News, University News

Swearer balances strategic plan with community partnerships

Center to continue increasing staff diversity as some partnerships expand, others leave

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 12, 2017
This article is part of the series A Shifting Swearer

This story is the third in a three-part series about the ongoing evolution of the Swearer Center for Public Service and its philosophy in relationship to the community.

Growing up in the west end of Providence, Joshua Rodriguez learned to play the viola with Community MusicWorks, a community program offering free music lessons. Years later, and Rodriguez now works at the Swearer Center for Public Service, where he began coordinating partnerships between the center and the surrounding community in August 2016.

Rodriguez’s recent hire is one example of the sweeping changes outlined in a 10-year strategic plan. And while the plan aims to improve the Swearer Center’s accountability and reshape relationships with students and community partners, its future implications pose challenges for existing stakeholders. As the center attempts to mitigate these concerns with its philosophical shift, it continues to forward key parts of its plan to diversify its staff and student population and create systems of accountability.

Community partnerships today

While the Swearer Center is re-branding to focus on the community, that re-branding seems superficial, said Cathy, a student who requested anonymity because she risks jeopardizing her position in Swearer.

As the Swearer Center pivots to give community partners greater agency, some older programs question their future with the center.

“I assume our partnership (with the Outdoor Leadership Environmental Education Program) is not going to be a possibility from Swearer” in the next year, said Joe Battaglia, director of curriculum and instruction at the Met High School in Providence. The Swearer Center complicated the partnership with OLEEP when it asked the Met to work with the Boys and Girls Club, Battaglia said. “It’s off-site, it’s at a different time. … It’s just a lot of things that don’t really work for us.”

The Met — where OLEEP and Sexual Health Advocacy through Peer Education are based — does not want increased community agency or responsibility, said Eli Beck ’18, a community fellow for OLEEP. The school is “super content with the way things were,” and the Swearer Center is forcing changes, he added.

Instead, Battaglia will attempt to work directly with Brown students to maintain OLEEP programming “by bypassing Swearer.” OLEEP and SHAPE have existed for more than 10 years as part of the high school programming at the Met, he said, adding that the changes make it difficult to see the value in a partnership anymore.

“I understand philosophically the changes they’re trying to put in place. … It’s the implementation of that philosophy that I’m still confused about,” Battaglia said. “No one knows what they’re talking about. … It’s very mission-driven.”

Swearer Center director Mathew Johnson agreed the center’s partnership with the Met may change.

“We will and already have lost some partnerships,” he said. Going forward, the Swearer Center will communicate consistently with community partners about their needs, added Dean of the College Maud Mandel.

Additionally, the center has requested project proposals from community partners. With these, the Swearer Center aims to create programs that best address community needs.

Bonner Fellow model

While Johnson is proud of how the Swearer Center has addressed community partners’ needs with the new Bonner Fellows Program, its implementation has incited student concern.

Community partners have expressed a need for long-term student commitment, Johnson said. To address that concern, Bonner fellows work with the same community organization all of their four years at Brown.

Though this benefits partners, many fellows wish they could switch programs more easily, said Bonner fellow Angie Kim ’20.

In another effort to meet community and University needs, the Bonner program will add 40 new fellows from the incoming freshman class each year, Johnson said.

But some fellows worry that there will not be enough work for the incoming freshmen. “If the OLEEP program gets more Bonner fellows, … I have no idea what tasks they will do,” Beck said.

Creating new programs could address this issue, Beck said, but that takes time. “It’s asking a lot” to assign first-years to work with new and potentially unstable partnerships, he added.

But Johnson said this is not a concern, as the center will continue to expand its staff.

Addressing student concern

A number of students within the center today remain silent about ongoing shift. Some felt that the Swearer Center did not consider their concerns as it created the strategic plan in spring 2016, said Naomi, a student working at the center who requested anonymity for fear of repercussions from her coworkers.

Student happiness with the strategic plan “depends on which (Swearer) program a student (is) involved in” and whether the plan will increase or decrease funding for that program, said Lauren Maunus ’19, a former member of the Swearer Center’s Student Advisory Committee — a group of students from across the Swearer Center who meet to voice concerns to Johnson.

Upon conversations with upperclassmen community fellows, the newer Bonner fellows were shocked to hear about the center’s tumultuous period of change — information Swearer Center administrators had failed to relay, said Bonner fellow Fariha Kohistani ’20. “We don’t know what’s going on in our own backyard.”

“Clearly, we have to do more” to address student concerns about transparency, Johnson said. In addition to the SAC, new leadership positions in the Bonner fellows program create lines of communication, he added.

But the Swearer Center cannot address student concerns if they are not voiced, said Betsy Shimberg, Swearer Center’s director of student development. Despite student backlash, the Swearer Center must move forward, she said. “It is not fair for students to ask us to stay static … because then we stay static, warts and all.”

A more diverse Swearer aims to reflect diverse community

The Swearer Center continues to push forward key aspects of the plan. Aligned with the center’s diversity initiatives, the Bonner fellows program attracts low-income and first-generation students, Johnson said. Students in leadership positions — called community fellows — previously received stipends after years of unpaid work, but the Bonner program offers $1,000 stipends for students on financial aid from the beginning.

This allows the center to attract students who traditionally could not afford to give up paid employment for unpaid service, Johnson said.

The changes in the Swearer Center’s budget also reflect efforts to improve diversity, Johnson said. The budget for staffing has increased by 12 percent, and the budget for student funding has increased by 10 percent. To offset the increases, food and programming costs have decreased by 10 percent.

The Swearer Center has also taken steps to recruit a diverse staff that reflects the community it serves, Johnson said. When he arrived, two out of 13 staff members identified as people of color — today 50 percent do.

Shimberg keeps the Swearer Center’s diversity and inclusion action plan pasted to a wall in her office, where she highlights and circles achievements.  “I’m really proud of the DIAP,” she said. It mandates that staff searches can only proceed if at least 50 percent of finalist candidates are people of color.

And the growing staff has bolstered the Swearer Center’s capacity to respond to its Providence partners, Johnson said.

Joshua Rodriguez is a member of a new team that engages daily with the community. “I have my ears to the ground. … I connect community partners with University resources and vice versa,” he said.

The University has also received tentative approval for an AmeriCorps VISTA grant, which will fund 10 full-time volunteers, seven of whom will be placed in community partner organizations, Johnson said.

Holding Swearer accountable

University and Swearer leadership have yet to seriously assess the strategic plan’s implementation, but Johnson is working to create a system that can hold the center accountable. A new assistant director for research and assessment collaborates with the University’s office of institutional research to evaluate the strategic plan, Johnson said.

The center is creating open lines of communication within the community and “actively soliciting feedback,” Rodriguez said, adding this was not the case before the strategic plan.

Additionally, the center aims to establish three new advisory committees by the end of the semester, including an academic advisory committee, a community advising committee and a national advisory committee.

At the national level, the Carnegie Classification for Community Engagement will measure the impact of Swearer Center programs in 2020.

But “the ultimate arbiter of our progress is the dean of the College,” Johnson said.

“I’m in very active collaboration with Dean Johnson to assess its programs,” Mandel said. “I will be reviewing assessment tools and working with the director to address issues as they arise.”

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