By Nina Huang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Devoted to addressing people’s needs, Michael “Miko” Pugal found a career in nonprofit by following his love for communities and passion for Ultimate Frisbee (UF).
Pugal described his post-high school experience as weird, but being in the nonprofit sector helped him figure out what he wanted to do. He started his nonprofit career in 2013 when he was just 18.
Now 23, Pugal is the capacity coordinator for All Girl Everything Ultimate Program (AGE UP). His work touches on operations, financials, development, and programming work. He also runs internships and workshops, and coaches UF.
Pugal grew up in the south Beacon Hill area with a lot of neighborhood gangs. He experienced getting jumped because he looked different, but also learned about community organizing by “kicking it with OGs.”
He’s proud of the fact that he was able to find a career that he loved, despite being a poor kid from South Seattle and not having a college degree.
“You shouldn’t be scared to pursue the things that make you happy because of fear of not surviving in the world,” he said.
Rainier Valley Corps fellowship
Pugal applied to be a Rainier Valley Corps (RVC) Community Impact Fellow and was placed at AGE UP.
“As a young person of color, one that did not graduate college, RVC validated my want to grow as a professional, but also the work that I’ve done already. It allowed me to see the different areas of expertise within the nonprofit industrial complex and help me grow in each area, whether it was grant writing, individual donor stewardship, and data collection and analysis,” Pugal said.
Abesha Shiferaw, RVC program director, said, “This fellowship provides access to opportunities that communities and people of color traditionally don’t have access to — like quality education and hands-on leadership development done through a cultural lens. It’s so important for us to be responsive to the needs of communities of color in order to help empwower them to do their groundbreaking work. And, on a bigger scale, our people-focused program has been shifting the way leadership development is happening across the nonprofit sector, locally here in the Seattle area, but also on a national scale.”
Shiferaw also said that RVC partners with grassroots, community-based organizations led by people of color. There isn’t an exact science to who they partner with, but beyond the basic criterion, they also pay attention to underrepresented or marginalized communities and try to partner with those organizations.
“One of our partners is the Somali Health Board. Mohamed Shidane is our fellow placed there, and that organization is doing really amazing work. They created a health coalition in the Somali community and their model has worked so well that they are currently trying to broaden it to help more communities of color. They are building a coalition of Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Congolese health boards. Their belief is that when all of these different community health boards come together, they are more effective,” Shiferaw added.
RVC currently has 10 fellows and typically they have between 10 or 12 at a time. A few of the fellows, including Pugal, were hired on at the organizations where they were placed, which is exciting because it means RVC’s goals were met.
“Our partner organization grew enough to be able to hire on our fellow full-time, and our fellow displayed the kind of leadership that our partner organization wanted to keep around,” Shiferaw explained.
Teaching social justice through UF
Pugal first got involved with AGE UP when they needed a volunteer to help run the boys’ program. Now he spends about 20 hours a week coaching UF and checking in with his students.
According to its website, AGE UP was created by coaches and alumni to invest in the transformative capacity of youth living in South Seattle, especially young women of color. They work to empower future leaders, expand opportunities for growth, and build community around a love for UF. Their ties are strengthened through a commitment to social justice.
Pugal said that girls started playing UF in 2011 and the boys’ UF program started two years later. He explained that boys also play UF so that they can learn about sexism and how to advocate for the women in their lives.
Coaching and anti-racism
“Sports isn’t the end all be all of existence, but it’s important for students of color to see the disparity in how our lives are different when they play against the white folks,” Pugal said.
That’s what he focuses on in his coaching.
“How does racism show up in our sport and give them a chance to compete at the highest level? We made state finals and got into the semi-finals this year. It’s more important for the white people to see them playing — we exist and we’re not siloed. Our goal is to be loud, be Brown, and be good at this sport,” he said.
“Sports has always inherently been about space for Black and Brown people to escape from white supremacy, that’s the baseline. How much more of this analysis and education do we need to put in to advance the sport? It feels like a grey area as someone who works in social justice and sports. For me, our organization takes it to the next level to define sports as a hobby versus sports as a tool for resistance,” he added.
Intentionality versus impact
“When you get fouled, the impact is still the same. As a coach, I can say yes, they fouled you, but what was their intention? We can solve the impact right away, but it’s a nice lesson for our young folks to think about their intention as it relates to the impact. My intention was to be very kind, how do we solve that disconnect?” he said.
UF is a self-refereed sport. As a coach, Pugal navigates relationships by helping his players determine intentionality versus impact.
“Whatever your intention was, the impact is important, too. This transitions into anti-oppression work — my intention is to be less racist and/or sexist, but is my impact showing that? If not, then I need to think about doing better so that my actions are reflective of my intent and impact,” he added.
Pugal fell into UF in 2006 because he wanted to try something new and interesting. The sport has impacted him tremendously and allowed him to meet his coach, Henry Fan, and a former coworker, Linda Hong, people he considers his heroes.
Fan taught him to be present while coaching and has set up young boys to be successful in ways that work for them.
Hong taught Pugal to be caring and how to show up for people. She was in the first AGE UP cohort and is the cornerstone of how they continue to do programming at RVC.
In addition, Pugal hopes to follow in Bob Santos’ footsteps as a community organizer, who has worked in both nonprofit and government sectors. Pugal has thought about running for city council and eventually Congress after getting more experience.
He also respects and admires Filipino American rapper Bambu DePistola.
“His music is about pushing people to organize and he grew up in the Filipino gang areas. All of his music and values are my values now. I credit his music and leadership,” he said.
Grooming future community leaders
“Miko initially never envisioned himself in this kind of leadership role, but now, he is actively working toward it in a really tangible way,” Shiferaw said. “He’s really stepping up, and it’s an example of how we push our fellows to think greater than themselves, to think about working for their communities. And because Miko mentors young people, they get to see him go through this growth — and it is huge. For youth of color who look like Miko and see him model leadership coming from the same place and circumstance that they do — this creates a huge impact that will
affect that entire generation.”
The application period for people of color opens up once every two years and RVC is currently accepting applications for future leaders like Pugal.
“We look for people of color with a passion for social justice — of any background or cultural context. We are cognizant of the barriers people of color face when trying to advance up to leadership positions, so our criteria are not traditional criteria — we don’t look for a degree or whether or not you have a ‘fancy’ resume. We are looking for people who display a lifelong commitment to their community or who can speak to that,” Shiferaw said.
For more information, visit rainiervalleycorps.org/communityimpact.
Nina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.