David Castro
Ashoka Fellow since 2009   |   United States

David Castro

I-LEAD (Institute for Leadership Education, Advancement, and Development )
David Castro is mentoring homegrown leaders, helping them infuse their communities with the capacity to imagine and create so that they can claim the future they want to see.
Read more
This description of David Castro's work was prepared when David Castro was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.


David Castro is mentoring homegrown leaders, helping them infuse their communities with the capacity to imagine and create so that they can claim the future they want to see.

The New Idea

David founded the Institute for Leadership Education, Advancement & Development (I-LEAD) to help poor communities realize their full potential by identifying grassroots leaders and preparing them to be agents of change. In the United States, those adults who do not continue their education after high school are likely to languish in marginal jobs working hard with little reward. Often, they become part of a permanent underclass, living in areas where low expectations are ingrained in children early and eventually become self-fulfilling prophecies. At the same time, however, there are individuals within every community whose ability has never been tapped. For these individuals, David seeks to offer a college education in their own neighborhood designed to help them understand the systems that constrain their communities, learn to navigate those systems, and lead their neighbors to work together to bring about change.From his work in community development, David knew that leaders can emerge even in the most impoverished settings. Oftentimes, however, there are not enough local leaders with the knowledge and skills necessary to guide their communities to self-reliance. He also saw that to effectively articulate and advocate for the needs of their communities, emerging leaders need the analytical thinking and writing skills offered in college-level courses. Since most people living in poverty have no post-high school education, it was clear that grassroots leaders would need at least an Associate Degree to develop necessary skills, understand political and institutional systems, and articulate the community’s agenda. Therefore, David’s overarching goal is to expand post-secondary educational opportunities to low-income communities. David created I-LEAD to serve community-based leaders educational needs. I-LEAD combines organization, negotiation and conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, and systems thinking curriculum into a program unlike any other. Through this project, David aims to empower leaders in marginalized communities and give them the tools they need to flourish. Ultimately, he hopes to see people using their knowledge to liberate themselves from entrenched poverty and create the wealth and opportunities they seek.

The Problem

The 2005 National Assessment of Adult Literacy in the United States revealed that 93 million adults sixteen or older lack the literacy level needed to enroll in the postsecondary education or training that current and future jobs require. Dennis Jones, president, National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS), states:

The vast majority of postsecondary education policy in the U.S. is targeted to a small segment of the population—traditional students directly out of high school. Over three million high school seniors will graduate in 2008. Almost 90 million working-age adults in the U.S. have not completed high school, have completed a high school diploma but have not entered college, or do not speak English well enough to contribute to a knowledge-based economy. Our ability to compete economically depends largely on how well we train and retrain our existing workforce.

In the United States, if one does not qualify for or pursue a post-high school education, the opportunity does not just present itself, and though many colleges need students, they do not attract adults who are in the workforce, in low-wage jobs. In fact, community colleges fill their classes with students coming out of high school. If an individual from a low-income community does enroll, they are served a one size fits all curriculum that does not take into account the experiential background of the student or situational barriers that person faces. Few states track education and economic outcomes for lower-skilled adults over time, and as a result, they lack the program and labor market data they need to develop education and training to prepare unskilled adults to be the knowledge workers society needs.

In 1994, a comprehensive analysis determined that the most critical need in Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods was effective local leadership. Members of civic organizations, police district advisory councils, and community-based organizations agreed that leadership development was vital to every initiative aimed at improving the quality of life in poor communities. However, traditional top down solutions such as sending skilled leaders to train people, assume that the community lacks the capacity to solve its own problems. While experts may train leaders, they do not develop and transfer leadership skills from one generation to another, especially when those skills are often quite different for those adults entrenched in poverty.

Currently, community colleges control higher education services provided within low income communities, and they are guaranteed by regulators not to have competition in their territory. As a result, there is little incentive to innovate or excel because they are paid by the number of seats filled and the number of hours completed. Almost all public post-secondary resources go to community college systems, whose publicly-approved budgets are not tied to performance. While many do an excellent job for students just coming out of high school, and some adapt their offerings to the needs of their communities, few target outreach and curriculum to the countless adults 20 to 50 years of age with no post-secondary education.

