“I have a strong passion for people and that has led me to this path toward education. I received a lot of great education in my childhood and my parents came here from Nigeria because of education, so I always understood the power of giving back.”
Knowing the power of mentoring and engaging others in community work, Nick Okafor ‘16—an alumnus of the Gephardt Institute’s Civic Scholars Program—founded trubel&co with the goal of improving and serving communities across the country through STEM education.
Students at trubel&co are bolstered by its coursework addressing pertinent issues to today’s social and political climate. Through an abolitionist framework, trubel&co integrates technical skills with civic intentions that are community-specific. Alumni of the organization often culminate their studies through a Mapping Justice capstone. This includes Johnny Lin, who went on to found a nonprofit called OperationSTART, which targets the opportunity divide in Silicon Valley. Edalawite Sasahulih was accepted to the National Geographic Society’s Freshwater Conservation Internship to capitalize on the GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping she learned from trubel.
The idea for trubel&co was fostered by Okafor’s deep appreciation for collaboration, which began with his undergraduate experience at WashU. He’s enlisted the aid of a group of people he knew would have similar mindsets: his Civic Scholar peers.
Civic Scholar alum Laken Sylvander ’17, who serves as truble&co’s Director of Communications and Marketing, met Okafor well before trubel&co came to fruition. While participating in the Civic Scholars Program, they were always aligned with one another in terms of the kind of work and the kind of impact they wanted to have on the world, despite coming from very different disciplines. But that’s exactly what made Okafor and Sylvander an ideal mentor-mentee duo through the eyes of the Gephardt Institute. Through their mentor relationship as Civic Scholars, Sylvander and Okafor were able to learn from one another. Their partnership withstood the test of time as they maintained contact after graduation from WashU. As Okafor prepared to move from New York City to California to attend Stanford University—where he is pursuing a doctorate in management science and engineering—he stayed with Sylvander in her NYC home while he was between leases. It was during this stay that Okafor casually proposed teaming up once again to build the organization that would become trubel&co.
“He thought of me as someone to ask about getting the word out, thinking about schools to tap into, and funds to tap into. So, I remember Nick sat me down at brunch and was like ‘Are you good at what you do?’”
trubel&co soon began to materialize. Okafor put emphasis on a connection between technical skill building that was exciting academically and the community focus that really grounded him. While studying engineering at WashU, Okafor couldn’t help but notice the disparity between social impact and engineering.
“Why aren’t my engineering classes talking about societal impact? Why aren’t my IAS classes talking about this new digital era, and the different tools that we have to really reinforce social change?” Okafor asked himself.
His response was to market data, design, and technology as a means for societal impact. trubel&co crystallized its purpose and publicly launched in December of 2022. Before “causing trubel,” as they call it, Okafor and Sylvander wanted to honor the roots and home that fostered trubel&co’s founding: the community of St. Louis.
As a native of St. Louis, Sylvander found trubel’s mission to be exceedingly pertinent. The youth of St. Louis, especially, motivated a need for trubel’s innovation efforts.
“I think that having us at the forefront of radically reimagining those futures is a spectacular thing for any city in this country on this planet. And we will be worldwide someday. But I really think that, as we’ve explored what St. Louis looks like in terms of geospatial technology, and what sort of investments in St. Louis exist right now on this kind of huge, untenable scale, bringing it down to the youth that are going to be the civic drivers of making St. Louis what it is into the future is really exciting for me,” Sylvander said.
&co takes this ambition seriously, as it opens itself to new generations of Civic Scholars beginning with Okafor, then Sylvander, and now, Donovon Dixson, a Fox-Clark Civic Scholar in the Class of 2024.
“I just found it so interesting how much I really shared in common with Nick and his experiences, especially as an engineer and as an Ervin Scholar. I’ve made that connection so quickly, and I really grasped onto the idea of what trubel was doing,” Dixson said about connecting with Okafor.
As a creator of an organization born from and facilitated by the Civic Scholars Program, Okafor saw the potential of a partnership with WashU. Okafor is particularly excited by both trubel and WashU’s commitment to growing the community in St. Louis, for St. Louis.
“We have this emerging work and flow of racial justice and equity with the reparations committee within the City of St. Louis, and we have the rise of tech and innovation. Last year, we saw the creation of the Taylor Geospatial Center. I’m curious where those intersect.” Okafor said.
Most recently, Dixson and Okafor spent a week in San Diego meeting with one of their biggest partners, a world market leader in geospatial tech. While there, they learned about GIS storytelling, racial injustice, and everything in between. From all that they learned, Dixson is motivated to see the change that trubel can inspire in the way society views technology and its applications.
“I would really like to see trubel&co continue to innovate and create inroads and what’s possible for education, what’s possible for tchnology, what’s possible for consciousness building, and also becoming a leader for change and all these different areas where there is such an opportunity for development,” Dixson said about trubel’s future as an organization and, more expansively, as a movement.