After a historically chaotic year, two trailblazing women are stepping in to help make headway with Vermilionville and its parent organization, Bayou Vermilion District.
Last week, the Lafayette City Council appointed Phyllis Coleman Mouton as the ninth and final member of the Bayou Vermilion District Board of Commissioners. Mouton fills the vacancy left by Jennifer Farr, who resigned from the volunteer position late last year due to work schedule conflicts.
“I’m going to go in there with an open mind,” Mouton says, “and offer what I can to hopefully bring greater insight to myself as well as to the board.” She hopes recent divisions on the board can be overcome through greater awareness and cooperation throughout the community.
Another pioneering woman, Phebe Hayes, is assuming leadership of the Vermilionville Living History Museum Foundation Board. The VLHM Foundation is an advisory board and nonprofit grant application partner for BVD, which oversees Vermilionville.
Mouton was the sole applicant for the post, a seat on the commission the BVD charter requires be represented by an African American member. Immensely qualified, Mouton brings a wealth of government and business experience.
She recently served as vice president of government affairs for the regional economic development agency One Acadiana. She’s a former Louisiana secretary of labor under Gov. Buddy Roemer, a distinguished retiree from Baton Rouge Community College working in both government relations and economic development, the first African American and woman to chair the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, and founder and president of Women of Wisdom. She’s also a small business owner with an MBA from LSU who’s served on more than a dozen prestigious boards and commissions, including Ochsner Lafayette General, Hospice of Acadiana, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, Public Affairs Research Council and Southern Mutual Help Association.
Elected as the board’s incoming president last year, Hayes is a former UL professor and dean who founded the Iberia African American Historical Society and is a fellow at UL’s Center for Louisiana Studies. She replaces former board President Michael Martin this month.
“The people I serve with, they understand,” Hayes said of her colleagues at the foundation board in an interview with The Current in August. “They understand the importance of true diversity and not just tokenism, and I think efforts are going to be made to reflect that truth. The people whose stories are being told need to be at the table, and that includes Native Americans and people of African descent.”
Mouton also begins her tenure on the BVD board at its first meeting of 2021 on Jan. 27.
Both women seek to bring new energy and unity to an organization that spent much of 2020 in turmoil. More than half of the BVD commissioners resigned last year, many in protest to a social justice statement put out by the Vermilionville Museum staff that acknowledged and condemned institutional racism.
The ensuing turmoil and turnover led to a deadlock on the board between its old guard and new members, many affiliated with the conservative activist group Citizens for a New Louisiana. Only recently did tensions seem to ease when, with the urging of superlobbyist Randy Haynie (Haynie is a member on the VLMH Foundation board), the BVD board elected to form a task force to study how to review structural budgetary and management issues within the organization. As VLMH Foundation board president, Hayes will also serve as a member of the task force alongside 10 other members.
“One of the things that oftentimes happens,” Moutons says, “we simply become complacent or complicit and fail to see the value of an organization or entity, and this is definitely a gem. We’re talking about economic development, cultural development, environmental and education issues. It’s a great opportunity for Lafayette.”