By Austin Lamb
While her focus and occupations have changed throughout her career, Satya Rhodes-Conway ‘89 has maintained a dedication to what’s important to her: positively impacting communities through improvements in social infrastructure.
The ACS alumna is currently a senior associate with the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS), which describes itself as a “national think-and-do tank that promotes ‘high road’ solutions to social problems.” To do so, COWS emphasizes human development through equal growth and opportunity, environmental sustainability, and establishing resilient democratic institutions. For Rhodes-Conway, this coincides directly with her ACS education. “One of the things that I learned at ACS is that you need to live your values,” she says. “The work I do is very values-based, and it’s working on things that I feel like are important in the world. There are plenty of ways to make a difference in communities, and there are plenty of ways to work on issues like climate change, or affordable housing, or transit, or any number of things. This job allows me to do all of that by working with cities all across the country. Hopefully, we’re touching a bunch of communities and helping them all move forward on issues that are important.”
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Rhodes-Conway enrolled at ACS at the end of seventh grade in 1984 after spending the majority of her academic year in Jerusalem. During her next five years at the school, ACS proved to be a supportive learning environment for Rhodes-Conway, who was able to challenge herself academically to whatever degree her intellectual curiosity wished. “[I]f I wanted more there was always more: more things to get involved in, more to learn, you could go farther into a subject,” she says. “It allowed me to grow intellectually. … I just feel like I got a set of skills about learning that a lot of people don’t get: critical thinking skills and where to go for more information. I’m really grateful that I got that because it’s so useful in what I’ve done with the rest of my life.”
As a student, Dan Flerlage’s biology class was very informative for Rhodes-Conway, and Karen Adams’ People’s History class developed her critical thinking and research skills. Agenda Committee was also influential, as it taught her how to navigate Robert’s Rules of Order, a skill which was useful during her three terms on the Madison City Council from 2007 to 2013, and now on two city committees. “I definitely feel like I’ve had a leg up because I learned Robert’s Rules so early, and I learned how to facilitate a meeting so early, and set an agenda—just the basics of working in a democracy that many people who come into city government have zero experience with.”
“I just feel like I got a set of skills about learning that a lot of people don’t get: critical thinking skills and where to go for more information. I’m really grateful that I got that because it’s so useful in what I’ve done with the rest of my life.”
Following her graduation from ACS in 1989, Rhodes-Conway worked in Cornell University’s Boyce Thompson Institute for a year, earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from Smith College in 1994, and then worked various jobs for a few years for a small contractor in Ithaca. Then, she attended graduate school at the University of California, Irvine, where she majored in ecology and evolutionary biology. After receiving her master’s degree, Rhodes-Conway was hired by UC Irvine as a lecturer, as she had discovered in graduate school that she had a passion and aptitude for teaching. Rhodes-Conway soon learned, though, that she didn’t want to become a tenured professor at a major research university and she began applying for jobs related to her interests. However, none of her applications were accepted, and she came to an important realization. “[W]hat I figured out was that I had too much degree for the level of experience that I had,” she says. “I was under-experienced, and overdegreed.” To gain adequate experience, Rhodes-Conway spent the next few years researching and writing about progressive environmental policy for the State Environmental Resource Center, and analyzing endangered species programs in each state for Defenders of Wildlife.
In 2005, Rhodes-Conway was hired by COWS. Since then, her work has varied, but has been centered around implementing and writing about local policies that favor environmental and economic sustainability, equity, and democracy in communities across the United States. In addition to being a senior associate with COWS, she is also the managing director of the Mayor’s Innovation Project, which she describes as a “learning network for mayors and their senior staff that focuses on the high road of equity, sustainability, and democracy.” To execute her job efficiently, Rhodes-Conway says the writing and critical thinking skills she developed at ACS have been invaluable for a profession covering many different issues.
“I don’t get to be an expert in any one of the things that we work on,” she says. “We work on such a broad range: transit and energy policy, and housing, and water and wastewater. I’m not an expert in any of those things, so I need to be able to understand them quickly. I need to know what questions to ask. I need to be able to do the research and write about something without having luxury of having years of experience with it. So, all of that stems from stuff that I learned how to do at ACS.”
In the next year, Rhodes-Conway’s diverse experience will be put to the test. At the end of May, she announced her candidacy for mayor of Madison after Democratic incumbent Paul Soglin decided to run for Wisconsin governor in 2019. The primary for the mayoral race will be held in February of 2019, and the general election will take place in April.
As a candidate, Rhodes-Conway’s future is currently unpredictable. But her career has been the same way: embracing risks. And to ACS students she stresses the importance of not feeling locked in and making an effort to discover one’s options. “[W]hatever direction you’re headed in right after high school is not set in stone,” she says. “You’re not laying down the path that you have to follow for the rest of your life. There’s plenty of room to shift. And if you don’t know exactly what it is right now, that’s okay.”
As an example, Rhodes-Conway has exhibited more of a why approach to work than a what: what matters to her is her contributions to society in a way that is fulfilling to her. “It’s sort of cliché, but do stuff that you love to do and work that you’re interested in,” she says. “Yes, you have to find a way to pay the bills, but there are a lot of things in the world that need our energy, and everybody knows which one of those they’re drawn to. If you can figure out a way to do it, I just encourage people to go there and make what difference you can.”