Hampshire College alum nets $200K prize for work with undocumented immigrants in NYC

  • Manny Castro, a Hampshire College alum, was awarded the $200,000 David Prize to fund a New York City-based immigrant-led cooperative that helps connect undocumented day laborers with safe jobs where workers are treated fairly. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/AZIZI CURTIS

  • Manny Castro, a Hampshire College alum, was awarded the $200,000 David Prize to fund a New York City-based immigrant-led cooperative that helps connect undocumented day laborers with safe jobs where workers are treated fairly. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/AZIZI CURTIS

  • CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/JAMES CHOROROS CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/JAMES CHOROROS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/20/2020 7:56:44 PM

AMHERST — A Hampshire College alum has been awarded $200,000 to improve the lives of undocumented immigrants and day laborers in New York City, and possibly beyond, with his vision for an immigrant-led cooperative workers center.

Manny “Manny” Castro, a 2006 graduate of Hampshire College and executive director of the New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) organization in the New York borough of Queens, was recognized as one of five honorees in the inaugural class of The David Prize.

The David Prize grants $200,000 each to five New Yorkers with the plans and vision to make a difference in the lives of the city’s residents.

With the funding, Castro plans to establish an immigrant-run and owned cooperative that will connect workers with employers while allowing workers “to offer their services without fear of being taken advantage of, or fear of immigration enforcement,” Castro said.

Castro has worked for five years as the head of New Immigrant Community Empowerment with a goal of protecting and fostering individual and collective power among day laborers. The organization is not yet a cooperative, but does have a workers center.

With the funding, Castro hopes to take the organization’s work a step further and reach more New Yorkers. His model aims to hold employers accountable and provide day laborers access to benefits such as health insurance, rate negotiation, and profit-sharing ability.

As the son of immigrants and a “Dreamer” himself, Castro, who immigrated to the United States with his family from Mexico when he was 5, said he witnessed firsthand the challenges that many immigrant workers face when searching for jobs.

“Often it’s a very difficult experience, and often immigrants are hired by people who want to take advantage of them,” Castro said. When faced with abuse, undocumented workers may stay silent due to fear of deportation, he said.

Castro’s model is based on worker cooperatives, but with a focus on day laborers. If the idea is successful, Castro hopes that the model can eventually be replicated throughout the city and elsewhere. This could include rural areas such as western Massachusetts, Castro said, particularly among groups such as farm day laborers.

Local influence

Though vastly different from New York City, Hampshire College played a significant role in preparing Castro to enter his line of work, he said.

“A lot of what you do there is very much self-driven, project-based and without the constraints of the more rigid grading system,” Castro said. “You create your own major. That type of innovation, frankly, trains you for work like this. What I’ve essentially done is create my own path, and that’s what Hampshire is in a way set up to do.”

He added, “You graduate thinking, yeah, things are possible, and let’s just figure out the challenges out there.”

At Hampshire, Castro sat on the college’s board of trustees as a student representative and studied urban anthropology, with a focus on immigrant workers who had become entrepreneurs and started their own businesses. Much of this work led him to work with nonprofits in New York, which Castro said is “very much related” to his continuing work with The David Prize.

Despite feeling well-prepared for innovative work, Castro said The David Prize award took him by surprise. In addition to the funding it will provide, Castro said he is also grateful for the exposure that the award brings to his organization.

“With my work, I’m usually kind of in the background,” Castro said. But the award “brings attention to this kind of work and the community, so it’s exciting.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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