As the recently elected Mayor of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, Amanda Dewey is actively proving how a background in sociology can lead to a rewarding career in environmental advocacy and local politics.
Dewey discovered sociology as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University, immediately becoming immersed in the courses she enrolled in.
“I stumbled upon sociology not knowing what that really was, and taking my first classes I realized how much it was questioning my assumptions about how the world worked,” Dewey said. “And about how much we can all learn from the social sciences—sociology in particular.”
After graduating from Vanderbilt in 2013, Dewey went on to become an organizer for the Endangered Species Coalition, a grassroots organization that advocates on behalf of endangered wildlife and other environmental issues in the United States. Her environmental focus on sociology had formed when she was an undergraduate student and ultimately, the job was what led Dewey to pursue graduate school. When she’d heard that the University of Maryland had an Environmental Sociology specialization within the Sociology department, Dewey applied and began her studies in 2015.
Three years later, while continuing her graduate studies at UMD and serving as a board member for the Endangered Species Coalition, Dewey became a council member for the town of Berwyn Heights, Maryland. In June of this year, she was elected mayor.
While the transition and connecting with constituents has proved more challenging amid COVID-19, Dewey welcomed the opportunity to learn and to advocate on behalf of her town.
“I care a lot about my community, which is what inspired me to get involved in the first place,” Dewey said. “I get to learn about all sorts of issues that I didn’t even know existed prior to this. The things that come up—every week, every month—are different.”
With her research focused primarily on social psychology and identity, Dewey approached sociology projects in the same way she navigates her role as mayor. As she studies how people understand themselves, Dewey combines an ability to talk about issues with an understanding of where people are coming from.
“I think a lot of what I’ve learned in my research and a lot of what I do can really apply to all sorts of social issues and the values and identities that people hold, which can allow me to sort of speak their language,” Dewey said. “So it’s been really helpful when we have a contingent issue or people on different sides, and understanding what’s underlying these dynamics.”
When asked how she balances her commitments between education and local politics, Dewey explained how her roles as a graduate instructor, researcher and mayor each informs and benefits the others.
“It’s helping me to avoid burnout, I think in some sense, because I’m not focused on just that one thing,” she said. “It’s something I always recommend to folks: find something—no matter what it is—find something else in addition to your graduate work, because it actually helps your graduate work. It’s good to have multiple things.”
Dewey especially appreciates how her position serves as a reminder that she can make change amid such a turbulent time and keeps her from becoming overwhelmed by current events.
“We’ve got a major election, we’ve got a pandemic, we’ve got a reckoning with racial injustice—the list can go on and on and it can be really easy to feel overwhelmed, or sort of hopeless,” she said. “When I feel that way, when I feel like something’s got to change, I feel so lucky that I get to make some change—even though it’s small and just in my own community.”
Between listening to the concerns of her constituents and having access to other elected officials and decision-makers, Dewey looks forward to continuing to use her sociology studies and experiences to improve the lives of those in Berwyn Heights and beyond.
“I’m really grateful for the opportunity to do and contribute,” she said. “I have the opportunity to act. The opportunity to make change, I think, is a privilege in a lot of ways.”