Melanie Usdin: Sustainer of the Year

Brisbee, a 14-week-old Australian Shepherd puppy, serves as the unofficial greeter at the Usdin residence these days. Melanee Usdin and her family welcomed this newcomer into their hearts just before the holidays. It’s evident from their interaction that Brisbee is destined to bring out the best Melanee has to offer—and that is saying a lot.

Melanee Usdin has been a member of the Junior League of New Orleans almost as long as she's been a New Orleanian. Born and raised in the Crescent City and a graduate of both Metairie Park Country Day School and Tulane University School of Law, Melanee has a deep connection to the city that compels her to play an active role in its future.

Voluntarism was a family affair and something that came naturally to Melanee from the start.  From the time she was a young girl, her mother and father instilled a responsibility of service to others in her heart. It was a forgone conclusion that when the time came she would join Junior League. "I was always aware of the importance of the Junior League," Melanee said. "It was considered an honor to be in the Junior League, and that's how I felt about it."

Melanee knew the League would be a labor of love. She fondly recalls her first year but with no misgivings about the dedication it entailed then and still demands of Provisionals today. "I was practicing law, I was pregnant and I was married, so there were lots of demands on my time— just like there is for every Provisional—but I made Junior League a priority. It was that important to me".

As she began to delve deeper into her commitment within the organization, Melanee found her experience enriched by both the people she met and the skills she began to learn.

In the years to follow, she would go on to serve JLNO as legal counsel, revise the bylaws as Chairman of the Strategic Planning Committee and serve as President from 1999-2000. As the world came into the new millennium, Melanee seized the chance to introduce some new and modern ideas within the League. One highlight of her presidency included publishing and selling the Crescent City Collection: A Taste of New Orleans cookbook, which up to that point had never been used as a revenue stream. She also oversaw the launch of the first JLNO website and her tenure saw the first demographic survey taken of our members. As Melanee said, “the League was changing. We knew we were going to have to consider making some changes.” Through this survey, they discovered 75 percent of Actives and 84 percent of Provisionals were now working from home. This information allowed them to better correlate the needs of members with the types of volunteer activities available in the community.

Arguably one of Melanee’s biggest undertakings was pioneering the Junior League Endowment Campaign. “Not many leagues had endowments at that time,” Melanee admited, “and it was somewhat of a new and different concept that we wanted to be sure the League would embrace before we did it.” They went through a very methodical process that began by meeting with Sustainers to get their initial opinion. Their positive feedback lead them to poll the Active members, who found the idea had a promising amount of merit. Finally, they hired a consultant to review the proposal. True to form, Melanee’s eye for detail and knack for organization gave life to an endowment, which still lives on today.

Much of what Melanee learned through Junior League fed her breadth of experience in governance, and she took that knowledge with her as she began to serve on other Boards. Overcoming challenges such as how to reach a consensus on a Board to how to evolve a Board of Governors into a Board of Trustees became her specialty. “Good governance is critical for a board to become well-functioning,” Melanee said. She leaned heavily on her expertise honed from years of leadership within the League to guide these Boards towards focusing on their overall mission and not getting bogged down in the minutia of daily management. Her talents as an attorney were undoubtedly useful, but in a powerful statement, she added, “I really do consider what I learned at Junior League to be as formative as going to law school was.”

This tenacity comes as no surprise to her friend and fellow JLNO Sustainer, Katie Crosby. “Melanee does not put things aside to be dealt with at a later time and is not afraid to tackle issues that may present challenges.” Katie continued, “She is a consensus builder and actively seeks the opinion of others that she works with.”

The impression JLNO has made on Melanee’s life is evident. “I’m friends now with my JLNO friends in much the same way I’ve remained friends for life with my high school friends,” Melanee said. They continue to serve on Boards together, recruit one another, and request candidates who have completed the JLNO Get on Board training “because you know a Junior League trained volunteer is the best volunteer.”

Often in times of crisis, volunteer-based organizations are among the first with the ability to set meaningful actions into motion. New Orleans has a proud history of having a fertile volunteer base to pull from, and Melanee feels the impact of JLNO’s volunteer workforce reverberates throughout the community at large. She cited the response from the Diaper Bank after to the recent floods and hurricanes across Louisiana and the southern United States respectively. She also lauds the continued creation of Community Projects like Touch a Truck and Safe Sitter.

“In New Orleans, especially, where city funding is limited, volunteer programs often offer help and services that wouldn’t be available otherwise,” Melanee said. In situations like this, non-profits like the Junior League have the manpower to step in and positively influence people’s day-to-day lives. She also touched on the unique point of view the JLNO brings to the conversation, stating, “It’s great to see the power of all these women coming together with an objective. A lot of the business world is still dominated by men, so it’s great to see women united and making a difference.”  

After putting in such dedication during her active years, Melanee has enjoyed the life of a Sustainer, saying in no uncertain terms, “It’s fun! You can join a Sustainer Club and have a totally social experience after you’ve worked so hard as an active.” She is currently involved in the Junior League Interior Decorating Club and the Garden Club, but she is not one to let grass grow beneath her feet.  She will also serve as Sustaining Advisor in the 2018-2019 league year. She’s looking forward to the opportunity to share her experiences with the newest iteration of the JLNO Board to continue advancing the League’s mission. “I think Actives can benefit from what Sustainers know and hopefully Actives will tap into some of that,” Melanee said.

Melanee’s personal passions gravitate towards arts and leisure. To that end, she supports causes where art is used as a medium to teach others. While serving as Chairman of the Board of KID smART, she promoted their mission to teach public school children their core curriculum through visual arts. Through a partnership with Poydras Home and the New Orleans Museum of Art—two organizations where Melanee currently serves as a board member — she is especially proud of their joint program that brings residents struggling with Alzheimer’s and dementia to the museum. After being stimulated by the artwork, they have found people become much more responsive and at times it can even bring back memories.

An avid reader, Melanee is a member of three different book clubs and a literary club where they write and present research papers. Visiting her sons, Matthew and William, easily satisfies her wanderlust as their lives and careers criss-cross the globe everywhere from New York City and Abu Dabi to Oxford and Taiwan. Melanee and her husband Steven revel in every opportunity to explore the world and see their sons at the same time. After a life filled with selflessly giving her time and her talents to her community, one can hardly fault her the occasional escapade, surround with those most dear to her. “My favorite thing is to be on vacation, wake up and know that I’m going to have breakfast with both my boys. I know those years are limited, but for now it’s pretty sweet.”