The Strategy

David and District Attorney, Lynne Abraham founded I-LEAD in 1995, the elements of which emerged from a year-long series of community meetings, workshops, and surveys. The organization developed The Leadership Institute, which brings together community leaders to learn essential leadership skills and theories. David chose to focus on adults because they tend to be more bound to their neighborhoods while younger people see success as getting out.The I-LEAD program covers practical applications of information technology and computer literacy, and offers comprehensive study in four core areas:

Effective interpersonal and organizational dialogue: A continuum of skills from intense listening and reflection to powerful advocacy through effective use of the media and advanced technology
Systems thinking: Creative leadership including systems analysis, strengths theory, team and community building, motivation and group dynamics.
Public systems: Knowledge of government and public institutions functioning, including advanced civics, policymaking, the civil and criminal justice systems, and the role of the court system and other agencies in keeping public order and resolving disputes.
Private systems: Private sector organizations including non-profits and other charitable institutions, the free-market principles of economic development, the small business development, and the interdependence of regional, national and global economies.

Until 2005, 80 percent of the I-LEAD’s work was focused on leadership training, and 20 percent on college completion. Over the past few years, operating with a full time staff and an annual budget of approximately $1.2M, David has intentionally reversed these proportions. After negotiating an agreement with Harcum College to offer an Associate Degree in Leadership, effectively blending I-LEAD’s program into a 2.5 year accredited college degree program for inner-city adults, David is giving I-LEAD students the opportunity to earn a baccalaureate degree through a contract he established with Eastern University.I-LEAD’s 80 percent retention rate (compared to a 15 percent rate among community colleges) reflects the benefits of utilizing a community-based model in which classes are held in the students’ neighborhoods, saving the time and expense of commuting, and are scheduled at times set to fit their work schedules. I-LEAD removes barriers to enrollment (e.g., SAT scores, application fees) through its own admissions process, and helps students apply for financial aid. Graduates, 90 percent of whom are employed, have improved their communities by creating successful businesses, launching volunteer initiatives promoting literacy, redeveloping abandoned houses, and founding and funding new non-profit organizations.The heart of David’s innovation is a revenue-sharing model that will generate $1M a year when student enrollment reaches 500. The model reinvests tuition revenue in community-based organizations (CBOs) in the students’ own neighborhoods, such that the colleges return 40 percent of the students’ tuition to I-LEAD, while CBOs that host the classes receive 50 percent of I-LEAD’s share.

The Person

Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s, David experienced firsthand a world out of control where violence, crime and drug trafficking were commonplace, and flagrant injustices went unanswered. Disparities between the rich and poor were unmistakable: while his family and others prospered, he saw people living in terrible circumstances and he grew up resolved to address these inequities.

David was born in Colombia, South America, where his dad managed a mining operation. As a child actor, David enjoyed improvisation and theater, and after college he started his own improv troupe. After receiving a scholarship to attend Haverford College, David chose to pursue a career in law rather than acting, because he sought to leave a lasting impact on the world.

After attending law school at the University of Pennsylvania, David joined a top corporate law firm in 1986. When he was assigned a pro bono case to help the women leaders of a neighborhood group have a tavern removed from its location across from a church, he found that he cared more about that than about anything he had done in the previous years he had been at the firm. Realizing that there were communities in need all over the city, he sought a solution that would address the problem on the whole. He left the firm to work in the District Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia, where he helped create and was appointed Chief of a new Public Nuisance Task Force Unit, the first in the United States. In this role, he selected, hired and trained an inter-governmental Task Force to counsel neighborhood groups, and a large team of volunteer attorneys to help them resolve these cases.

In 1993 David was awarded a fellowship in the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s national leadership program, which aims to prepare young leaders to make a difference in their communities. David devoted his fellowship to the study of community leadership development and its relation to quality of life, and he put learning into action by founding I-LEAD.

Are you a Fellow? Use the Fellow Directory!

This will help you quickly discover and know how best to connect with the other Ashoka Fellows.