Carmen Rojas


Project Overview

America’s agricultural industry is facing an unprecedented labor shortage. Workers age out, new workers no longer immigrate, and the children of farmworkers are escaping to cities. Meanwhile, undocumented immigrants live in constant fear, lacking labor protections, access to affordable housing, and services that would make day-to-day life manageable. “For generations, people have been toiling in our fields in some of the worst working conditions in our country,” said Carmen Rojas, CEO of The Workers Lab, which launched The California Harvesters. “And we’ve done not much more than tinker around the edges in figuring out how to fix that.” The result of a cross-sector collaboration—including an owner, cooperative finance organization, lawyers, and nonprofit organizations—The California Harvesters has embarked on an ambitious effort to provide worker-ownership to undocumented immigrants through a labor trust, which also negotiates with growers on wages and benefits. The project secured its first trust members an hourly rate of $1.50 over minimum wage, plus access to health benefits for the first time. The effort solved a market problem for growers, while improving the lives of Central Valley farmworkers—and paving the way for economic security and wealth-building for those who literally hold up the nation’s food economy.

Five Questions

1What needs does The California Harvesters address and how?

The California Harvesters is a response to the lack of opportunity that the majority of farm workers across the U.S. face. We have established a new employment model that provides farm workers with the power to set workplace standards, negotiate wages and benefits, and access revenue generated by farms. We are doing this by solving the critical problem of instability in the agricultural industry and creating a fixed labor supply for growers through a new workplace model called a cooperative trust.  

2Tell us about a moment that inspired your project.

I was inspired to take on this project while in a meeting with our partners that represent the leading thinkers in cooperative development, cooperative finance, cooperative law, and the agricultural industry. We were reviewing a report The Workers Lab commissioned on the state of agricultural work. The fact that conditions for farmworkers in California remained unchanged despite years of philanthropic investment, services, and organizing was staggering. We knew something needed to be done, and that we had as good a chance as anyone to recreate labor standards in the industry.  

3What is the biggest challenge you face? 

We are confronting a philanthropic landscape in California that pours millions of dollars into the agricultural regions of the state to provide services or training, but have made marginal commitments to addressing the wages and assets of farmworkers.  

4What other leaders have informed your work?

The leaders that are critical to the success of The California Harvesters are Rupal Patel and Sejal Patel, from the asset management company that owns our demonstration farm; Brendan Martin, from the cooperative development and finance organization The Working World; Melissa Hoover, from the cooperative technical assistance and conversion organization Democracy at Work Institute; and Sushil Jacob, who created the legal framework for The California Harvesters.

5Describe someone who highlights what your project is all about.

When I started The Workers Lab, I spent a couple of days in Immokalee, Florida with the leaders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Florida produces one-third of the tomatoes in the U.S., and has a notorious record of exploiting agricultural workers. Ten years ago, the Coalition decided that enough was enough, and organized workers to fight for dignity in the fields. They established a standard for the industry and gave workers a true voice in their workplace. I continue to be inspired by their ability to imagine and realize a new way for agricultural workers to live and work with dignity.  

Meet our other 2017 awardees

Sara Chester &Molly Hemstreet

The Industrial Commons

Western North Carolina

Connecting cultural heritage, youth retention, and economic revival, The Industrial Commons helps small to mid-size manufacturers convert to worker-ownership.

Learn More

Gator Halpern &Sam Teicher

Coral Vita

Washington, D.C. and San Diego, CA

Seeking to restore imperiled coral reefs, Coral Vita is leveraging for-profit tools to build a network of high-tech coral farms.

Learn More

Victoria Herrmann

Rising Tides

Washington, D.C.

Rising Tides brings expertise on climate adaptation and cultural heritage directly to vulnerable communities to save America’s histories, traditions, and cultures.

Learn More

Rachel Johnson-Farias

Esq. Apprentice


Seeking to reimagine the legal profession, Esq. Apprentice creates a no-cost pipeline for low-income youth of color to become fully licensed attorneys.

Learn More

David Muhammad

Neighborhood Opportunity and Accountability Board (NOAB)


A neighborhood-led model for youth justice seeks to re-route resources spent on locking youth up, and instead invest in young people and their communities.

Learn More

Swapna Reddy &Elizabeth Willis

Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP)

New York

ASAP offers a model for “lawyering in a crisis” by crowdsourcing short-term volunteers to provide rapid legal services to asylum-seeking families.

Learn More

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez

Jolt Initiative


Jolt is pioneering a Latino youth-led movement across Texas to fight for stronger immigrant protections and rewrite the immigration narrative.

Learn More

David Walfish

Ho‘oulu Pacific


Ho‘oulu Pacific’s win-win model of “distributed agriculture” provides income for household farmers and healthy, affordable food for Hawaiians.

Learn More

Tony Weaver Jr.

Get Media L.I.T.

Washington, D.C.

Get Media L.I.T. combats media misrepresentation of minority groups through literacy learning tools that disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.

Learn More