Manhattan Bridge seen from New York’s Dumbo neighborhood. The Walentas Family is best known for developing the area in Brooklyn. Christian Mueller /shutterstock
Manhattan Bridge seen from New York’s Dumbo neighborhood. The Walentas Family is best known for developing the area in Brooklyn. Christian Mueller/shutterstock

You know what they say: If you’re one in a million, you’re still one of eight in New York City.

Recently, the Walentas Family Foundation set an even higher bar than that, recognizing five standouts as the first winners of the David Prize, a new annual award to help New Yorkers apply their progressive visions to solving the city’s most pressing problems.

Named after billionaire Brooklyn real estate developer David Walentas by his son Jed Walentas, the first round of awards granted each of the five winners $200,000 in funding over two years, for a total of $1 million. Like the MacArthur “genius” grants on which they’re roughly patterned, David Prizes come with no strings attached.

Funding Visionaries

The first five to take home the prize had to meet some steep criteria. They’re New Yorkers who “love, work for and live in” one of the city’s five boroughs. They have serious plans to contribute. They’re visionaries. They get things done. And they truly need the prize to change the trajectory of their work and lives.

Applicants came from a range of fields including civic engagement, environment and sustainability, workforce and economic development, immigrant rights, food and nutrition, arts and creative expression, homelessness, and youth development.

The prize isn’t intended to boost New Yorkers who’ve already been successful in garnering support and carrying out their visions. Instead, the process looks for potential. And it’s strictly for individuals. Groups were not considered.

Eyes on the Prize

The first call to action yielded more than 6,500 submissions, which were winnowed down to 22 finalists by a “diverse, multi-sector group” of advisors.

From there, the inaugural class of five rose to the top. That includes Edafe Okporo, an LGBTQ advocate and refugee from Nigeria, who created the RDJ Refugee Shelter, currently the only shelter in the city specifically committed to supporting asylum seekers and refugees.

Manuel Castro, a Dreamer who’s made it his mission to help undocumented workers in Queens, will build on his work as a director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) to create an immigrant-owned and -run cooperative connecting workers to safe, dignified jobs. Pediatrician Dr. Suzette Brown is changing the way healthcare is delivered in the city’s poorest neighborhoods through Strong Children Wellness, which integrates primary care into trusted community organizations. And Domingo Morales, through a new educational initiative, Compost Power, which he hopes will help make sustainability cool, will expand on everything he learned as an intern at Green City Force and leading Red Hook Farm’s composting operation.

Twenty-eight-year-old Cielo Villa wants to remove luck from the equation for public school students like her, who face language and documentation barriers to higher education. Villa just happened to be at school one afternoon when a LEDA representative addressed a small group of students. That stroke of good fortune put her on the path to a Gates Millennium Scholarship and a degree from Wellesley College. Luck also played a part in winning a David Prize. She only learned about the award from a friend three days before the deadline.

Villa was an independent college advisor specializing in essay tutoring when she decided there was no way that college advising shouldn’t be widely available. In July of 2018, she launched a site to demystify the process, Road to Uni. This year, she filed as a nonprofit to provide users with access to the full menu of support, free of charge.

The winner considers herself a “scrappy entrepreneur,” and is excited by the ways the prize will help her expand, including transitioning from homemade to professional videos, developing content for undocumented students, and expanding to other languages like Chinese.

So far, she’s helped 1,000 students matriculate to 50 colleges with real-time flexible counseling. Asked what success might look like, Villa said she hopes Road to Uni will be the Khan Academy of college admission, revolutionizing college access for all.

Walentas Family Foundation

The Walentas family is best known for developing 2 million square feet of Brooklyn waterfront into the now-posh area known as DUMBO, drawing some criticism along the way for contributing to the city’s gentrification. David Walentas, a New Yorker since 1968, founded the company Two Trees Management almost 50 years ago with his wife Jane. Jane, an artist who passed away in July, is widely credited for focusing on aesthetics and architecture, and championing neighborhood arts programming. Their son, Jed, was named CEO in 2011, and now runs 4 million square feet of industrial and residential properties.

Created in 2012, the Walentas Family Foundation has previously focused on education, the arts and civic development in New York City, with gifts to organizations like Success Academy Charter Schools, the Brooklyn Public Library and the Sharpe-Wallentas studio program, which awards artists year-long residencies and working space.

David Walentas, who currently ranks 378 on the Forbes 400, grew up poor in Rochester, New York, and was the first in his family to graduate from college. The largest gift the foundation’s made to date is $100 million to his alma mater, the University of Virginia (UVA) to help first-generation students like him. As with the foundation’s other work, much of the funding stayed close to home. Half supported scholarships for students from Rochester, where Walentas grew up; the state of Virginia, where he was educated; and his hometown, New York City. Twenty-five million of the commitment created fellowships at UVA’s Darden School of Business for first-generation grads going for MBAs. The balance supports other fellowships and professorships.

Walentas says he’s never had more faith in the future of New York City than he does now, after meeting the finalists. Despite a year that’s “shaken New York City to its core,” he’s been inspired by meeting people who “epitomize the city’s passion, grit and creativity,” and pledged the foundation’s full support for this and future cohorts.

Changemakers with a clear idea of how to improve the city have no time to waste. The second annual David Prize open call went live on October 13. First nominations and applications close on December 4. Click here to share your idea.

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