WashU '16 Class Act: Nicholas Okafor

Four years ago, Washington University in St. Louis seniors Nicholas Okafor and Carrick Reddin met at Scholarship Weekend as Ervin Scholarship finalists.

Carrick Reddin and Nicholas Okafor interview each other at Holmes Lounge about the experiences they shared in the classroom and in the community. Sid Hastings/WUSTL Photos

Back then they had one thing in common — a vague wish to make a difference. Today, the two friends share so much — a respect for good design, a commitment to the Civic Scholars program and a passion for Portuguese.

Both also have changed St. Louis in very concrete ways. Okafor founded Studio: TESLA, an afterschool program that builds problem-solving skills through design challenges. And Reddin helped lead efforts to construct a playground near KIPP Wisdom Academy in South St. Louis.

Both students will be honored in their final days at Washington University: Reddin will receive the Gerry and Bob Virgil Ethic of Service Award on Thursday, April 28, and Okafor will receive the Shepley Award at the Chancellor’s Dinner on May 16.

Here Okafor and Reddin interview each other about “doing good” and whether design can save the world.

Reddin: Talk about a defining experience for you during college?

Okafor: Studying abroad. The day before the first day of classes I was looking at my schedule and it was all math and science and engineering. I thought to myself, “I did not come to college just to do more math.” So I added Portuguese and fell in love with the language. I decided to go to Brazil, and the activism there really hit me. At WashU there were a lot of discussions about social justice, barely any action, and it felt very ivory tower. Then I went to Brazil and everyone is out everyday protesting for their rights. When I came back, Ferguson happened. It challenged me and my community: what will you do with this pain? It was incredible to see my community rally and to reimagine my role as a St. Louis citizen.

Okafor: You have been really involved in St. Louis, working on housing and community development. What have you learned?

Reddin: Effective community development work requires the acknowledgment that everyone’s experiences are truths to them. When you go to a public hearing and hear people say, “This isn’t right. This proposal isn’t what I want. My family has lived here for generations,” you are obligated to listen and look for a solution. You might not find one, but acknowledge the problem exists. You can’t tune people out because they don’t agree with you. I think so many of the issues we face in our city, in our world, stem from this refusal to listen to a diverse range of perspectives. And this too often leaves marginalized groups out of decision-making processes.

Reddin: You are also really involved in St. Louis. How did you come up with Studio: TESLA?

Okafor: When I first arrived, a friend and I started a future engineers club at Brittany Woods Middle School in University City. Our goal was to introduce minorities and women into STEM, and I was happy with it. When I went abroad the club ceased. I realized that if I wanted to make a difference in my community, I needed to do something sustainable. So I came back in Fall 2014 and started what is now Studio: TESLA. I was just one man at the activities fair saying to freshmen, “Hey join this club.” And they would ask, “Well, how many people are in it,” and I’d say, “With you, that’s three.” Now we have more than 50 members, a great leadership team to run it when I graduate, and I’m looking to scale up.

We’ve also changed our mission. Originally our goal was to introduce STEM skills. But today it’s less about science experiments and more about self-efficacy — giving kids the confidence to solve problems by collaborating and using the resources they have. If they become engineers or designers, great. But at the end of the day, I want them to be comfortable with failure and leave with skills they can take anywhere.

Okafor: Tell me about the playground you helped build in South St. Louis.

Reddin: I worked with the KIPP team, the Equifax Foundation, the Mayor’s Office and architects to create a pocket park across from KIPP Wisdom Academy in Fox Park. We wanted it to be a place where KIPP students and local children could play together. Educational inequality and economic divestment have created communities that aren’t as cohesive as they once were, and this was a way to bring different people together.

I’ll be honest, the end result is not as accessible nor equitable as would be ideal. One of the things I learned is that there are both incredible benefits and challenges to collaborative design. But there is no other way. We’ve seen the history of top-down design destroy communities. That is not something our generation is going to perpetuate.

Reddin: So, do you think design can save the world?

Okafor: Melinda Gates has a quote that human-centered design is the leading innovation changing the developing world. Everyone calls it something different — participatory design, public-interest design or whatever name you want to call it. But good design is not new. It’s really about making sure the end user is in the process so it works. So yes, it can save the world, but it depends on how you do it and how much you invest in the process.

Okafor: What about you — do you think it can save the world?

Reddin: What you said about process really resonates. I look at design as a methodology. You identify the problem, do a lot of listening and create different ways for that problem to be solved. You must allow that process to be informed by people other than yourself. In architecture, it’s less about building a wall and more about working to make sure the building meets the social challenges of the community that surrounds it. This requires architects and designers to think about their role as citizens of local and global communities — a field in which I hope the Sam Fox School continues to push itself. Ultimately, good design embraces the complex nature of the process, rather than striving toward a purely aesthetic product. When this shift occurs in our communities and educational institutions, then I will believe that design can save the world.

More about Okafor

Hometown: Dallas, Texas

Studying: Mechanical engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science and sustainable development in Arts & Sciences

Other activities: Okafor has danced with the Washington University Dance Theatre and Slaughter Project. He also is a residential advisor.

What’s next: Okafor will conduct research for Engineering for Change this summer before moving to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he will work for an education-based community nonprofit.

More about Reddin

Hometown: Orange County, California

Studying: Architecture in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts and International Development Studies in Arts & Sciences

Other activities: Reddin is a member of Sigma Nu Fraternity and contributor to ISSUES Magazine.

What’s next: Reddin will work for RISE, a St. Louis community development organization working to revitalize St. Louis neighborhoods.