23 Feb Interview with Heath Pennington on Working with Direct Relief
February 23, 2023
Heath Pennington is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Theater and Dance, with a doctoral emphasis in Feminist Studies. Their interdisciplinary research investigates sexual cultures, centering BDSM as a performative, affective mode of consensual intimacy. As an IHC Public Humanities Graduate Fellow, Pennington worked with Direct Relief.
What were your primary tasks as Communications Fellow?
As a Communications Fellow at Direct Relief, my primary task was to create content for the organization’s website. This involved brainstorming, researching, writing, and revising articles. I also put together profiles of institutions partnering with Direct Relief on the Power for Health initiative, which funds health centers and clinics to become more climate change resilient. Both duties included interviewing health care professionals, professors, and experts at nongovernmental organizations. In addition, I was responsible for maintaining day-to-day contact with the Communications team and connecting with other Direct Relief employees as needed.
How did your skills as a humanities doctoral student prepare you for this work?
With academic research and writing skills built during my two MAs and sharpened over the course of my Ph.D., I was relatively well prepared for the kinds of work my internship entailed. Further, as a scholar who utilizes interview-based qualitative research methods in my studies, I felt equipped to manage the dialogues I engaged in for my reportage. In addition, my interdisciplinary training in the humanities granted me familiarity with many of the ethical, environmental, governmental, and activist concerns I encountered in the course of my time with Direct Relief. However, I also needed to adjust my research methods, pivot my writing style, and transition to more journalistic interview techniques in order to address my work to public audiences.
Were there any surprises or challenges along the way?
I am lucky to have been able to conduct my internship remotely while traveling for research this summer. Yet this also presented a challenge. After a one-day in-office orientation, I worked from the U.K. for the duration of my time with Direct Relief. Without in-person face time and team bonding, I needed to ensure my communications across email, text, and video call were clear and cogent. Navigating time zones with the office in California and with clinics and partners across the U.S., in Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, India, and Lebanon was sometimes difficult.
As mentioned above, my internship required that I interview numerous people as well as solicit feedback on stories from my team and from other expert voices within Direct Relief. I found it challenging to schedule and follow up on interviews while simultaneously researching and writing multiple pieces and balancing my graduate employment. After checking in with my supervisors about my workload, it was rewarding when one manager called my communication skills “next level.”
What did you learn about nonprofit communications work?
University and job-based writing belong to vastly different discourse communities, a concept I am exploring while teaching through the UCSB Writing Program this year. Within these discourse communities, nonprofit communications work is its own specific genre. It requires prompt, concise interactions with people whose full schedules necessitate flexibility and follow-ups. Its outputs should appeal to a broad public, including policy makers, donors, governmental representatives, and nongovernmental bodies. It necessitates a straightforward and informative tone that includes just the right amount of well-researched background information, human interest, quotes from experts, and critical analysis.
Mastering the conventions of a new discourse community is often a struggle, and it can be even more challenging to apply those conventions in the workplace. While becoming proficient in the Direct Relief Communications team’s genre conventions was difficult, I learned much about how nonprofit communications work. This knowledge helped me navigate the internship and prepared me to transfer skills to similar discourse communities at nonprofits and comparable organizations.
What did you enjoy the most?
The most enjoyable and rewarding thing about the internship was seeing my articles appear on the Direct Relief website. While I happily have several scholarly publications to my name, these compositions reach a niche audience. Part of the joy of having my work on Direct Relief’s public platform comes from being aware that the knowledge I have produced is reaching readers around the world who can utilize it to inform their choices. I enjoy knowing that my work with Direct Relief will contribute to positive change, helping the humanitarian sector move toward more sustainable practices.
How might this experience inform your remaining graduate or post-graduate career?
After completing my Ph.D., I plan to pursue a career within and beyond academia. As the culmination of my training as an IHC Public Humanities Graduate Fellow, the experience I gained while interning at Direct Relief showed me how to bridge the scholastic and professional worlds. I foresee this increasing my desirability on the job market in both academic and nonacademic arenas. Before taking on this Fellowship, I had planned to seek work as a professor and researcher as well as pursuing gigs as a performer, sex educator, and Intimacy Coordinator. Now, I also feel confident expanding my search into public-facing sectors such as communications for nonprofits and arts administration.
Below: Snapshot of Pennington’s articles on the Direct Relief website (click to visit site)