The Daily Olympics

By One Roof - Affordable Housing Tiger Challenge

Hey! It's Edric from One Roof, the TC Affordable Housing Team. A lot of feels now that the summer component of Tiger Challenge is over -- here are some thoughts on this wild experience.

The team making magic happen late at night -- the only way Princeton students know how to do things :)

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When Wayde van Niekerk broke the world record for the men’s 400m sprint and won Olympic gold, my mom was poking me in the shoulder.

“Why are you crying? That isn’t you up there!”

I had tried to wipe away my tears discreetly. But of course, a mother sees all; she went on to chase me, both of us giggling hysterically, off the couch with her teasing hands.

Now, I admit: I get emotional real easily. But in light of my 10 weeks with Tiger Challenge and the One Roof team, van Niekerk’s record-setting sprint reminded me why it feels weird to “take a break” from our work until September.

In an NBC special aired before the final, the South African sprinter acknowledged that when he runs, he isn't just chasing his own dreams. He's chasing the dreams of Odessa Swarts, his mother and a talented athlete chained to her country's borders by apartheid; of Ans Botha, his 74-year-old grandmotherly coach; and of South Africa, a country that hadn't won Olympic gold since readmission in 1994 and that's trying to (as NBC put it) “forget” its troubled past.

But if anything, van Niekerk's world record forces his country and this world to wake up—not to forget, but to remember. To remember that apartheid still haunts his country’s colored peoples, and especially to remember that talent spurs even where it is oppressed. When he crossed the line, van Niekerk must’ve imagined holding his mother’s hands. And when he stood next to his world record beaming from the scoreboard, his body reminded everyone not to forget but to recognize that he, too, is South Africa—just as much in the past as in the present.

Before this year's Olympics, I wouldn’t have been able to point out van Niekerk from a crowd. Yet as I stalked him on Google in his path to gold, in him I saw some of One Roof’s end-users:

The mothers who tap their children awake an hour before others, so they won’t be late to school two townships over. (They can only afford to live next to gang-ridden schools.)

The sons who grew up fast, so their parents wouldn’t have to worry about them. The sons who found support networks and mentors in sports.

The parents who hide in corners, eating bread and water so their kids can snack on fruit.

The families who fight to give each other the chance to chase their dreams, but who still manage to chase each other off couches and find morsels of fun in life.

I see van Niekerk, and I think of the people my teammates and I look in the eyes as they tell us their stories. I think of their bravery and pain. I used to look away; who am I, a privileged Princeton student, to sit down and take two hours away from these people’s lack of free time. I was afraid to look, because part of me felt like I could never empathize with their daily toil.

I’m reminded of Mike Davis’ seminal urban studies tome published in 1990, “City of Quartz,” in which he describes a number of tactics employed by Los Angeles’ government and contracted developers to subvert the urban poor. Among these tactics was the bum-proof bench—an urban design that chased the homeless from sleeping (comfortably) in the streets.

As my team and I travelled the town to conduct interviews, I realized that the wealth of Princeton in and of itself is a “bum-proof bench.” At the beginning, I felt a part of it, because as my interviewees worked strange hours to barely scrape by living in Princeton, my only problems were my excessive sweating habit and my dorm’s lack of AC.

But through the summer, I’ve realized that there’s no way to do this project without looking these low-income residents straight in the eye. Without talking to them and confronting my privilege directly. Without seeing them as “the poor” or patronizing them as “the disadvantaged.” Otherwise, I would be building more metaphorical bum-proof benches around town, intentionally or not. Our project isn't necessarily about affordable housing; it's about addressing the real issues the poor face, everyday using housing as a fulcrum.

But through empathy and all the magic that’s come from it—especially our nine concepts for future design—we’ve gained the trust of our end-users: both the low-income affordable housing applicants and the housing entities’ employees. One administrator even mentioned how impressed he is with our work this summer, and how he’s been inspired to fix what he can as he awaits our prototypes.

Through empathy, we’ve begun to excavate and destroy the bum-proof benches longstanding in our town. And watching van Niekerk reinforces in me why we’ve developed these concepts, why we’ve embraced this courage-building Design Thinking process:

To recognize the history and potential in everyone, especially the oppressed.

To recognize the oppressed as people with talents to remember, not as people to forget.

Maybe that’s why I started tearing up. Just as Wayde van Niekerk is now tagged as the next Usain Bolt, I’m waiting in anticipation of the medals—whether subtle or just as grand—our interviewees, now our friends, will achieve as they continue in life.