Committed to the community

Students engage with Providence beyond Brown

By and
Senior Staff Writers
Thursday, May 26, 2016

Some students choose to exit the Brown bubble and spend their time outside of academics engaging with the Providence community.

This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2016

Looking beyond the familiar storefronts of Thayer Street, many Brown students enjoy venturing off of College Hill and engaging with the greater Providence community. For some, this engagement offers a fulfilling experience that helps shape their future career path. For many, it also contributes to a critical conversation on privilege and power dynamics.

Student engagement with Providence became the center of campus conversation in March, when the Swearer Center for Public Service released a draft of its strategic plan. The plan takes a three-pronged approach to community service, addressing the issues of student privilege, faculty engagement and compensation for volunteer work.

The plan drew criticism from student leaders at Swearer who said they were not adequately consulted and have concerns about a number of the proposed changes. But student advocates, Swearer community fellows and administrators agree on the importance of discussing the privilege that comes with attending an elite educational institution like Brown.

Privilege and partnerships

For Donald Brennan ’18, site director of the free SAT preparatory program Let’s Get Ready, attending Brown feels like a privilege. As a Providence native, Brennan recognizes that many local high school students do not consider college — much less Brown — an option.

“You’ll have students whose aspirations are not so high,” Brennan said. “They’ve never been afforded the opportunity to have those aspirations.”

For some Providence high school students and community members, coming to Brown to participate in social service programs can be difficult, Brennan said. The Rhode Island Public Transport Authority bus service is free for Brown community members but comes at a cost for many Providence residents, he added. In March, the price of RIPTA’s transfer fares and weekly and monthly passes increased.

The financial burden of the RIPTA fare ensures that “only the most motivated students will come — and arguably they are least likely to need your help,” Brennan said.

Betsy Shimberg, director of community partnerships at the Swearer Center, recalled a community partner telling her that Brown students’ privilege does manifest itself in their work at her local organization. The partner said Brown students show up wearing flip flops and tank tops, whereas Johnson and Wales students arrive in ties. Shimberg said the partner has started reading these cues as an indication of how invested Brown students are in their jobs.

Not many students pursuing community service work choose to stay in Providence after graduation, Shimberg said. Many students use their degree and the work experience they have gained at partner organizations to seek jobs elsewhere, she said.

Local community service organizations that partner with Brown often struggle to fill the resulting skills deficit that Brown students leave after they graduate or stop volunteering, Shimberg said. This can lead some community partners to question what they have really gained from the partnership, she said. For the partners, it can seem like “Brown students swoop in, and then they leave,” she said.

Sophie Yan ’16, a community fellow for Connect for Health, an organization previously known as Health Leads, which serves families at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Pawtucket, said her work has taught her a great deal about navigating privilege.

Prior to joining Connect for Health, Yan worked with other volunteer organizations on campus but felt unfulfilled at the end of her first year. Working with Connect for Health “helped me realize what bothered me so much about the community service that I was doing before,” said Yan, a former Herald staff writer.

Yan said she was not “critically examining” the circumstances of her volunteer work, which left her feeling helpless.

But advocates do understand that “we’re not doing this work because we’re special,” Yan said. “We’re not superheroes in any way,” she said, adding that all advocates undergo weekly training sessions during which they discuss aspects of social justice work and necessary skills for their role.

‘Back to its roots’

While drafting its strategic plan, members of the Swearer Center solicited community feedback on their proposal to foster stronger relationships between Brown students and community partners. One of the partners responded with the words, “Swearer has come back to its roots” in working directly with the community members the center seeks to help, said Swearer Center Director Mathew Johnson.

Shimberg said the process of soliciting community feedback relates to the concept of subsidiarity, which means that “the people closest to the work should be deciding what is appropriate.”

When Margaret House ’17 began interning for Planned Parenthood Rhode Island, she was struck by how poorly she understood the problems of the women seeking abortions. As a patient advocate and counsel, House is tasked with offering advice on reproductive health, contraception and post-surgical precautions.

“I tell them to take it easy for the next few days. Don’t lift anything heavy,” House said. But many patients cannot afford to heed this advice, House said. Patients often report to work the next day to avoid having their supervisors know about the abortion. Many also have small children at home and do not have any relatives willing to step in to allow them to rest.

“Sometimes what people need isn’t what you think they need,” House said, emphasizing the importance of tapping into the lived experience of many Providence residents.

While Brennan now oversees Let’s Get Ready, he started out as a participant in the program during high school. Having been in his students’ shoes only a few years before, Brennan tailors his college preparation advice to their specific needs. With access to information about students’ household incomes, Brennan helps students select colleges based on the likelihood of receiving comprehensive financial aid packages.

He also makes sure that his students are not discouraged by the large sticker prices of competitive institutions, since many have good financial aid programs. Many of his high school peers only applied to less competitive institutions, which may have less generous financial aid packages.

