Service & Advocacy

Education and Service
Celebrating the Swearer Center for Public Service

By Christina Paxson / November–December 2021
October 29th, 2021

Brown students possess an unmistakable spark. Not only are they incredibly talented, creative, and collaborative, but they’re also fiercely determined to foster understanding and apply their knowledge to make meaningful change and solve the world’s most pressing problems. One of the many ways in which Brown students do this is through the Swearer Center for Public Service, one of the nation’s foremost centers for public engagement that inextricably links education and service.

The Swearer Center has long played a critical role in preparing Brown students for responsible citizenship while also serving the greater Providence community through more than 80 community partnerships. Today, the Center continues to set the standard in higher education for building these skills in real time. This mission is more important than ever as our community and our world grapple with undeniably complicated issues from economic inequality to health disparities and climate change. 

Last year we welcomed the center’s new executive director, Mary Jo Callan, a leading scholar and practitioner of community-engaged scholarship and service, who is continuing to deepen Brown’s commitment to public service, engaged scholarship, and social innovation in Providence and across Rhode Island. Mary Jo, who has extensively researched partnerships between universities and the public sector with a focus on equity, says she’s particularly excited to lead these efforts at a time when this work matters so deeply to students and to Brown’s community stakeholders.

Despite the many challenges the COVID-19 pandemic imposed on in-person engagement in the past year, Brown students continually reimagined opportunities and found creative new pathways for their efforts.

The Brown Charter calls on the College to prepare students for “discharging the offices of life with usefulness and reputation.”

 

For example, students who worked with a housing organization that typically provided in-person outreach to individuals facing homelessness in Providence quickly pivoted. Instead, they pursued supply drives for food and other necessities and advocated for a statewide moratorium on evictions. Students teaching adult learners and those learning English as a second language transitioned to remote learning.

Meanwhile, other students led an effort to encourage full student participation in the 2020 election. Instead of in-person rallies and seminars, students who led the Brown Votes initiative developed a website packed with information and community resources.

Perhaps most importantly, students said developing quick changes in approach while continuing their service only strengthened their relationship with community partners—and their drive to make a difference.

More recently, students working with the Swearer Center have partnered with faculty to increase awareness around the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccinations. Other efforts endeavor to engage even more students in experiential learning. A new Community-based Learning and Research Fellowship, launched last year, pairs students with faculty to help develop engaged curricula across a range of concentrations. These students then serve as peer mentors in community engagement.

The Swearer Center also plays a key role in Brown’s longstanding partnership with the Providence Public School District. For more than two decades, nearly 100 Brown students have regularly participated in Brown After School Mentoring, providing enrichment at Providence’s William D’Abate Elementary School. And the Center’s Bonner Community Fellows program, which matches predominantly low-income, first-generation college and underrepresented students with local community organizations to support their academic goals, often connects students in partnership with local public schools.

The Swearer Center demonstrates that how a university organizes itself can establish a framework that builds habits, values, and practices of responsible citizenship. The Brown Charter calls on the College to prepare students for “discharging the offices of life with usefulness and reputation.” Today, those words are as important as ever. Through the Swearer Center, Brown continues to heed this call.

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