Response to the Community Engaged Scholarship and Action: A New Plan for the Swearer Center for Public Service

In a very brief period of time, the Swearer Center for Public Service, now Swearer Center for Engaged Scholarship and Action, has announced wide-sweeping and radical changes to its operations, values, and vision. These changes, articulated in Community Engaged Scholarship and Action: A New Plan for the Swearer Center for Public Service and by Swearer Center staff members, will impact undergraduate students participating in the programs, community agencies partnering with those students, and most importantly, Providence residents on the engaged in Swearer programs. Radical change, given the long history of the Swearer Center’s irresponsible and oppressive interactions with Providence residents, is decidedly necessary. However, the Swearer Center has done an inadequate job of including student and community input and feedback in their planning processes. Moreover, the center has yet to explicitly detail proposed implementation strategies for the changes, or to acknowledge the potential for institutional harm resulting from the plan’s broad restructuring of the center. Swearer Center administrators have provided no concrete solutions to mitigate the issues that result from this restructuring. Concrete solutions to these problems are urgent. This breach of trust, lack of transparency and lack of respect for community and student knowledge has damaged the relationship between students and the center, and will inevitably damage the center’s already tenuous relationships with community members as the process moves forward. As a result, students deeply invested in Swearer Center programming submit the following list of concerns, demands, and actions. The center should take responsibility to ameliorate the damage it has done and prevent further harm to students and Providence residents:

  1. The center must create critically conscious, comprehensive and well-communicated plans to support students and families who will have services removed from them as a result of funding re-allocations, programmatic shifts, and the move to Engaged Scholarship. These plans must be communicated to and consulted by compensated students and community members. No individual should be left without a service formerly offered to them by the Center without a clear plan of alternative support. Failure to do so is an act of institutional violence by the Center.
  1. Swearer’s current model for direct service places decision-making power about which programs and resources will be provided to the community in the hands of the Brown community. In doing so, the center marginalizes the voices of Providence communities by not valuing the knowledge and expertise existing within those communities and assuming Brown knows what’s best for the community. This is unacceptable, especially when many of the actors in the Swearer Center are not Providence natives and Brown students are entering and exiting Brown so rapidly. In “reconsidering” current models of direct service, the center must engage in critical and transparent dialogue about which partners it will be working with. The center must carefully consider the potential burden placed on community partners in asking them to take ownership of community programs and, in some cases, whether those partners truly reflect the communities with which they work. Many community partners may be underfunded, overworked, and understaffed. This makes supervising Brown students an extreme burden to shoulder. In making changes, the center must consider community partner capacity, physical ability, available funds and access to funding, and personnel resources. It is also crucial to recognize that Providence residents are regularly policed and profiled when on and around Brown’s campus. Moreover, some community members are barred from engaging in Swearer programs and rejected from job opportunities through background checks instituted by Swearer and other institutions on campus. Asking partners to meet Swearer staff and students on campus or at the TRI-Lab is burdensome on some community members in terms of the time and money expended to travel to campus, and also asks them to come to a campus that has historically been threatening to their personal safety.
  1. In addition to considering the burden these changes may impose on community partners in terms of time, monetary and personnel resources, the center must consider who these changes are benefitting. University interactions should never be burdensome to community members, and if there must be a choice between educating students and serving community members and partners, the community member’s needs, voice, and concerns must always come first. This is particularly important considering histories of marginalization that have been perpetuated by Brown, and by extension the Swearer Center, on the largely low-income, Providence communities of color that many Swearer programs work in. For example, the Center must work to include the voices of people formerly or currently incarcerated at institutions such as the Adult Correctional Institution and learners in Swearer programs who are differently abled.
  1. Appointments to the Community Advisory Board mentioned in the plan must include individuals who receive services from programs in the center, not only administrators and staff members of community partner organizations. The board must be created and consulted before any major programmatic and funding re-allocation decisions are made. The Board’s role within the center, including the level of decisions they would or would not be consulted on, must be communicated clearly and publicly.
  1. The center must contextualize its actions and mission within Brown’s history and role in settler colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade, and how both have contributed to the University’s enduring legacy of classism, racism, and elitism. This means naming Brown University as a structure central to creating many of the same disparities and oppressive structures the center claims to be working against. The center should engage the scholarship of the Report of the Brown Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice in this work. As part of new co-curricular training endeavors, every administrator, staff member, and student volunteer must read the report and participate in facilitated and intentional dialogue.
  1. Furthermore, the center should consult faculty in Ethnic Studies, American Studies, and Public Humanities (scholars who have long prioritized engaged scholarship in their work) to think critically about the ways in which the language of the current strategic plan is lacking, particularly around topics of race, class, ethnicity, and systems of oppression embedded in the work of the center. These scholars should be compensated and acknowledged for their work.
  1. The Swearer Center must consciously address the sexism, cissexism, and transphobia present in the behavior and decisions of the Swearer Center. The leadership structure of the Swearer Center should be interrogated through intersectional feminist frameworks. Staff should receive training on how to interact with each other and students in ways that do not silence the voices of those based on their gender identity. Specifically, Director Mathew Johnson (as the cisgender male director of a center comprised of majority non-male students and staff members) must be held accountable for the way his actions may perpetuate sexism across the entire center.
  1. The Diversity Inclusion and Action Plan must be drafted in consultation with paid students of color and paid Providence community members engaged in anti-racist work. The plan must name explicit actions that will be taken before the end of the current calendar year, in conjunction with the entry of the first class of Bonner Fellows. The plan should address concerns beyond interpersonal interactions, and take accountability for the ways in which the center has institutionally perpetuated racist and classist ideologies. The center should implement support structures for students of color including POC only spaces for community-building and healing, POC staff that serve mentoring roles for students of color, regular events for students of color, etc.
  1. Along with the Diversity Inclusion and Action plan, the center needs immediate systems of accountability. We demand the implementation of a platform for students who hold marginalized identities to name their experiences with discrimination and to hold staff members of the Swearer Center accountable. The processes of this system of accountability must be transparent and well-communicated to students.
  1. On page 19, the Strategic Plan reads, “we pledge not to place the onus of this work on the shoulders of unpaid students or colleagues whose understanding of these issues from personal experience may surpass our own.” The Swearer Center must compensate students who have already put in hundreds of hours of labor over the past two weeks to hold the Center accountable for its actions and poorly thought out plans.

