Interview with Public Fellow Dana Hughes on Interning with Direct Relief

Interview with Public Fellow Dana Hughes on Interning with Direct Relief

January 14, 2021

Dana Hughes is a Ph.D. student in History with a specialization in public history. Her research focuses on a nineteenth-century female writer and historic preservationist, analyzing her effects on constructions of imperialism, race and gender in colonial memory on the east and west coasts of the U.S. As an IHC Public Humanities Graduate Fellow, Hughes recently completed an internship with Santa Barbara-based Direct Relief.

Tell us about the projects you worked on during your internship with Direct Relief.

Direct Relief is a Santa Barbara-based nonprofit focused on assisting those struggling with public health crises by mobilizing and distributing aid. The original plan for my role as an archival fellow was to research the organization’s founder and its history and create a narrative or exhibit around Direct Relief’s origins. This changed when the COVID-19 pandemic exploded, and with it, Direct Relief’s response. The pandemic presented many new challenges to the organization, of course, but also changed the nature of my role as an intern, as it was no longer possible to visit the appropriate archives. My work at Direct Relief pivoted to chronicling history as it was unfolding, as the organization evolved to aid in this massive public health crisis.

This turned into a great opportunity for me to work on new skills as I interviewed many players within the response and compiled oral histories to incorporate into the narrative. I really enjoyed drawing out the experiences of people who were working in procurement and distribution of hard-to-obtain PPE on a massive scale, researchers within the organization, those coordinating responses both internationally and in the U.S., representatives in charge of connecting with donors, those working on the ground in the warehouse, partners of the organization in refugee camps abroad or underserved communities in California, and seeing how their stories were woven together by shared commitment to a mission. In writing a comprehensive history of the response, I found it rewarding to be able to co-create meaning with all of the individuals who were interviewed, as well as draw from internal documents and outside research. The finished report explored the organization’s evolution during this period, reporting their response, impact, and the development of their mission and message during this time, and contextualizing their public health equity efforts within larger social issues such as Black Lives Matter.

How did your academic training as a historian equip you to work with a humanitarian nonprofit?

Particularly through my work in public history, I have seen the ways in which historians can directly impact current events and have an important role within them. Many historians are frequently delving deeper into events or issues that have been interpreted in a certain way to bring out voices that have been ignored or that more powerful elements of their societies have attempted to silence. Public historians often seek to engage with their communities to support community members’ telling of their own stories, even if these histories have been ignored or suppressed by institutions. Humanitarian nonprofits such as Direct Relief are seeking to work toward inclusion and equity as well, through their work and also their communications. I feel that both of these approaches intersect well over shared goals.

What were your new experiences working with a nonprofit that differ from your work as an academic?

When someone is researching and writing as an academic, it is primarily to satisfy their own questions, on a topic that they have selected (such as a dissertation). When working on a project for a nonprofit, the public humanist needs to instead keep the organization’s story, questions, and mission at the forefront of the investigation. Fortunately, I believed in and felt inspired by their mission, so it was a motivating collaboration! Collaboration is key when an academic is working in the public sphere, such as at a nonprofit. It is important to remember that you, as an academic, are bringing your skills as a humanist to the table to create meaning alongside the nonprofit and those it serves. You will often be giving a platform to voices other than your own. For the public humanist, it is important to make sure diverse voices from the organization and/or its community are elevated in such a way as to have a greater impact, rather than overpowering those voices with your own.

What was the most enjoyable aspect of the internship for you?

I really enjoy writing and creating narratives, and it was great to be able to incorporate this as a large part of my internship work at Direct Relief. Interviewing people who were making a difference in their community and reporting more contemporary events was newer to me, but I really enjoyed connecting with these individuals, hearing their stories and letting my narrative serve as a platform for these voices. I also valued being able to work with Talya Meyers, Tony Morain, Lara Cooper and the rest of the communications team, learning from them and observing firsthand the great work they were doing to raise awareness of critical public health issues and report on their organization’s activities.

How has your work in the Public Humanities Graduate Fellows Program prepared you for or influenced your post-graduation plans?

The program helped me to move forward in my goals of becoming a professional public historian, as well as improving skills such as public-facing writing and interviewing. I gained the confidence to take my goals and methodology into public spaces as well as honing my skills in areas I didn’t already associate with the humanities such as website design, which can help me bring my ideas and research to a much wider audience. I would love to work on some kind of local history project that involves UCSB and possibly members of the community—other Fellows have brought this up as an interest and it has been really inspiring! It has been a wonderful experience to make these connections with so many great people who are committed to the same principles of creating platforms for inclusive narratives within our communities.

Click here to learn more about the IHC Public Humanities Graduate Fellows Program.