November 2022 Alumni Spotlight
In this month’s alumni spotlight, MPA alumna Amy Sohn tells us about her newest book, The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship and Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age, her new role at the NYC Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice as press secretary, and more.
Congratulations on your new position with the NYC Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice as its Press Secretary! What led you to seek out this role? What do you hope to accomplish?
When I was at the Marxe School during COVID-19, I decided to focus on Urban Development and Sustainability. I am a born-and-bred New Yorker, raised in middle-income housing, and in my coursework, I became really interested in housing and health. As I neared graduation, I was exploring nonprofit and government jobs and MOCEJ was one of the mayor’s offices that really appealed to me – focused on resiliency, sustainability, housing, and public health. I loved the name of the office, with its emphasis on environmental justice. I knew that a job as press secretary would allow me to combine my communications skills and my love of urban policy.
It was nearly 25 years between earning your undergraduate degree and starting your graduate degree. What made you decide to transition your career?
I had a great run of being an artist in NYC, and as I got older I started to look outward and think about ways to help my city. I didn’t know I would be receiving my graduate degree, mostly online, in the middle of a pandemic, but it made me double down on my commitment to this city and figuring out ways to make it more equitable. I also wanted a regular paycheck and I wanted to wake up in the morning feeling like I was making the world a better place. I had concentrated in public policy as an undergrad but never pursued it as a career. I applied to four MPA programs and Marxe was clearly the standout. I love my friends and mentors, especially Professors Perrotta and Botein.
What was your Marxe MPA experience like?
It started out pretty normal – I was in the thick of being in classrooms again, making new friends, and completing my core requirements, like statistics. Then the pandemic came and I stopped seeing everybody. That was not ideal for me but it was worse for those who left school due to illness, family commitments, and housing issues. It was an adjustment to take lectures online but as soon as I could I signed up for in-person classes. Being masked and in-person was a better experience for me than being online. I was delighted to see some of my friends at graduation – some of whom I had not seen in almost 3 years. I entered in Fall 2019 and walked in the commencement in May 2022.
You’ve written half a dozen books – clearly writing is important to you. Did you get to explore your graduate education in a way that allowed you to continue writing?
I was writing books (and ghostwriting them) while taking classes. My Capstone experience was wonderful. I proposed a permanent emergency rental assistance program for the state. I highly recommend Tom Main as a Capstone advisor. It was easier for me to do the kind of academic writing required in the Capstone than it might be for non-writers, but I also really benefited from the writing center. Of course I signed up for a session with a poet! I figured only a poet could help a novelist write a master’s thesis.
Can you tell us a bit about your newest book, The Man Who Hated Women? What did you find most surprising during your research?
My book is about 8 women who went up against the Comstock laws, which criminalized the mailing of contraception and of abortion information with steep penalties and fines. They are mostly unknown characters from feminist history. What was most surprising was the way they used progressive publications to get their message out. You would be surprised how many left-wing papers there were in the 1870s and how many Americans read them. Many of the women started out as letter writers and then became writers – advocating for equality in marriage, early childhood education, sex ed, and better sex for everybody. We are still arguing about many of those issues 150 years later. As it says on the National Archives in Washington, DC: “Past is prologue”.