Whitney Pennington Rodgers has dedicated her journalism career to amplifying voices that usually go unheard.
As the inaugural Current Affairs Curator for TED, the nonprofit known for producing short talks that frequently go viral, Pennington Rodgers makes sure women of color are represented as she helps curate the stories being told and gives a platform to those who are often ignored.
“Being a woman of color offers another lens through which to see the world,’’ said Pennington Rodgers, a 2007 graduate of the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. “A different current affairs curator of a different background would amplify different stories than I do and even another woman of color might amplify other stories, based on whatever her experiences are. Every story you see is being presented to you because somebody thought it was important and was worth covering.’’
In her role, Pennington Rodgers and her team work to secure speakers who offer revolutionary solutions to some of the world’s most prevalent problems. She gets to highlight urgent topics that have captured public attention—often addressing issues that are important to her like women’s rights, Black Lives Matter initiatives, health care, the impacts of COVID-19 and more.
She believes in the idea that those who have a seat at the table control the narrative, so it’s important to have a diverse set of people at that table.
“TED is not focused in the traditional way that regular news is focused, which is just telling you what’s going on in the world currently,’’ Pennington Rodgers said. “Our tagline is ‘Ideas worth spreading,’ so we're always forward thinking about how we can use the issues and movements that we're seeing out in the world and finding the inspiration or idea to change it or make it better, which is not always the focus that I had as a journalist.”
Pennington Rodgers came to Rutgers planning to study marketing, but after taking her first journalism class, she realized it was a career path that could help her amplify issues she cared about most. She started working at Rutgers to put issues of women and people of color at the forefront as a member and then chair of the Douglass Black Students’ Congress, co-chair of the United Black Council and as an Institute for Women’s Leadership scholar.
After graduation, Pennington Rodgers taught with Teach for America, then completed her master's in documentary film production at University of California-Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
She has covered some of the most culture-shifting moments of the last decade, although it was difficult at first to make her voice heard as she pushed to tell hard-hitting stories that highlighted serious issues.
“The stories that I was interested in were stories about communities of color and the issues that affect them,” Pennington Rodgers said. “Finding opportunities to tell those stories felt important to me, but I think it was sometimes a challenge, depending on where I was working and what angle they wanted to take.”
Before starting her job at TED, Pennington Rodgers worked on several high-profile shows at NBC News including The Today Show, Nightly News, and Dateline, where she helped produce stories about the sexual assault allegations against actor Bill Cosby. She was part of the team behind an hour-long special that aired around the time a routine by comedian Hannibal Buress brought the allegations against Cosby back into focus.
“That opportunity to really highlight those stories was for the greater good, and I was happy to be part of that work,” she said. “The ways that we, as a society, think about the stories of people who are survivors of sexual violence and sexual discrimination and seeing the ways in which #MeToo has impacted society, created a wave that I don't think anybody really anticipated.”
At TED, Pennington Rodgers works to scope out problems before they become a mainstream topic of discussion.
“I’ve had to switch the way that I think about stories,’’ Pennington Rodgers said. “It's not enough to just talk about the problem. Really, it’s to understand the solution and maybe a solution that we haven't considered before, and that feels much more impactful than just telling the story.”
Some of her recent work has focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and how to move forward to fix societal problems and create a better world for everyone.
“All the news seems to be connected to the pandemic in some way,” Pennington Rodgers said. “Even in this moment, the movement around Black lives has been amplified, due to the death of George Floyd, among others."
“You know that people are experiencing challenges that have been going on for a long time, thinking about wage inequality and systemic racism. And seeing it play out made people really tired of sitting around and waiting for justice to happen,’’ she said.
Pennington Rodgers said that her time at TED has made her more of an optimist.
“It is important to see the good in a sea of bad,” said the West Orange resident, who is preparing to welcome her first child with her husband. “It’s so easy to get swept up in the news cycle that you can forget to slow down and enjoy those small moments of happiness. It’s okay to be happy sometimes, too."