Change is serious stuff: DMU on the liberating power of critical consciousness
Dark Matter U in conversation with Dr. Sharon Egretta Sutton on the agency of architects.

Dr. Sharon Egretta Sutton FAIA is an activist educator and public scholar who promotes inclusivity in the cultural makeup of the city-making professions and also advocates the use of participatory planning and design strategies in disenfranchised communities. Her scholarship explores America's continuing struggle for racial justice. Dark Matter U, a democratic network founded to work inside and outside existing systems to challenge, inform, and reshape our present world toward a better future, sat with Dr. Sutton to talk about her pedagogy, design justice and what it means to help people help themselves.

This interview is part of Issue #1 “Agents Provocateurs: agitate normality”, a bimonthly series curated by KoozArch on the agency of architecture and the architect.

Snapshot of DMU Website; Credit: Lester Li

DEENA DARBY How do you understand the agency of the architect and how does it relate to your work?

DR. SHARON EGRETTA SUTTON I never say “the architect” because using the definite article “the” before a noun indicates a singular known entity and architects’ identity is anything but singular or known. I almost feel that the profession’s constant reassertion of “the architect” is a way of underscoring our educational and licensing approach, which aims to create a singular person who does one thing. Consequently, architects have an education system where every person has to be able to mimic every other person, which is a total waste of energy. So the first thing is to substitute “an” for “the” and acknowledge the many different kinds of architects who could and should exist. That's where I am on that issue—“architects,” plural.

Architects have an education system where every person has to be able to mimic every other person, which is a total waste of energy.

VENESA ALICEA-CHUQUI As you explored the “pedagogy of a beloved commons” in your new book, how did you see the transformative power of education and its role in shaping the future of architecture?"

SES My first title for the book was “Talent Unveiled,” and it fundamentally rejected the notion of “the architect” who creates a pipeline for youth who are to swim upstream and diversify the profession. One of my pet peeves is this pipeline that keeps getting longer and longer but never changes the demographic makeup of the field. In theory, you put people in, they all go through the same pipeline and come out the other end of a pipe that doesn’t change. So of course the profession doesn’t change. Back in 2004 when I started the research that's reported in Pedagogy of a Beloved Commons, I was studying whether or not older, low-income youth participated in community service. As I uncovered an amazing array of work that kids were doing in communities all around the country, I thought, “we should get rid of the pipeline theory and just find out what kids are doing so we can support them.” That’s what I was trying to say in my keynote lecture at ACSA: let's take ourselves out of the center of the picture, put some other people at the center, and see what we can learn from them. How are people creating their own communities? Because I think architects’ agency is enabling that. If you think about what's going on with climate change, what's going on with racial conflict, with gun violence, all these problems are coming from people, right? If people are causing the problems, they also have the solutions. Architects can’t create solutions from the outside; solutions have to come from the inside. Finding out the good things that are going on in communities and trying to amplify them—trying to use our privileges and our skills as architects to amplify what people are doing to improve themselves and their communities. So I envision turning the picture upside down and seeing how the transformative power of community engagement can transform architecture education and practice. That's beautiful.

Let's take ourselves out of the center of the picture, put some other people at the center, and see what we can learn from them.


DD How do you view the intersection of education, liberation, and design justice?

SES I truly believe that critical consciousness—historically grounded critical consciousness—is the only source of liberation. You cannot be free unless you understand your history and the roots of the problems that you're experiencing. Freedom is the right to investigate your world critically. On the other hand, it works the other way around; societies that block an investigation, a critical investigation, block freedom.

I truly believe that critical consciousness—historically grounded critical consciousness—is the only source of liberation.

In the era when I grew up, limiting your thinking was a part of survival. If you were curious about something that didn’t make sense, your parents would say “this is the way it is, don't question it.” Then I encountered the women's movement, and one of the strategies that feminists used to advance women’s liberation involved circulating a set of questions that you were to discuss with your female friends. The goal was to help women develop critical consciousness about their personal history. I was so intrigued with this because I had been forbidden to explore my personal history as a child. So during the women's movement, I became intrigued with critical consciousness without having that word in my vocabulary—feminists referred to the process as consciousness-raising. You can’t understand your personal history if you don't understand its social context, so critical consciousness is a very big deal to me. All my writing is about situating people's personal history in relation to their social history.

All my writing is about situating people's personal history in relation to their social history.

