Before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, Casi Ferguson was busy preparing for Birmingham’s United Negro College Fund (UNCF) gala. The sold-out event was set for this spring and was going to attract 1,500 attendees and raise money for several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Now, Casi, who has served as UNCF Birmingham Area Development Director since 2018, is tasked with finding new and innovative ways to raise funds and awareness for these important institutions.
On September 19 UNCF will host a Virtual Walk for Education with offices across the country participating, including the Birmingham office, which serves HBCUs in Alabama and Mississippi. We chatted with Casi about her passion for HBCUs and why these schools matter. We are honored to welcome our newest FACE of Birmingham, Casi Ferguson.
How did you first become interested in the United Negro College Fund?
I had been on the board for several years. I am an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) graduate as well. I graduated from Talledega College. We were so rich in history. I wanted to go someplace where somebody looked like me and would help me to be empowered to be whoever I was at the time. I went to a school where one of my best friend’s parent’s name was on a building. How cool is that?
I think attending an HBCU made me better in terms of some of the people who I ended up knowing and increasing my awareness of the history of places like Selma and the story of the Tuskegee airmen. And I still to this day talk to my classmates, the alumni, my friends.
Before your move to UNCF, you worked for AT&T doing business development project management and more. How do you feel your experience with AT&T is helping you in your current role?
I know how money works. Coming from Corporate America, I knew where the dollars were. I think I have a different understanding of what works in terms of corporations and how they give and who they give to. It’s not about being a line item for a corporation. It is really about corporations understanding why we still matter.
HBCUs were built at a time when Black people weren’t allowed to attend other colleges and universities. Why are these schools still important today?
All schools matter, and all schools are still needed. We’re blessed that now our children can make choices. We still need choices. Some children still want a school where you can get extra help and have smaller sized classrooms or where you might be seated next to someone whose granddad or dad really fought in the struggle. It’s a choice that does not need to be taken away from us. These schools have so much history. Yet, our schools are the most economically challenged and not as glorified. Another university will open up, but there will never be any more HBCU schools.
Right now, racial injustice is at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds as the Black Lives Matter movement gains momentum. What role do you feel organizations like the UNCF play in this movement and in the fight for justice?
We are still trying to bring the dialog of the history. We were brought here, and even when they cut us free, let’s face it — if you tie somebody up in a closet for years, when they come out, they’re not going to know what to do. Still, in spite of it all, we have been able to continually reinvent ourselves.
At one point, there was an illusion that only African Americans in the South had issues. I think now the organizations are showing that African Americans everywhere have had issues. The struggle is still alive.
What are some misconceptions people have about HBCUs?
One thing that people do not understand is all races can attend HBCUs. We’re not closed to a certain group. And everybody that attends an HBCU school is not financially struggling. It was a choice for me.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job and what are you most proud of?
I am most proud of my relationships with all of the presidents in my market at all seven of my schools — Stillman, Miles College, Talladega College, Tuskegee, Tougaloo College, Rust College, and Oakwood University. These presidents are really fighting for their students, so it’s important to be able to talk to them and see what programs they’re trying to make sure stay at their schools. I’m proud of having the opportunity to see the talented kids at these colleges and universities at work and to meet with them. And I’m just really proud of my history.
How have you had to shift your fundraising and awareness-raising efforts in the face of COVID-19?
This isolation has made me try to understand who I am and how do I still create awareness and funding. I still need to keep the doors open. We are collectively, as a company, doing a virtual walk on September 19. I almost don’t sleep trying to figure out how am I going to get everybody in Alabama and even some of my Mississippi market to go on Facebook and say, “I’m walking for education today, and I’m donating $1, $5, or $10.”
I need people to understand you might now have $5,000 or $10,000 to donate; you might only have $5, but take the time to virtually walk for education.
When people in [Washington,] DC look at this, I want them to say I know the people in Alabama really get it because they had 20,000 or 30,000 people looking at the site.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
My dad is 99, and he says every day you wake up you have an opportunity to fix a wrong or change what you’ve done. Take the opportunity each day to figure out something new. If you have to reinvent it, reinvent it.
Name three things you can’t live without.
Chocolate cake, my shoe collection, and my pearls.
Thank you, Casi. The Virtual Walk for Education takes place Saturday, September 19.
All photography provided by Casi Ferguson.
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