To plan a transformative future, Brown staff reflect on lessons from a year like no other

Over four days, hundreds of employees participated in a slate of programs that combined traditional Staff Development Day favorites with pervasive themes of the past year: care, connection and community.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — It would be difficult to find something that hasn’t changed over the past year and half, given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic across the globe. But on the Brown University campus, President Christina H. Paxson said there’s at least one thing that has remained steadfast.

“Whenever I talk about what makes Brown such a special place to work and learn, the answer is simple,” Paxson said in a Monday, June 7, virtual address kicking off the 27th annual Staff Development Days. “It’s the people.”

This year’s four-day event — compared with the typical one-day professional development event in most years — was a testament, Paxson said, to the dedication of the Brown employees who worked to sustain a motivated, compassionate and collaborative community during a time of upheaval and uncertainty.

The arrival of the pandemic canceled last year’s Staff Development Day, where gathering as a community is a tradition for staff who participate. But this time around, “with over 14 months of remote working under our belts, we feel much differently about successfully building and maintaining community,” in virtual format, said Darlene Williamson, assistant director of talent development programs.

On a campus still emerging from a fragile public health situation, some staples of Staff Development Day were simply not feasible; there were no in-person community service events like in previous years, and in lieu of the traditional day-end celebration, staff and their families were invited attend nightly drive-in movies in North Smithfield, Rhode Island.

If we come together as a community, work together, help each other and support each other, then we’re actually stronger as an institution. We’re only as strong as our community is strong.

Richard M. Locke Provost

But the virtual format did offer significant benefits not seen in years past, one being the sheer amount of programming — more than 55 unique sessions held over four days. With no constraints on physical space or limits on registration slots, attendance soared; within the first two days of registration, more than 600 employees had signed up to attend, and sessions like “A Virtual Tour of the Brown Herbarium” were able to accommodate more than 100 attendees, rather than the usual 20.

There was a real imperative, Williamson said, to gather staff to connect and thrive, which inspired this year’s incredibly diverse slate of programs. From seminars on allyship and addressing anti-Black racism, to a staff show-and-tell inspired by the Great British Bake-Off, to workshops on well-being and managing change, the event took on the challenge of condensing the climate of the last year into sessions that highlighted how to use those experiences to inform the future.

One session in which those insights were abundantly clear was titled “Lessons from the Pandemic: Looking Forward,” hosted by Provost Richard M. Locke.

From housing frontline responders and providing emergency financial aid to students to extending health insurance coverage to recent graduates, avoiding employee layoffs and much more, Locke outlined the actions the University took to support the community during the pandemic. None were planned for in the budget, but Locke said they were simply the right thing to do in a perilous moment.

“I think that they reflect the core values of Brown, and [those values] served as a north star for us as we were navigating challenge after challenge and a tremendous amount of uncertainty,” he said.

If values were what prompted these efforts, data is what kept them going.

Numbers confirmed that Brown’s efforts to protect health and safety and maintain as much continuity as possible on campus were largely successful. A robust COVID-19 testing program helped to prevent virus spread, with low numbers of positive cases compared with the rest of the state. Despite having to close laboratories and move most students, faculty and staff off campus temporarily, the number of proposals and research expenditures climbed. Faculty overwhelmingly felt prepared to teach remotely thanks to the training programs offered by the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, Locke noted, and course feedback surveys pointed to higher satisfaction rates with remote instruction than in pre-COVID-19.

Whenever I talk about what makes Brown such a special place to work and learn, the answer is simple. It’s the people.

Christina H. Paxson President

It is evident, Locke said, that this time of adversity led to great creativity and innovation — the impacts of which position Brown to be even more successful than just a few years ago.

“If we come together as a community, work together, help each other and support each other — and there were many, many times when all of us really needed that support — then we’re actually stronger as an institution,” Locke said. “We’re only as strong as our community is strong.”

A different panel titled “Engaging Together While Separated,” featured students who worked closely with community organizations in Providence and beyond through the Swearer Center. The center and its affiliated student organizations partner with a wide range of health, justice and education-based nonprofits, schools and other agencies.

But COVID-19 threw a massive wrench into any in-person engagement. Students in Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE) were no longer able to provide on-the-street outreach to individuals facing homelessness in Providence. For teaching organizations like the Partnership for Adult Learning (PAL) and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), in-person meetings suddenly shut down. And in the case of Brown Votes, the pandemic and volatile political climate upended civic engagement and changed the way elections are held.

Despite these glaring roadblocks, all were able to successfully pivot their efforts. HOPE pursued multiple supply drives, getting crucial items and food into the hands of people who need them most, and advocated for a statewide moratorium on evictions. PAL and ESOL transitioned to remote learning, which the leaders said made certain elements of teaching — such as the use of interactive online materials — much easier and led to increased recruitment. Instead of in-person rallies and seminars, Brown Votes developed a robust website packed with information and community resources.

Most importantly, the student leaders said, the quick changes in approach and continuation of service only strengthened the relationships with community partners. They worked together, relied on each other, bonded throughout a tumultuous time to solve problems, and came out better for it.

Just as the Swearer Center and the organizations it partners with leaned into the idea of community problem-solving, so too did the greater Brown community. In fact, Locke said, it was the reason the University was able to navigate the countless challenges it faced this year, and it’s the attitude he expects to prevail going forward.

“It didn’t matter what your title was, what office you worked in, what your grade level was, or what your background was — everyone mattered,” he said. “Everyone was valued, and it was only through that kind of mutual dependence and solidarity that we were able to get through.”