Dr. DeAnna Ferguson has dedicated her life’s work to serving marginalized and vulnerable communities, and as Vice President of Government and Community Affairs for Volunteers of America Southeast, she has helped shape the lives of individuals affected by intellectual disabilities, drug addiction, and/or homelessness. She has distinguished herself with a PhD in Organizational Leadership with a concentration in Nonprofit Administration, an accomplishment which lends itself well to her other community endeavors and achievements: President of the Alabama Service Providers Association (ASPA), a provider of intellectual & developmental disability services; and Junior League of Mobile (JLM) “Active of the Year” award for her work with JLM’s new signature project, Adopt-A-School program, to name a few. Originally from Opp, Alabama, Dr. Ferguson lives in Mobile with her husband Keith and their daughter, Kate.
Tell us about your business(es)/employer. List services offered and/or work you do and how you describe what you do to others:
For 125 years. VOA has been serving the country’s most vulnerable and has become one of the nation’s largest and most comprehensive human services organizations, touching the lives of 1.5 million people a year. Today, we serve over 400 people with intellectual disabilities in Alabama and Georgia. In addition, we provide a number of other services including affordable housing, behavioral healthcare including addictions treatment, disaster recovery, homeless prevention, and services for at-risk children and youth and serve over 8,000 people annually through our community outreach programs by distributing food, clothing, blankets, toys, and meeting other important needs.
How long in business and/or related field:
I have worked for VOA for over 27 years. Currently, I serve as Vice President of Government and Community Affairs and engage with various local and state agencies as well as advocacy organizations to ensure that the voices of those we serve are heard.
Tell us why you chose your profession, the value it brings to you and/or the community:
I grew up with family members struggling with mental illness and addiction. I saw firsthand how devastating this can be on the entire family, so I think that I gravitated towards human services and the mental health field to learn more about this disease and to help people get the treatment and support they need. One in five US adults experiences mental illness, and one in twenty experiences serious mental illness. We need to destigmatize mental illness so more people will be willing to seek the treatment that they need.
I truly believe the old adage that a civilization is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable members. It has been such a blessing to have the opportunity to work for a faith-based nonprofit organization that helps so many people in need on a daily basis. A bible verse that has always resonated with me is Matthew 25:40: “’Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
What is your vision or hope for women in the Mobile and Gulf Coast communities?
That more women will get involved and continue to push for women’s rights and equality. We have to be change agents – and we have to set a good example for the next generation of women. I have a 14-year-old daughter, and it is my hope that her career goals and personal aspirations are never tethered by the fact that she is a female. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.” Women must take their place at the table! Women are 51% of the population in the US but make up only 24% of the US Senate, 27% of the US House of Representatives, 30% of statewide elective executives, and 31% of state legislative seats. Only 9 out of 50 states have women governors, and only 27 of the 100 largest cities have women mayors.
Are there any specific policies and/or laws you would like to see changed to advance women?
It is preposterous that the Constitution of the United States does not establish equality between men and women. It has been 98 years since the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was first introduced in Congress. Although it was passed into law in 1972, it was never ratified. It is long overdue that this amendment be ratified. And I am hopeful that it will happen this year, which would help advance laws on equal pay and close loopholes that allow discriminatory pay practices. Today, women make only 82 cents for every dollar a man makes. It is time to close this gender pay gap.
How important has education and/or continuing education been to you?
I was the first person in my family to go to college. When I was in high school, my Great-Uncle Harlan told me that I could do anything and be anything I wanted—if I got a college education. And he was right. Education is transformative. It is not just the academic knowledge that one obtains—it opens up new possibilities and opportunities. I love learning new things, and I plan to continue my life-long learning journey.
“We don’t have to be Wonder Woman to be wonderful. Lean in to everything you do and give it your all, but don’t attempt to do everything.”
What’s the hardest part about being a working mom/wife/single mom?
When my daughter was 4 years old, I took on a new work project requiring me to travel more. And I had my first experience with “Working Mom Guilt.” I recently read Amy Westervelt’s book, Forget Having It All, where she wrote “We expect women to work like they don’t have children, and raise children as if they don’t work.” That is exactly the pressure I was putting on myself–and really struggling to find a balance.
I felt that I had to volunteer as a room mom at her school, teach her Sunday school class, attend every dance class and Kindermusik class, and not ask my husband nor anyone else for help. I look back now and ask myself “why?” I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that I was running myself ragged–for no reason. We don’t have to be Wonder Woman to be wonderful. Lean in to everything you do and give it your all, but don’t attempt to do everything. Prioritize work projects and family events, and always allocate time for yourself.