While these demands and changes are specific to the changes to direct service programming, they are indicative of a broader ideological and institutional shift within the center. Change in the perspective and operations of the Swearer Center is absolutely necessary, but critical dialogue about these changes is equally necessary. As the Strategic Plan itself notes, the language of “Public Service” currently used by the center is paternalistic and lacks an awareness of the agency, self-empowerment, and resistance that already exist within Providence communities. The language of “Engaged Scholarship and Action” presents similar concerns. The term “engaged scholarship” positions the needs and experiences of Brown Students above the needs and experiences of Providence residences. The term fails to acknowledge the role Brown has played throughout history in perpetuating oppression and inequality in Providence, and the responsibility attached to this history. If the Swearer Center and Brown University claim to act justly and respectfully towards individuals and communities in Providence, they must hold themselves accountable for the ways in which their focus on student experiences negatively affect Providence residents who engage with Swearing programming.

In the draft Strategic Plan, the Swearer Center has espoused ideals of reciprocity, student input, and valuing the community. Not only are the actions of the past two weeks antithetical to these ideals, they reflect the center’s investment in cycles of oppression.

The Swearer Center for Engaged Scholarship and Action is accepting feedback to their new plan until Friday, March 25. Feel free to copy and paste the response into this form!

Signed,

Maria Isabel Diaz ‘17

Cecilia Garza ‘17

Ricardo Jaramillo ‘18

Brenda Morales ‘18

Sarah Novicoff ‘18

Vanessa Somchith ‘17

Olivia Veira ‘17

 

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