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76 | Design School as a Site of Insurrection, Then and Now

Dr. Sharon Egretta Sutton, FAIA is an activist educator and public scholar who promotes inclusivity in the cultural makeup of the city-making design professions. Known for engaging students in underserved communities of color, Dr. Sutton’s teaching and scholarship examines the United States’ continuing struggles with the racial injustices occurring within the designed environment.

76 | Design School as a Site of Insurrection, Then and Now

In a career spanning decades, Dr. Sutton has broken through barriers both as a scholar and practitioner, and led by example a quiet revolution in how designers think about race and social justice.

Dr. Sutton, a Broadway-performing professional musician, entered the world of design when she enrolled, as a hobby, in the interior design program at Parsons School of Design.  Her career in architecture began when she was recruited from Parsons to Columbia University in 1968 during the heady days following a full student takeover of the university.  At the School of Architecture (now GSAPP), a bold series of policies known as “The Experiment” not only resulted in the nation’s most successful recruitment of African American and Latinx students, but it also produced a student-led community-engaged curriculum that has become a best practice in design education.  Dr. Sutton developed her initial exposure to emancipatory learning by earning a PhD in psychology, which became the bedrock of her justice-oriented pedagogy and practice.

Subsequently, Dr. Sutton became the twelfth African American woman to be licensed to practice architecture, the first to be promoted to full professor of architecture, the second to be elected a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and the first to be president of the National Architectural Accrediting Board.

She codified her thinking in a book called “When Ivory Towers Were Black: A Story about Race in Americas Cities and Universities” that presented oral histories from many of her classmates about the stunning progressive movement at Columbia after America’s “Long Hot Summer.”  Currently, Dr. Sutton is under contract for a book called “Youth Activists Transforming Injustice: Toward a Just and Inclusive Commons” that argues for an alternative to the oppositional forms of resistance that rely upon political power, offering instead a relational approach that relies upon collaboration and dialogue.

We were fortunate enough to speak with Dr. Sutton about her perspectives on the state of design education and how it has evolved over the last five decades on Social Design Insights. Have a listen here.

And afterwards, be sure to check out Dr. Sutton’s recommendations for further research and study:


Social Design Insights would like to thank all those who make our weekly show possible: Baruch Zeichner, our Producer and Sound Engineer, Donna Read, for producing our video content, and Leah Freidenrich, Director of the Curry Stone Foundation. Our theme music for 2018 is "Alright With Me" by Reggie Young from his album "Young Street." The break music is "Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony French Horn Solo" by Danilo Dtagni.