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The David Prize reveals NYC trailblazer recipients of $1 million grant

October 13, 2020 Editorial Staff

The Walentas Family Foundation on Tuesday announced the first winners of The David Prize, a new annual award granted to trailblazing, as-yet-unrecognized New Yorkers with progressive visions to improve New York City.

Named in honor of celebrated Brooklyn placemaker David Walentas by his son Jed, the $1 million initiative grants five New Yorkers $200,000 each to scale their ambitious projects.

The David Prize team worked with a diverse, multi-sector group of expert advisors to narrow the search from more than 6,500 submissions to 22 extraordinary finalists. The Walentas Family Foundation then chose five winners — local entrepreneurs with creative solutions to the city’s most pressing challenges.

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The David Prize provides recipients with unrestricted funding, enabling awardees to transform their plans into lasting initiatives that directly impact New Yorkers.

The second annual David Prize open call opened on Tuesday. The Prize is open to any individual working in New York City’s five boroughs whose vision is to change New York City to be a better and brighter place — whether socially, economically, culturally, environmentally, artistically, or otherwise. To apply or nominate someone, please visit thedavidprize.org.

The Inaugural Class of David Prize Winners:

Cielo Villa brings equity to NYC education.

Cielo was born in Lima, Peru, before moving with her family to Ridgewood, Queens. Despite language and documentation barriers, Cielo navigated NYC’s public school system, graduating from Wellesley in 2012, firmly convinced that all first generation and students of color in NYC should be able to access college, not just a lucky few. Cielo built a free online resource, Road to Uni, that acts as a supercharged, hyper-accessible college counselor, open to all and offering concrete tips and tricks, essay help, and support services in a flexible, real-time format. By solving for NYC’s chronic guidance counselor deficit, Cielo demystifies the application process and levels the playing field for every under-resourced NYC high schooler with a college dream.

Domingo Morales champions compost to spark sustainability in NYC.

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Born and raised in NYCHA housing, Domingo discovered a fascination with composting while interning at Green City Force. He dedicates his life to transforming NYC’s trash — 1/3 of which is organic! — into a useful resource and a driver of community empowerment. While leading Red Hook Farms’s composting operation he became an expert in food chemistry and safe, healthy waste management. Domingo’s superpower? Making sustainability cool and explaining how composting can be a path to neighborhood revitalization and health. Now, through his new education initiative Compost Power, Domingo is developing an expert ‘how to’ compost guide in support of composting processes across the city, and will be opening new and renovated compost sites across NYCHA housing and other locations around the city.

Prize winner Domingo Morales. Photo: Azizi Curtis

Edafe Okporo hopes to end street homelessness in NYC.

Five years ago, Edafe was a visible advocate for LGBTQ rights in Nigeria, despite its laws criminalizing same-sex relationships. Violence forced him to flee to the U.S., where he entered an asylum process that left him homeless — and even more passionate about helping others. Edafe came into leadership at the RDJ Refugee Shelter, a model for ending street homelessness in New York City built on partnerships with faith institutions and fueled by targeted advocacy. RDJ is more than a shelter; it is a space where asylum-seekers and hardworking immigrants like Edafe can restart their lives in a complex new environment. There are 83,000 people seeking housing in NYC; Edafe’s goal is to ensure that each one can transition to stability with dignity and purpose.

Prize winner Edafe Okporo. Photo: Azizi Curtis

Manuel Castro is breaking the stigma of undocumented labor in NYC.

A New Yorker, a Dreamer, and the son of a day laborer, Manny Castro has made it his mission to help undocumented workers in Queens, where predatory “employment agencies” and anti-immigration sweeps are all too common. As director of the New Immigrant Center for Employment (NICE), he is building on his experience to reimagine a new kind of worker center. This center will be an immigrant-run and owned cooperative that supports workers by helping them find safe, dignified jobs, while holding employers accountable.

Prize winner Manuel Castro. Photo: Azizi Curtis

Dr. Suzette Brown sees a new way to help NYC’s underserved children access healthcare.

Suzette is a pediatrician seeking to change the way healthcare is delivered in NYC’s poorest neighborhoods. Her company, Strong Children Wellness, uses a ‘reverse integration’ concept, embedding pediatric clinics within existing social service locations. This blended approach means that a comprehensive team of doctors, therapists and more, can address the varied needs of children and families, making it easier and better for all involved. Suzette and Strong Children Wellness are also piloting a value-based payment system for pediatric care.

Prize winner Dr. Suzette Brown. Photo: Azizi Curtis
Jed Walentas. Photo courtesy of the Walentas Family Foundation

 “From the very beginning, the Foundation’s goal was to activate the unseen entrepreneurs who — like my father in the 70s — have big plans that no one believes in quite yet. Through The David Prize, we have the opportunity to back these thinkers and support our city with a bottom-up approach,” said Jed Walentas. “I believe in New York, I believe in New Yorkers, and I believe in neighborhoods. The best thing I can do is give resources to people who can change the city in ways none of us have even dreamed of yet. New York City needs people like these five winners, and I can’t wait to watch them become the changemakers our city deserves.”

