themselves, they just get missed.”
The board also organized a listening session with county law enforcement officials on police interactions during mental health crises and hosted a panel discussion on early signs of mental illness in children.
As one of the newest members of the board, Carey said she’s felt inspired by all the different events and causes the group is taking on. “It is important to be an activist,” she said. This committed attitude is, “one thing I really liked about this group from the start. They’re helping me grow as a person and as an advocate for people with mental illness.”