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“It was about grade ten when I knew I wanted to be in Public Relations,” says Dena Allen (U’99). “I was a good writer and I wanted to tell stories and connect people in a way that would make it a force for good.” Unlike many of her university peers, Dena did not enter into her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Communications degree with the desire to emerge as a journalist – “I didn’t want to be on TV doing the evening news,” she says. “I wanted to be able to focus on issues I cared about.” Dena pictured herself someday working for a non-profit organization, but her first step after university was to accept a position to teach English in Japan. This allowed her the opportunity to travel around Southeast Asia, and what she saw there served as the “pattern interrupt” and led ultimately to a career focusing on international, humanitarian, and development work.
“Nothing in my experience as a middle-class Caucasian girl growing up in Regina prepared me for what I saw in rural Cambodia, in parts of Thailand, in Vietnam. I had never seen poverty like that and it was a defining moment for me because I had just spent years educating myself and I felt like I was missing a foundational understanding of the world that would allow me to contextualize my privilege.”
Back in Canada, Dena worked for the Canadian Red Cross in the organization’s Northern BC and Yukon Region, another formative experience for her: “I saw types of poverty and challenges around HIV in First Nations communities that rivaled what I’d seen in southern Africa, when I spent two years in Namibia volunteering for Voluntary Service Overseas. It opened my eyes to the fact that these are issues that span the globe. It’s not about ‘us’ and ‘them’ or ‘here’ and ‘there’. These are social justice issues that strike to the core of all of us.”
With a growing passion for social justice across the globe she completed her Master’s degree in International and Intercultural Communications at Royal Roads University in BC in 2007. Shortly after, she joined Plan International Canada, working for four “life-changing” years out of their Bangkok office. “You’re meeting twelve-year-old girls who are helping to end child marriage in their community. Or young boys who started gardens in their village to address food insecurity. They are combatting major social injustices and fighting for children’s rights. They are so passionate. It was inspiring.”
Back in Canada, Dena served on Plan International’s global Emergency Response Roster and was deployed as a communications expert on three crises: the 2010 Pakistan floods, the 2014 Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, and the 2015 Nepal earthquake. Each deployment served as “a really powerful illustration about how important stories are,” Dena says. “Being on the ground, talking to people who’ve been affected by these disasters and making that real for Canadians, I felt a deep responsibility to get it right – to showcase and speak to the strength, resourcefulness, humanity, and resilience of the people enduring the crisis. Telling that story is critical; it’s what sparks the connection and that’s what puts the machine of global support into action. That’s what gets the help where it needs to go.”
Today, Dena is VP of Communications & Public Engagement for Plan International Canada, working on children’s rights and amplifying the effect that girls’ empowerment has on combatting poverty. Clearly passionate about the power of communication to change the world, Dena has expertly melded her passion for social justice with her professional abilities. In a world that often leaves so many feeling disconnected, her ability to connect is now more important than ever.