“I saw a lot of my peers make that mistake, applying to colleges where an acceptance was no more than a pat on the back in the end,” Brennan said. “Slowly they got locked out of options.”

Brennan also draws on his experience as a student in LGR to make his coaches — all of whom are Brown students — more aware of the language of accomplishment they use around students from underserved high schools. As a high school student, he walked into a class with Brown coaches expecting “super smart kids” and began blaming himself for failing to measure up to their achievements.

To avoid inadvertently making students feel inadequate, Brennan urges his coaches to contextualize their experiences. For instance, if coaches choose to share their AP scores, Brennan asks them to add that they had study guides to prepare for the AP exams. If a coach is explaining their high school cancer research project, Brennan asks them to explain how they were able to secure a position in a lab through family contacts, he added.

“Accomplishments don’t just pop up miraculously for people who happen to be blessed with them. Some people know how to navigate these things,” Brennan said, adding that coaches’ acknowledgment of their privilege prevents students from being defeatist about their own educational prospects.

“We want to show that Brown is possible,” Brennan said. “It’s not like coaches have some remarkable ability. They worked hard at what they did, and that’s how they got here.”

Four years or forever

For some students, community engagement is more than a co-curricular or extracurricular activity. Social service work is where they discover their calling.

Writer’s Group Community Fellow Will Adams ’16 entered Brown unsure of his career path. Four years later, Adams is certain that he wants to continue facilitating creative writing workshops for adults with developmental disabilities after graduation.

“I’ve loved it enough to know that it’s what I want to do with my life,” Adams said. “We were providing something that was wanted.”

While on the wrestling team at Brown, Billy Watterson ’15.5 reluctantly participated in the team’s outreach efforts at a local school. Just as he was about to walk into a classroom, a teacher pulled him aside. The teacher told Watterson that many of the students in class were low-income.

Watterson, a former Herald contributing writer, recalled asking students what their dream jobs were. The answers he received included working in a grocery store and a gas station, he said.

As a middle school student, Watterson received poor grades while trying to manage his attention deficit disorder. Wrestling was the reason he stayed in school and attended college, Watterson said, adding that “it turned my life around.”

Watterson said he was shocked to see the state of middle school sports in most Providence public schools. During his junior year, he started Beat the Streets, a nonprofit committed to starting wrestling teams in schools across Providence.

For Watterson, the decision to settle in Providence after graduation and expand Beat the Streets was a no-brainer. The Swearer Center enabled him to work on Beat the Streets full-time through an Embark Post-Graduate Fellowship, which provides funding to graduating students pursuing social and commercial entrepreneurship in Providence.

Watterson urged fellow Brunonians to “shift their mindset” and consider building longterm relationships in Providence.“These kids have had so many people walk in and walk out of their lives,” he said. “If you disappear, it’s worse than if you never provided it at all.”

Recently, House has found herself reflecting on the debt of gratitude she owes Providence for the part the city has played in her education.

“We take a lot from it as students. We should consider sticking around,” she said.

In Shimberg’s view, students can invest in the future of a social justice organization or movement without physically remaining in Providence after graduation. They can accomplish this by empowering individuals around them to continue their work.

“It’s not the bodies. It’s the knowledge we want to stay,” Shimberg said.

A lasting impact

Adams does not know whether data exists that confirm the positive influence Writers’ Group has made on its participants. But Adams said he hopes the program succeeded “inasmuch as we made people happy for an hour once a week and made them feel that what they had to say was important.”

Writers’ Group differs from other Swearer and Brown programs in that it does not have an advocacy component. But Adams sees some similarities.

“We’re similar in that we think that creative writing encourages a feeling of agency and empowerment,” Adams said. Allowing the participants to express their own ideas outside of the confines of their daily lives is a powerful experience, he added.

Connect for Health advocates maintain relationships with their clients over extended periods of time as they work together to find resources, aiming to extend the impact of their service work.

Sarah Grace ’16, a Connect for Health community fellow, noted that more often than not, the work amounts to finding a Thanksgiving gift basket or diapers. Still, these relationships can have huge effects on both parties.

“The conversations we have with families are, yes, about connecting resources and also about validating the experiences people have,” Grace said. People thank the advocates for simply listening to them discuss their situations, even if the advocates cannot find everything they need, she said.

Those experiences are validating for both the family and the advocate, Yan said. But she noted that the advocates must strike a “balance between making yourself feel like a good person and actually making an impact.” The organization seeks students who are willing to make a lasting emotional commitment to the families, she added.

House said by gaining a wealth of new perspectives, she has helped herself more than anyone else in her work at Planned Parenthood. “I don’t pretend that I have done anything big,” she said.“I hope I have used my privileges to make someone’s life better, if only for a day.”

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