Ferrell-Jones, former YW Boston CEO, 60

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Sylvia Ferrell-Jones, former head of YW Boston, focused on social justice issues.
By Bryan Marquard


In a letter she wrote a few weeks before she died, Sylvia Ferrell-Jones thanked her colleagues at YW Boston and said that “looking back at everything we have done together, I can see how far we have come and I rejoice at all of the progress made in our struggle to bring peace, justice, and freedom for all.’’

She added, though, that “even as I reflect and write of our accomplishments, I can see how much work still lies ahead of us. Yet, I am not discouraged.’’

As the president and CEO of YW Boston, and earlier as director of agency development for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Ms. Ferrell-Jones had become one of Boston’s highest-profile nonprofit leaders. She helped bridge divides that split racial and ethnic populations, colleagues said, and did so through the power of her own presence and through programs such as YW Boston’s Stand Against Racism campaign.

“Our primary purpose, with the events of Stand Against Racism, is awareness and a call to action,’’ she said in an interview with Christopher Lovett for a Boston Neighborhood Network program that aired in spring 2015. “We think that we need to bring people together across barriers to acknowledge that racism still exists, and to pledge to work together to eliminate or at least reduce it in the near future.’’

Ms. Ferrell-Jones, who previously worked in finance and real estate investment management, including as a director at AEW Capital Management, died of cancer on Nov. 29. She was 60 and had lived in Arlington the past few years, after having resided in Lexington for more than two decades.

Businesses must become more diverse, and accomplishing that often entails looking at more than just the pool of applicants that is close at hand, Ms. Ferrell-Jones told a 2014 conference that the Massachusetts chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals held in Boston.

“If you want to find people with backgrounds that are not currently represented in your organization, you need to go to places where those people can be found. And those people are not likely found among your set of friends and acquaintances. So it’s really not that hard, but it takes a little effort, and it takes authenticity and genuine interest,’’ she said in a video from the conference that is posted online.

Such efforts pay dividends for future recruiting, Ms. Ferrell-Jones added. “When you start meeting people outside your typical network,’’ she said, “then you have other people you can call upon.’’

Ms. Ferrell-Jones “had this great way of helping you see the crux of the social justice issue or the inequity she was trying to open your eyes to in a way that you could hear,’’ said Mim Minichiello, who chairs the YW Boston board of directors.

“Sylvia had this quiet but profound energy, so when you were around her — even when she wasn’t speaking — you were looking to hear what she had to say,’’ Minichiello added.

Atyia Martin, chief resilience officer for the City of Boston, said Ms. Ferrell-Jones “was a quiet storm, and some people would disagree with the quiet part. In many cases, people underestimated the strength of her force until they entered fully into her presence and got caught up in the wind.’’

Ms. Ferrell-Jones “was very caring and sweet, but also very stern and pushed people to be better and do better,’’ Martin added. “That is what I appreciated most about her.’’

After Ms. Ferrell-Jones was picked in 2007 to become the president and CEO of what had been known as the YWCA of Boston, she “did a remarkable job in turning it from an organization that had, frankly, lost its way into one of the major social justice organizations in the city,’’ said Kathryn Murphy, who chaired the organization’s board before Minichiello.

“The first part of her tenure was really doing a turnaround and getting the finances of the YW in order and getting its real estate in order,’’ Murphy said.

Once those matters were settled, Ms. Ferrell-Jones was able to turn her full focus to “eliminating racism and empowering women and promoting peace, justice and dignity for all,’’ Murphy added. “She was very passionate about that mission, but also very good at focusing on looking at the programs – jettisoning the ones she and the board felt didn’t fit within the mission, and finding ones that did.’’

Ms. Ferrell-Jones, she added, “was instrumental in focusing the YW Boston on its mission of racial and social justice.’’

The second of four children, Sylvia Ferrell was born in Jackson Township, N.J., and grew up in Brielle, along the New Jersey shore. Her father, Robert Ferrell, was an engineer at an Air Force base. Her mother, the former Carmen Garcia, was a bilingual English teacher.

Ms. Ferrell-Jones graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in political science, which she finished in three years, said her husband, Sal Jones. She also graduated from Yale Law School. “Sylvia was the smartest person I know,’’ her husband said.

They met at one of her summer jobs during her Cornell years. He had just graduated from what was then Monmouth College in New Jersey and was working in a mall at an Alexander’s department store when he was assigned to train her as a cashier. They married two years later, in 1978.

Ms. Ferrell-Jones, who took a year off between Cornell and law school to work for the corporation counsel’s office for the City of New Haven, Conn., began her career with the State of Connecticut’s trust funds, where she became principal investment officer and managed the state’s pension funds. She and her family moved to Greater Boston when she accepted a position at AEW Capital Management.

In 2001, she entered the nonprofit world as an administrator for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. “I thought she was going to be there for the rest of her life,’’ her husband said, until the offer arrived to lead YW Boston, where she worked until retiring in September. “She thought, basically, ‘This is where I can make a big impact and work with women and their issues.’ ’’

Away from work, Ms. Ferrell-Jones coached her daughter’s soccer clubs and sang with the Back Bay Chorale. A pianist who had played French horn when she was younger, she also learned the organ well enough to fill in occasionally for services at Pilgrim Congregational Church in Lexington.

In addition to her husband, Ms. Ferrell-Jones leaves their daughter, Lauren of Malden; their son, Evan of Boston; two sisters, Pacia Ferrell Vamvas of Savannah, Ga., and Tina Ferrell of New Jersey; and a brother, Robert Ferrell of Revere.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Jan. 6 in Old South Church in Boston.

“Sylvia will be remembered in this city for years to come for her individual contributions, as well as her contributions as a leader of an amazing organization,’’ Martin said.

Minichiello added: “All of us who are disciples of Sylvia understand the issues that were important to her in a much more profound way than we did before. I’m forever changed.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.