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

Dr. Sharon Egretta Sutton, FAIA is an educator and scholar promoting inclusivity in the cultural makeup of 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

A Broadway-performing musician, Dr. Sutton 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 to Columbia University during the heady days following the 1968 student revolts. At the School of Architecture (now GSAPP), a bold series of policies not only resulted in the nation’s most successful recruitment of black and Latinx students but also produced a student-led community-engaged curriculum that has become a best practice in design education. 

Dr. Sutton developed initial exposure to emancipatory learning by earning a Ph.D. 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. Having completed her 47th year in academia as visiting distinguished professor of architecture at Parsons School of Design, she has held positions at Columbia University, the Pratt Institute, the University of Cincinnati, the University of Michigan, and the University of Washington; and is a distinguished professor of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. 

In a career that has spanned 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. Her latest book, When Ivory Towers Were Black: A Story about Race in America’s Cities and Universities, presents oral histories from classmates about the stunning progressive movement at Columbia University after America’s “Long Hot Summer.” Currently, after many Covid-related delays, she has a book in press for release in February 2023 called Pedagogy of a Beloved Commons: Pursuing Democracy’s Promise through Place-Based Activism that demonstrates how idealistic youth of color push the nation toward its democratic ideals while remaking their disinvested neighborhoods using their hands, minds, and hearts.

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.