David Walentas. Photo courtesy of the Walentas Family Foundation

“I have never had more faith in the future of New York City after meeting the finalists for The David Prize,” added David Walentas. “In a year that has shaken New York City to its core, it’s inspiring to meet people who epitomize the city’s passion, grit and creativity. They will help us get back on our feet and become better than ever before. The Foundation will do everything in its power to support these first winners and, in future years, find even more extraordinary people dedicated to improving our communities and neighborhoods.”

“Thanks to the David Prize, I am one step closer to achieving my mission, teaching everyone in New York City how to compost the right way and making it accessible to people of all backgrounds,” said Domingo Morales. “I plan to educate, while providing infrastructure and job training in otherwise overlooked communities, increasing diversity in the green sector. Compost Power is about giving power back to the people.”

“The need for holistic health care services that comprehensively address social determinants of health led to the development of Strong Children Wellness, an innovative health care network that integrates primary care into trusted community-based organizations that serve vulnerable families in New York City,” said Dr. Suzette Brown. “Strong Children Wellness provides socially responsive health care to at-risk families in NYC, and leverages the social, mental health, and care management services provided by our community partners to offer wraparound services to children and families in need.”

“From the moment I was chosen as a semifinalist for The David Prize, I felt that I had already won,” said Cielo Villa. “Being considered for such a great acknowledgement of my idea and potential validated my work in more ways than one because the prize is not only about the funds – it’s about the support, mentorship, and network that comes with it.”

“Four years ago. I was standing in J.F.K airport in October of 2016, a newly arrived immigrant in America. With a little bag I packed, all my belongings were in it and less than 200 dollars in my pocket. I came to this country to find a home. That scene has been my motivation, I have always asked myself. How can I contribute to make this city home for many other displaced persons like myself, who came with nothing, brutalized on their way here, detained by authoritarian government, hanging on the last gasp of hope America promised,” said Edafe Okporo. “To the millions of immigrants who arrived here with nothing of note: You have a place here. America is the home of the brave; your journey is not in vain. Together we make New York stronger. I will fight for you every day and thanks to The David Prize, our journey continues in earnest.”

“When I was five years old, I came to the United States with my family as undocumented immigrants. I saw firsthand the daily struggles my parents and brothers faced as they tried to survive in New York City — often they didn’t get paid fairly for their work or weren’t able to fight for wages when unpaid,” said Manuel Castro. “As the director of the New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), I continue to see on a daily basis the same struggles in the lives of our membership — day laborers and newly arrived immigrants looking to provide for themselves and their families. As a winner of the David Prize, I’m looking to address what the future of work looks like for undocumented workers in New York City, as we face the challenges of COVID-19 and the resulting economic crisis. I plan to continue innovating on ways to empower undocumented workers, with a vision to establish worker-owned self-sustaining job centers in immigrant dense communities.”

The Walentas Family Foundation has invested in the remaining 17 finalists through industry connections and additional sources of funding, financial support, and other in-kind support. The other finalists representing the future of New York include: Dr. Robert Gore, Father Michael Lopez, Melinda Nicholson, Kit Yan, Nelson Luna, Maria Guadalupe Martinez, Sutton King, Yin Kong, Su Sanni, Stefan Henry, Rasmia Kirmani-Frye, Chino Hardin, Somia Elrowmeim, Marco Saavedra, Deborah Navarro, and Akili Hinson.

About David Walentas

David Walentas’ humble upbringing on a farm in Rochester, New York, instilled a strong work ethic. David graduated from the University of Virginia as the first in his family to go to college. After arriving in New York in 1968, he became a visionary force in transforming a neglected Brooklyn neighborhood, now known as DUMBO, and turning it into a thriving innovation hub and one of the city’s top destinations. Determination coupled with unwavering courage led David to become one of the most successful self-made entrepreneurs in the country.

About the Walentas Family Foundation

In 2012, David Walentas and his wife Jane established the Walentas Family Foundation to focus on education, the arts, and civic development in New York City. The Foundation has supported many organizations, including Success Academy Charter Schools, Creative Time, Brooklyn Public Library, Friends of the High Line, NYU Langone Medical Center, and Transportation Alternatives. Two Trees Management has also created several philanthropic programs directly benefiting Brooklyn communities, including the Cultural Space Subsidy Program, which supports local and creative retailers; the Neighborhood School Grants Program, which funds creative programming for students; and the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program, which awards rent-free studio space to artists for year-long residencies. Two Trees has also commissioned several public art projects in Brooklyn, including the ‘OY/YO’ sculpture at Brooklyn Bridge Park, and murals by human rights organization El Puente.


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