At Michigan, I had doctoral students in architecture who came from Muslim countries that did not allow freedom of thought, which made their education really problematic. A doctoral education is at least six years and involves learning how to put forward a thesis or hypothesis, collect evidence that supports your thesis, and then argue your findings. The process involves critical thinking: if A exists, then B occurs, and C results. But I had these students who were not allowed to think critically, and they were further disadvantaged because they were studying the relationship between the environment and behavior and all the literature was about Western environments and Western behavior that did not apply to their culture. So they spent the first two years of their education reviewing literature, but none of it helped them understand their case. So we were already doing a tap dance trying to understand what Western literature had to say about non-Western society and the built environment and especially about women. When the students would try to unravel how the literature applied to what they wanted to learn, they would go in circles and say: if A then B, if A then B, and so on in a circle; they never went to C and I didn't understand why. Well at the start of the Iraq War, Saddam Hussein was still in power and made a seven-hour televised speech that went “if A then B, if A then B, and he never got to C. And I finally realized this is what happens when you don't have freedom of thought; you cannot draw conclusions about your data. So education, a critical education, is essential to liberation; it’s the brilliant idea that Paolo Friere spelled out in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. And you need to develop critical consciousness with other people, because you have to debate what everyone is experiencing in order to understand your life and their lives in relation to the institutions that you're a part of.


VAC What is your north star? How does it guide your approach to architecture and design?

SESMy time at Michigan was a very formative time; it’s when I went through the tenure process to become the first African American female full professor of architecture. I unwaveringly credit the university and its support of my radical agenda for this achievement. The other formative aspect of my time at Michigan was a fellowship I received from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. The foundation's motto was “helping people help themselves,” and that motto became central to my identity. Like Will Kellogg, who established the foundation during the Depression in the 1930s, I wanted to help people help themselves. To prepare for this interview, I reviewed my FAIA application and seeing it reminded me that I used the Kellogg motto in framing my achievement as an architect: That I was helping people learn about their designed environment, while also helping designers learn to create better spaces for people—a kind of two-way street for investing in people. So the fellowship provided the foundation of my work, you know, beginning with children, moving on to teenagers, and by the time I left Seattle, with the trade union that I was helping use the design review processes to get better contracts. Developers would make concessions so they could get through the review and their buildings built.

“Helping people help themselves,” that motto became central to my identity.

VAC Can you share your future projects and your outlook on the future of architecture? How do you anticipate architecture evolving and addressing pressing societal challenges?

SES I’ve been working on how I can move beyond the idea of helping students learn to design for people and toward one of helping people help themselves. It's a very simple platform that’s taken several different formats, but it came into focus during the DMU retreat when people started talking about community capacity building, which the literature defines as helping communities achieve their goals. I’m thinking that we could put together a group of DMU folks who are working on community capacity building and who are also teaching design studios and together we could explore the interconnection between these two enterprises: how can you advance students’ professional development—which is your moral obligation as a teacher—while equally helping marginalized communities help themselves.Currently, knowledge is one-sided: all of the literature—and there's a lot of literature on community-university partnerships, some of which I've written—is fundamentally about the student experience—what the students do and learn. What community members do and learn is never centered nor is how students and communities might learn together. So that's my next vision; it's necessarily very tentative because I need other people to work with me in defining the vision.

Dark Matter U Core Organizers at DMU Retreat in the National Gallery of Art in DC in early June. Credit: DMU

DD What advice would you give to architects who aspire to change the world through their work? And then how can they effectively contribute to positive change?

SESFirst, I would tell them to make good trouble. They should not be polite, they should be in your face, you know, be willing to take big risks, which is easier said than done, because young people have tremendous financial obligations—but they cannot become slaves to the fear of defaulting on their student loans.

I would tell them, don't use the definite article; use the indefinite article in conceiving of what architects could and should do.

Make good trouble and be willing to take big risks, architects cannot become slaves to the fear of defaulting on their student loans.

But mostly, I would tell them to find a way of using their architectural skills in a different way, not just to design space, but to change minds, to create visions of places, to provoke conversation, to create imagery that helps people explore a new co-existence. In order to make change, we need a movement, and a movement involves sacrifice; you can't take the easy road.

