One of the many things I find inspiring about Sharon Davis’s extraordinary life’s journey is the fact that she didn’t decide to train as an architect until she was 41, had had a successful career in banking and was now a mother. “I had a midlife crisis,” admits Sharon, I had taken two years off from the Mutual company I worked in with my husband, but I had begun to realise that where once we were equal at work, that had changed and I now felt like the woman behind the man. It suddenly struck me that I didn’t want to go back to work with him. But, at the same time, I still wanted to work – I felt really lost”. Then someone mentioned that she should see a career counsellor who suggested she become an architect. “I was so surprised,” she says, “I said ‘Come on, at my age? With all that training?’” Then the careers counsellor said something which changed her thinking: “You are going to be 45 no matter what you do”. It was the new perspective and the little push that Sharon needed and she enrolled at Columbia as a continuing student and has never looked back…
“It wasn’t easy of course. You have to put in so many hours. My first husband was great, so supportive. Our daughter was only 3 and he would take her at weekends. And then, when I graduated, I had to decide whether I wanted to work for someone else. I realised that I was going to have to work 24/7 and that wouldn’t allow me to combine work and motherhood… so I decided to set up my own firm.”
You are not supposed to do that. But then that’s not the kind of thing that will stop Sharon.
“So I was sitting there thinking, ‘What next?’ and then I came across the organisation ‘Women for Women International’, which is dedicated to helping women in war-torn regions rebuild their lives. One of the board members had just come back from Rwanda where she had visited a prison that housed many of the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. She had taken photographs of the men making bricks and had decided that brickmaking was the answer for many Rwandan women! It makes sense, the soil is clay so you only have to add water, then teach the process (which is basically to use the feet and hands to make the bricks) and the rest, except for the labour, is free.”
Here was a project that Sharon could really get her teeth into. “I had wanted to work with women and sustainability and this was the opportunity. I could use the materials that they had available there but use them in unique ways. Now, on a two-hectare site in Rwanda, the most densely populated country in Africa, the Women’s Opportunity Center is empowering one small community and helping many women to change their lives. They gain new skill sets, new opportunities (in education and in commerce) and work in collaboration with one another.
One of the women in the community sums it up: “I used to farm alone, then I started making bricks and earning money, now I can afford to hire people to work on my farm.”
Sharon has many other projects up her sleeve but there isn’t room, sadly, to include them in this short interview, so I ask one last question. Did her experience fostering Johnathan and having her eyes opened to the dangers of his homelife in the Bronx affect her work? “I think so”, says Sharon carefully, “My sense of empathy has grown with age and my own personal experiences have changed my perspective on people who find themselves living in bad circumstances. I am sure that my early experiences with Johnathan did roll over in some ways into my work in Africa and my continued interest in working with mothers and the young….”
There is food for thought in so much of what she says. To find out more, watch the brilliant short film on the Rwanda project here: https://vimeo.com/82122809
And if you missed Sharon’s moving story about how she fostered a boy from the Bronx last week then read it here
And for a recent article on her stunning domestic projects click: http://sharondavisdesign.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Metropolis_Preserving-the-Peace_email.pdf