Long Island native active in SE Queens community

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You would not know it from just looking at her in her conservative blue dress-suit, her hair neatly styled to the nape of her neck, but this mother of two...

By Betsy Scheinbart

“I have always been a renegade,” Jean Phelps said while sitting in her office at York College.

You would not know it from just looking at her in her conservative blue dress-suit, her hair neatly styled to the nape of her neck, but this mother of two adults is exactly that.

At a young age, she left her hometown of Glen Cove, L.I. for southeast Queens and wandered from job to job, not knowing what she would do from one day to the next.

Her biggest goal was to become a cab driver, but now she is the president of the Jamaica chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the oldest and largest civil rights organization in the United States, and she is the director of the Women’s Center at York College.

Phelps’ father was a butcher and her mother was a business-school educated housewife. As a mother of five girls, she was committed to ensuring daughters would be successful.

“My mother always said: ‘Get an education, you don’t want to have to clean anyone’s house,’ because back in her day, if you were black, you did not have many options other than that, especially on Long Island,” Phelps said.

As a young student, Phelps was just as enthusiastic about her education as her mother, but she said she was discouraged from taking advanced level courses in high school because they were courses for students going to college and since she was black, she was not expected to go.

“That’s what all the black kids always heard,” she said. “You were told you were not going to college, so eventually you said ‘forget it.’ But still, in the back of my mind, I thought: ‘I am still not going to clean houses!’”

Frustrated and rebellious, a teen-aged Phelps moved to Jamaica.

After a few short-lived positions, she found a steady job as a cab dispatcher, which she held for many years. She reached her goal of learning to drive a cab only to realize she hated to drive.

One day in 1981 while working in a cab stand, one of her co-workers, a York College student named Medina was being particularly careful about her college books, asking her co-workers not to touch them. Her attitude sparked something in Phelps that had been dormant for some years.

“She was the reason I went to York,” Phelps said of her co-worker. “I thought, ‘if Medina can go, I can go.’”

Then in her 30s, Phelps called York to ask if she was too old to go to college, and how much it would cost her. When she discovered there was no age limit and she could get 100 percent financial aid due to her financial situation, she applied right away.

“York College saved my life,” Phelps said emphatically. Phelps’ involvement with York has grown every day since that first nervous phone call 30 years ago and she never hesitates to mention the college in passing.

“I tell people all the time: ‘If I can do it, anybody can do it. College is not that impossible dream,’” she said. “Once you are exposed to something, that’s when you realize you can do it, too.”

Phelps started her work with York’s Student Activities Department by planning her senior dance and ended up teaching Sociology 101 and then directing workshops for women students and running programs for the southeast Queens community.

“I love working with students, but if you don’t work with the entire community, you cannot make a difference in southeast Queens,” she said.

The students at York seem to love working with Phelps, too. When she stepped out of her office for a few minutes, two of the students who work at the Women’s Center sang her praises.

“She is a really good boss,” Wendy Dominguez said. Khadene Salmon agreed, and added, “I wish I could work for her forever.”

After graduating from York, Phelps earned her master’s degree in urban affairs at Queens College and is now working on her Ph.D at the City University of New York graduate program.

Meanwhile, Phelps’ got involved with politics when David Dinkins ran for mayor of New York City in 1989. She started out as a volunteer, but Ed Lewis, the chairman of Dinkins’ Queens campaign, soon asked Phelps to coordinate some of the activities in the campaign.

Lewis, who is a board member at the Jamaica branch of the NAACP and the chairman of the Labor and Industry Committee, said Phelps was a very energetic volunteer who was always committed to working for equality and social justice.

“She has turned into an excellent leader because she was a terrific follower,” Lewis said. “She has done a tremendous job as president of the Jamaica NAACP these past two years.”

After Dinkins won the election, Phelps was instantly connected with many of the powerful political players in the city. At that time, she met City Councilman Archie Spigner (D-St. Albans) and he asked her to run for secretary of the Jamaica branch of the NAACP.

Phelps won that contest and then became vice president, and in 1998 was elected president. She was recently re-elected for her second term.

Now Phelps divides her time between York College and the NAACP, sometimes working 16-hour days to get it all in. And the line between community activities for York and community activism with the NAACP is often blurred.

“I might be working here [at York] and leave for a meeting, but I am smart enough to say ‘I am representing the NAACP and York College’ at that meeting,” Phelps explained, adding that many of her community programs are designed for both the NAACP and the York College communities.

Phelps said she feels so blessed because all of these positive opportunities have come her way, so she has to give back those blessings and educate the community.

“There is much out there, services that people don’t know about, and that’s my mission, to try to tell people what is out there,” Phelps said.

Reach reporter Betsy Scheinbart by e-mail at or call (718) 229-0300, ext. 138.

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