Tessa Hackett-Vieira: Social Worker, Community Activist
BY SAM RAPPAPORT
The immigrant experience is one that requires the constant navigation of cultural norms. When Tessa Hackett-Vieira, a social worker with District Council 37’s Municipal Employees Legal Services Plan, immigrated to the United States from Guyana with her family in 1967, she found the differences in cultures stark.
“I had never seen white people in my life,” Hackett-Vieira said. “I had never seen a television in my life.”
Hackett-Vieira’s family settled in Brooklyn one year after her mother had moved there to work as a nurse. Hackett-Vieira said that her childhood was marked by the dance between American and Guyanese values.
“It was particularly traumatic and bothersome during my adolescent years,” Hackett-Vieira said. “There was a freedom that American children had that we didn’t have. My parents didn’t subscribe to ‘do your own thing.’”
With the notion of one day becoming an attorney, Hackett-Vieira attended John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Yet, after attending John Jay College, Hackett-Vieira sidestepped a law career and began working in various social work titles for the city of New York. While working as a caseworker for New York’s Human Resources Administration (HRA), Hackett-Vieira won a city-sponsored scholarship that brought her to Columbia University for a master’s degree in social work. While working toward her master’s, she maintained a caseload with the HRA.
In her mid-20s, Hackett Vieira said that she began to consciously adopt a mixture of Guyanese and American traditions.
“I don’t wholly embrace Eurocentric and American culture,” she said, “and I don’t wholly embrace everything that comes out of the Caribbean culture either. I embraced some of the better parts of the American melting pot, and there were certain things that came out of the Caribbean social context that I held on to.”
While she celebrates such American holidays as Thanksgiving, Hackett-Vieira said that she has never fully assimilated into the American way of life. However, she maintained that she rejects certain aspects particular to the Guyanese diaspora as well.
“I cringe when I hear people who have been here for 20 years and they still have a significant accent,” she said.
Throughout her years as a social worker with the city, Hackett-Vieira said, the law lingered on her mind. So, when the opportunity arose to work with District Council 37’s Legal Services Plan, she jumped at it.
“I wanted to be in a legal environment,” Hackett-Vieira said.
At DC 37, Hackett-Vieira works alongside 72 attorneys, who handle the litigation issues of union members. When the attorneys stumble upon a union member suffering from depression, domestic violence or other such issues, they send that person to Hackett-Vieira.
In addition to her professional life, Hackett-Vieira is active in an assortment of community organizations. She said that her job in a union pushed her to spend more of her time in politically-minded organizations.
“Because I’m in the helping profession, once you get active in one organization and meet people, you just sort of get catapulted into others,” she said.
Hackett-Vieira has been a member of Brooklyn’s Community Board 9 for more than a decade after being appointed by former city councilwoman Una S. T. Clarke. She is the former chairwoman of Brooklyn’s Neighborhood Advisory Board 9 and is an active member of the Brooklyn Branch of the NAACP.
“I was in the environment that fostered all of that,” Hackett-Vieira said of the way her professional life overlapped with her activism. “It wasn’t just enough to go to work and go home and go to church on Sunday.”
While Hackett-Vieira is a politically active member of her Brooklyn community, that activism extends less to Guyanese organizations.
“I’ve been stateside since I was 10,” she said. “I didn’t really come of age waving the Guyanese flag. I must admit that my counterparts in the diaspora, those that have come in later waves of immigration, have been more involved.”
Hackett-Vieira now has two sons, ages 29 and 26, who in their own way are choosing what to adopt from their Guyanese heritage.
“On Labor Day weekend, they run around with a Guyanese flag on their backs,” Hackett-Vieira said, “which I find interesting, because they weren’t born there—but they know they’re from there.”