Going back to that Kellogg Foundation fellowship, our mentors would do amazing things to make us feel special, because they believed that leaders should feel like leaders. In our first big assembly when we were learning what perks we would receive, they literally rained gold coins on our heads. Then, they sent us to our first working session and we went into small groups and waited for the gold coins to continue falling. But the mentor who was facilitating the session posed the first prompt. He said: “Tell me what you're willing to die for,” and he was serious. “Tell me what you're willing to die for.” So you know, change is serious stuff. John Lewis did serious stuff when he walked across that bridge to make good trouble. And change doesn’t happen in an afternoon. You have to be willing to sacrifice over the long haul. Like the social workers say, for change to happen the pain has to get bad enough that Band-Aids don't work. You also have to embrace Derrick Bell’s caveat to find joy in the struggle. Bell was a civil rights lawyer who handled hundreds of desegregation cases so knew first-hand that change is a struggle. Be willing to sacrifice but also find joy in the transformative process.


Dr. Sharon Egretta Sutton, FAIA is distinguished visiting professor at Parsons School of Design and has served on the faculties of Columbia University, Pratt Institute, the University of Cincinnati, the University of Michigan, and the University of Washington.She was the first African American to receive both the ACSA Distinguished Professor Award (1996), first conferred in 1985,and the AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education (2023), first conferred in 1976. The twelfth African American woman in the United States to be licensed to practice architecture, the first to be promoted to full professor of architecture, and the second to be elected a fellow in the AIA, Dr. Sutton also received the AIA Whitney M. Young Jr. Award, the Medal of Honor from its New York and Seattle chapters, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. Her books include Pedagogy of a Beloved Community: Pursuing Democracy’s Promise through Place-Based Activism (Fordham University Press, 2023), When Ivory Towers Were Black: A Story about Race in America’s Cities and Universities (Fordham University Press, 2017), The Paradox of Urban Space: Inequality and Transformation in Marginalized Communities (Palgrave Macmillian, 2011, co-edited with Susan P. Kemp), and Weaving a Tapestry of Resistance: The Places, Power, and Poetry of a Sustainable Society (Bergin and Garvey, 1996). Early in her career, Dr. Sutton worked as a professional musician in New York City, most notably in the orchestras of the Bolshoi Ballet and the original production of Man of La Mancha. Her fine art is in the Library of Congress and has been widely exhibited and collected. She holds five academic degrees—in music, architecture, philosophy, and psychology—and has studied graphic art internationally.

Venesa Alicea-Chuqui AIA, NOMA, LEED AP BD+C, WELL AP, an architect, educator and advocate, is founding principal of NYVARCH Architecture, a NY/NJ based collaborative Architectural Practice focused on building community and equity through design. A registered Architect in New York and New Jersey, she is currently an Equity in Action Presidential Postdoctoral fellow at Kean University, School of Public Architecture, Michael Graves College in New Jersey, where her research will be focusing on resiliency, energy equity and community power. With over 15 years of experience designing multi-family sustainable affordable housing developments and civic projects, she is committed to working with local communities to develop good design, both sustainable and socially conscious. Committed to design justice in the built environment, she’s a core organizer with Dark Matter U and Design as Protest. She is also past chair of the AIANY Puerto Rico Resiliency task force, AIANY Diversity & Inclusion and Emerging New York Architects committees and a 2019 Fellow of the Association for Community Design.

Deena Darby, Associate AIA, NOMA, an architectural designer and community organizer based in New York City, holds a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Syracuse University and is dedicated to achieving design justice in the built environment. Deena's work centers around developing design strategies that prioritize community involvement and empower all participants throughout the design process. She has contributed to various institutions as a guest reviewer, speaker, research assistant, and educator, including Columbia, Pratt, Harvard, Ryerson, New York City College of Technology, and Syracuse. Currently employed at Studio Fōr, Deena is a Core Organizer with Design as Protest, actively engaged with Dark Matter U and Design/Advocates, and a fellow with the Urban Design Forum. Being involved with nycoba|NOMA's Project Pipeline, renewed her passion for youth education. Deena has served as a guest reviewer at Ryerson University, Urban Assembly School of Design and Construction, and volunteered with youth at the AIANY Center for Architecture. Deena emphasizes the importance of exposing children from diverse backgrounds at a young age to potential careers in design industries like Architecture, Urban Planning, and Landscape Design. She believes this is a powerful way for the industry to make significant progress and move toward its goals.

05 Jul 2023
Reading time
15 minutes
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