2012 Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumni Award
Keith A. Sutton ’92
Keith has made some tough decisions during his tenure on the Wake County School Board, decisions made under pressure in a sometimes hostile environment that affect about 150,000 students and their families. He learned how to apply disciplined reasoning and accept consequences when, as a student at UNC, he grappled with whether to quit the football team.
“Growing up, as a male involved in sports, you’re told, ‘You don’t cry, and you don’t quit,’ ” Keith said. “Leaving the football team was the first time in my life I’d quit anything.”
But as a walk-on who participated in physically demanding morning and afternoon workouts, with barely enough time to squeeze in classes, much less studying, he had to choose between excelling academically and indulging in athletics as a good but not great player. He took stock, called his mom, and said goodbye to his teammates.
“Sometimes you have to cut your losses,” he said. “Sometimes quitting is simply moving forward.”
Surviving and thriving after making decisions that go against convention has strengthened Keith’s leadership abilities. He has devoted his career to being an advocate for equality, fairness and empowerment for historically disadvantaged people. By day, he works as a victim advocate liaison for the Governor’s Crime Commission. In 2009, he was appointed to the Wake County school board to fill the remaining two years of an unexpired term, then won his own seat in the 2011 general election by 81 percent of the popular vote. He was elected vice chair by the rest of the board.
His resume includes a stint as director of Common Ground in Rocky Mount, where he worked to improve race and community relations. He served as executive director of the state chapter of the NAACP, and he founded the Triangle Urban League where, as its president and CEO, he gave a voice to those who couldn’t advocate for themselves.
In 2008, Keith joined Gov. Bev Perdue’s campaign as outreach coordinator and went on to serve as deputy director of the coordinated campaign for the N.C. Democratic Party. For a while, he was the legislative affairs manager for the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
With every leadership role he distinguished himself. In recent years, Keith has received the N.C. NAACP’s Political Trailblazers Award for his outstanding service by an elected official. He was recognized with the Good Brother Award by the Wake County National Congress of Black Women for being “a 21st-century African-American trailblazer.” The Iota Iota chapter of Omega Psi Phi named him its Citizen of the Year, and the Eta Sigma chapter of Phi Beta Sigma honored him with its Social Action Award.
Keith moves easily between hanging out with former neighbors in Rocky Mount, where he grew up, to sitting down to dinner with the governor and other high officials. UNC instilled in him the confidence to negotiate in the boardroom and navigate the halls of the legislature.
“UNC had people from all walks of life,” he said. “It mirrored society and prepared me to work in diverse settings and to move in and out of different circles.”
Keith is the proud father of two daughters and lives his life to make sure they are equally proud of him. He juggles his various responsibilities, often under fire, all the while keeping a positive attitude. His parents modeled the value of helping those less fortunate than themselves. His mother was a public school teacher for more than 30 years. His father was director of financial aid at Edgecombe Community College. Keith considers Julius Peppers’ ’02 most recent contribution to the Light on the Hill Scholarship fund a “classy move” and would like to lift that up so that students who receive scholarships understand they are “standing on the shoulders” of alumni like Peppers.
“Education and access to the opportunity to get a good education is the biggest equalizer for minority kids,” Keith said.
On the school board, Keith has stood firm on retaining the school system’s diversity policy, becoming embroiled in a national conversation. He listened to other perspectives and kept the dialogue going across differences to work effectively with other board members, even when his position was in the minority.
“Each one of my experiences prepared me for this time,” he said. “Something lies ahead, and this is probably another step preparing me for whatever comes next.”