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Swearer Center grapples with history, identity under new strategic plan

Philosophy in strategic plan shifts from direct service to emphasis on community partnerships

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

“I started college in 2008 … (when) there was a tent city in Providence,” said Beth Caldwell ’12.

The housing crisis drew Caldwell to join Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere ­— a group that serves the immediate needs of the city’s homeless population — during her freshman year. As she became more involved, Caldwell realized that Brown’s resources and research could be invaluable to the community if properly leveraged.

Her interest in combining service and academic learning — called engaged scholarship — represents the Swearer Center’s broader evolution over the last 10 years. In 2016, the Swearer Center drafted a 10-year strategic plan in an effort to formalize the University’s commitment to engaged scholarship. The plan also aimed to mitigate long-standing concerns that Brown had been impressing its values on the greater Providence community.

Since then, the Swearer Center has undergone a period of tense and controversial transition. Though many students credit much of these changes to Swearer Center Director Mathew Johnson, who was charged with creating the plan, the development of the center’s philosophy began years before his arrival.

Former University President Howard Swearer founded the center in 1986 as one of the first hubs for public service on a college campus, said Dean of the College Mandel. He placed the center in the office of the dean of the College to “structurally underscore that service and education were linked,” she added.

The Swearer Center began its transition to combine service and academics under Roger Nozaki MAT’89, director of the Swearer Center from 2005 to 2014, Mandel said. “The beginnings of the strategic plan … predated me and (Johnson).”

Prior to Johnson’s arrival, not all students and programs engaged with the expertise of community partners, Mandel said. Hundreds of students spent free time volunteering, but few linked their service to their learning, she added.

Returning to the center’s original goal, the University’s 2013 Building on Distinction strategic plan aimed to strengthen the links between academics and public service.

Nozaki recalls students discussing “their two separate lives” — one connected to service and the other to academics, he said. The arrival of President Christina Paxson’s P’19 spurred the creation of programming that links scholarship and service, Nozaki said.

As part of Paxson’s Building on Distinction plan, the Swearer Center initiated a series of programs that became the backbone of its strategic plan in 2016. Johnson continued to build off of Paxson’s plan as he moved forward with previously existing initiatives and created new programs, Mandel said.

Established about 20 years ago, the Royce Fellowship was one of the first programs that funded projects to link service with learning and currently provides summer grants for student research, Mandel said. In 2013, the University created the now-defunct Tri-Lab, a research seminar for students that linked the community in collaborative work with the classroom, Johnson said. Each semester, the seminar identified a problem in the community and attempted to create concrete solutions, The Herald previously reported. For instance, one seminar addressed prisoner health and education. Though it was a popular program, the resource-intensive seminar was financially unsustainable given the small number of students it served, Johnson said.

The Engaged Scholars Program, which launched in spring 2015 and incorporates public service into academic concentrations, drew upon the success of Tri-Lab to create a scaled-up and more financially stable version of the program. The ESP was developed under Nozaki’s leadership and launched under former interim Director of the Swearer Center Kate Trimble. The Building on Distinction plan highlighted the developing ESP as an area for potential growth.

As the Swearer Center developed its plan, it sought to address its history of sometimes inconsiderate and unethical impositions on the Providence community, according to multiple Swearer Center students, staff members and alums.

The fear of ignorant and harmful ideas is embedded in the culture of the Swearer Center, which serves more than 100 community organizations and involves more than 1,500 students, said Eli Beck ’17, a community fellow for the Outdoor Leadership Environmental Education Program. Every student interviewed for this series mentioned the fear of imposing on the community when participating in service for the Swearer Center, but none identified specific examples of past incidents.

Before officially becoming director in January 2016, Johnson worked as a University consultant and spoke with community partners ­— nonprofit organizations that serve the needs of greater Providence in areas such as healthcare and education — to develop an understanding of their relationships with Swearer. He discovered common threads of discontent, primarily centered around some students’ lack of understanding and respect for community organizations.

Several partners spoke of students’ lack of humility, Johnson said. Many even preferred students from other universities who were “on time and followed direction.”

Brown students were often “late, unprofessionally dressed and tried to tell employees how to do their job,” he said. “Many (community) partners felt like they were spending too much time training (Brown) students” in professionalism, their position within society and relationships.

“Community members also reported frustration about what they call Brown pop-ups,” he said. Students often created new programs to address an issue they witnessed in the community rather than working with an existing program. After the students who created the programs left the University, many of those organizations fell apart, leaving the community bereft of needed services, he said.

Community partners on the 2015 search committee for the center’s new director echoed the sentiment, expressing frustration with Brown students who volunteered in the city for a summer, only to leave after 13 weeks without finishing projects, Mandel said.

This criticism extends as far back as 2011. “Undergraduate tutors are too transient” in Providence public schools, said Zack Mezera ’13, The Herald previously reported.

Mezera, who still lives in Providence, now works as the executive director of the Providence student union, an organization he developed with the center’s support. “Brown students still … share their opinions without … considering the context or putting in the time to understand what the community actually needs,” he said. He added that Swearer Center is “very self conscious” of that student-community dynamic and does “a great job of encouraging conversations” on the subject.


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