Get to know our new Executive Director, Mary Jo Callan

A scholar and educator focused on advancing equity to build healthy, inclusive, and vibrant communities, Mary Jo joined Brown University on May 17, 2021
October 22, 2021

Dr. Mary Jo Callan has devoted her career to collaborating with others to advance equity as a means to build healthy, inclusive, and vibrant communities. Now, as the Stark Family Executive Director of the Swearer Center for Public Service and Associate Dean of the College for Engaged Scholarship at Brown University, Mary Jo is leading the Swearer Center in new and innovative ways towards founder and Brown President Howard Swearer’s vision of community and civic engagement as a powerful and formative part of a Brown education. 

“The challenges we face as a community, a nation, and a world require change toward inclusion, engagement, and justice, beginning with our figurative and literal neighbors,” explained Mary Jo. “I came to the Swearer Center and Brown University more broadly because of its reputation and history of attracting students who are genuinely committed to working for justice. Brown’s stated interest in deepening engagement with Providence and Rhode Island communities added to my excitement about what’s possible here. Place matters. Justice matters. Leadership matters. I am excited to be a part of a team and institution that models and catalyzes student learning to lead the change we need.”

Prior to coming to Brown, Mary Jo served as director of the Edward Ginsberg Center, a civic and community engagement center at the University of Michigan. She was an editor for the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, a research journal on the theory and pedagogy of community engagement and service learning in higher education. 

“We are so excited to have Mary Jo as part of the Brown community!" noted Rashid Zia, Dean of the College. "Her experiences as a community partner, a higher education leader, and a scholar have provided her with the skills needed to move the Swearer Center forward and ensure that its work is aligned with Brown’s mission and the needs of the Providence and greater Rhode Island communities.”

Mary Jo’s passion for public service was ignited while earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Michigan. She pursued this passion throughout her career, working with K-12 schools, local governments, and youth-serving nonprofits. Her time at Ozone House, a youth development and housing organization, was particularly formative as she learned alongside young people to stand up, organize, and persist for socially just change. 

“Members of the hiring committee were focused on finding a candidate who is warm and able to connect well with students, prioritize student input in Swearer Center decisions, and is willing and ready to center the voices of Providence,” noted Bonner Community Fellow Ishani Mehta ‘22, who served as a student representative on the search committee. “I'm excited to see Mary Jo Callan use her knowledge of a much bigger institution (University of Michigan) to help us amplify and scale our impact and growth here at Swearer.”

As the founding director of the Office of Community and Economic Development in Washtenaw County, Michigan, Mary Jo led cross-sector efforts to illuminate and address growing racial and economic inequities. 

Michelle Duso, a Swearer Center partner and member of the Community Advisory Board who served on the search committee, noted, “I value demonstrated commitment to deep, meaningful relationships with the community, the centering of equity, and transparency. Mary Jo joins us with experience as a nonprofit leader, and a track record of bridging the gap between community and academia with a collaborative, justice-centered approach. I’m looking forward to working with Mary Jo to deepen and grow the voices and agency of the community as we work in partnership for a more just world.”

Mary Jo’s research has focused primarily on partnerships between universities and social or public sector organizations, with a particular emphasis on equity and reciprocity in these partnerships. She earned her doctorate in educational policy and leadership at the College of William and Mary. 

“I am very excited to work with Mary Jo,” noted Dawn King, Senior Lecturer in Environment and Society at Brown, who also served on the search committee. “Her years of experience as a leader, collaborator, and educator, coupled with her understanding that relationships and trust are key to creating positive impact, makes her a great fit for the Swearer program.”

Mary Jo assumed leadership of the Center from Betsy Shimberg, who served as the Interim Director from February 2020 through May 2021. After working at the Swearer Center since 2012, most recently as Director of Student Development, Associate Dean, and Interim Director, in June 2021, Betsy transitioned to a new role as the Senior Associate Dean of the College for Co-curricular and Experiential Learning at Brown. 

“I am very excited to welcome Mary Jo to the Swearer Center,” said Shimberg. “After serving in the interim director position for the last year and working with Mary Jo over the past few months to help her transition to her new role, I am certain that her enthusiasm, strong background, commitment to equity, appreciation of community, and visionary leadership are exactly what the Center needs.”

“We are grateful to all of the staff in the Swearer Center for their hard work and dedication throughout this transition, and particularly grateful to Betsy Shimberg for her exceptional service as Interim Director," reflected Zia. "Her leadership enabled the Center to continue its critical work in the midst of a global pandemic, and left Swearer in a strong position as Mary Jo takes the helm.”

Mary Jo reflected, “In my first few months at Brown University, I have already been inspired and impressed by the dedication, compassion, and good work of our Swearer community. During this time of transition and growth, I want our students, faculty, and community partners to know that I am here to listen and learn from them, to build on their excellent work, and to nurture enduring relationships and collaborative experiences that align with our mission to advance positive sustainable change.”