For the influx of new-New Orleanians—particularly the post-Katrina millennials—taking in the culture, traditions and causes of the city is an easy right-of-passage. The passion is nearly contagious. But there is another class of individuals who make great change in the city, those who weren’t just bred to love it but born to. Margo Phelps belongs to the latter category.
A lifelong New Orleans resident, Margo’s commitment to her home and our collective community sets an extraordinary precedent for active and sustaining Junior League members, clearly warranting her the honor and distinction of the 2017 Sustainer of the Year. Thoughtful in her causes and purposeful in her mission, Margo’s dedication to the city has enriched New Orleans and set a high-bar for Junior League members to aspire to. As current JLNO President Maria Pardo Huete said, “I hope that active and provisional members look at Margo and know that their membership in JLNO is but an opportunity to finely tune their interests and to find that which fires up their inner heroes to continue to make a difference after their active years are over.”
In many ways, the entry point for Margo’s community involvement was the Junior League. As Margo said, “It never entered my mind that I wouldn’t be a League member—my mother lived and breathed the League!” Her mother’s involvement was a hallmark of her childhood, and she remembers fondly returning to her house filled with chrysanthemums after her mother’s committee meetings. In fact, she still holds onto the original recommendation letter for her League placement years ago.
Yet, like many New Orleans residents, Margo’s life and personal journey of community advocacy can be marked by one benchmarking event—Hurricane Katrina. Margo said, “There was my life before Katrina and after.” With the storm wreaking havoc on not only her life, but the homes and lives of close family members, Margo was consumed in recovery and clean-up in the aftermath of the storm. But through the chaos, she still came to recognize the greater changes underway in New Orleans—especially in education.
As an alumna of the Louise S. McGehee School, Margo has continued to serve on numerous committees, representing her graduating class and being honored with the 2016 Distinguished Alumnae Award. This commitment to education has extended beyond her alma mater, however, as she has become a community-wide champion for education reforms. Via her positions as both the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans Education Committee, as well as a Choice Foundation Board Member, Margo is a committed advocate for changes in New Orleans schools. Beyond these leadership roles, she has been consistently engaged with the Louisiana Children’s Museum, Cowen Institute and Audubon Nature Institute.
Through her service on these boards and with various organizations, Margo has a clear vision for public education enhancements in New Orleans and is a vocal supporter of greater teacher accountability, charter school prevalence, voucher programs and especially enhanced availability of early childhood education. Margo said, “If we can start education young, it sets the foundation through high school and even into college.”
Recognizing the interconnectedness of community issues, Margo has leveraged her engagement in the education sphere to influence crime and criminal justice reforms as well. “There seems to be a pipeline from cradle to prison,” Margo said. “When it should be from cradle to college.” To fulfill this vision, Margo has expanded her service on education committees and efforts, to provide insight and leadership as an Executive Committee Member on the Crime Coalition, a Board Member on the Metropolitan Crime Commission and a Board Member of the Salvation Army.
LEFT: Margo poses with students at Louise S. McGehee School where she is an alumna and has served on numerous committees. She was recognized in 2016 with the Distinguished Alumnae Award. Photo by: Jessica Bachmann RIGHT: Margo with her family before the YLC 2016 Role Model class black tie gala. Margo was one of the honorees of the evening. Photo provided by: Margo Phelps
Though she continues to roll off of some boards and onto others, Margo’s standards for involvement remain firm. She said, board engagement “has to be something I’m passionate about—education, crime or criminal justice.” The focus on and dedication to these issues has not only garnered admiration from the JLNO, but also the young professional community of New Orleans, as reflected in her recent Young Leadership Role Model 2016 award.
Margo’s service to the community has extended far beyond her Junior League days chairing the Placement Committee, or—her personal favorite—the JLNO Thrift Shop, but still provides her a network to continually draw upon. It was her friend and fellow JLNO Sustainer Janet Bean who first recruited Margo to work with Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, where she is currently the Board Chairman. In fact, Margo says her greatest inspirations and mentors have often been Junior League members, particularly past JLNO Presidents. Continuing to align her volunteer activities with other JLNO members ensured she was working with women who had a “proven track record of success,” Margo said.
These feelings of admiration are clearly mutual. Janet said, “Margo is a unique person who is lovely on the inside as well as the outside. She brings together intelligence, dedication, sensitivity and vision. Additionally, her leadership in so many areas is laced with a quiet wit which makes working with her a joy.” Maria agreed, “Margo Phelps is the embodiment of the mission of the Junior League of New Orleans to be a trained and active volunteer who is working diligently to improve our communities.”
Margo continues to see the value of JLNO across her activities and engagements, particularly recognizing the advocacy training JLNO members now often engage in. Margo said, “I think the Junior League can do just about anything they set their minds to.” With much of her future work riding on successes in the state legislature, Margo sees great power in JLNO voices and initiatives.
When Margo isn’t filling her time giving back to the New Orleans community, she is rewarded by a rich personal life, walking Audubon Park, dining at Vincent’s on St. Charles Avenue, or spearheading initiatives at her church, St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church. A great arts enthusiast as well, Margo particularly enjoys frequenting the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Ogden Museum, even taking in a Victory Belles show at the World War II Museum. “That’s what I love about this city — there are so many traditions,” Margo said.
But a clear source of pride and joy for Margo is undoubtedly her family. She said, “I am so proud of my four children!” With four children and nine grandchildren, birthday parties in New Orleans and trips to New York to visit her daughter and grandchildren are frequent compliments to her busy schedule. Margo’s sons have continued her tradition of community service locally as well, organizing their own Hogs for the Cause team for the past three years and raising more than $30,000 for charity.
It is perhaps this consistent reminder of the generations to come that shapes Margo’s vision for the future of New Orleans. When asked what she wants the New Orleans of the future to look like, Margo said, “I hope that we have a crime free and drug free city, and if we do have incidences of crime and addiction that we have re-entry and drug rehab services to address these issues.”
Margo is emphatic about her love for our city. “I’ve lived in New Orleans all my life,” she said. “I would never want to live anywhere else.” The residents of New Orleans and members of JLNO should all hope she never does.