In Rikha Sharma Rani’s profile of Bonnie Castillo, executive director of National Nurses United, the largest union of registered nurses in the country, she lays out how the union leader began raising the alarm about PPE shortages as early as January 2020, and how Castillo’s focus on health and safety — which had been criticized by some who wanted her to be more active in national politics — helped her see the crisis coming before most, including those in the federal government.
It took three weeks for Castillo to finally agree to be profiled. When she and Sharma Rani finally connected, they spoke for five hours over three separate Zoom calls. Sharma Rani also spoke with dozens of others seeking insight into Castillo’s life and work, including her daughter, her union colleagues, labor experts, and several of her critics (among them, former presidential candidate Ralph Nader). The result was an intimate look at one of the most significant and under-the-radar figures of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The nursing workforce is overwhelmingly female and more than a third of nurses are women of color. Castillo, the daughter of a railroad worker whose parents hail from Mexico, is the first person of color to head the union. In September 2020, she became a Time Magazine Person of the Year (a union representative told The Fuller Project our piece helped influence that decision). In her tribute to Castillo, Dolores Huerta, the legendary union leader, linked directly to this story and seemed to draw from its core thesis: that Castillo was among the first to draw attention to our looming national crisis.
The story was featured on The New York Times homepage as Castillo appeared before Congress to demand better PPE.