Elisa Pupko and Mike Pope Say “Why Not” to Being a Force for Social Good

By Connie Rock

If you’re Elisa Pupko and Mike Pope, proud Husky alumni and an unbeatable husband and wife team, why not move to New York to pursue your dreams, and while you’re at it, why not become a powerful force for social good? As Pope explains, you get only one opportunity with each day to experience that particular day, “So what are you going to do today to make something that you’re proud of or that you’re interested in?”

Elisa Pupko: Bringing the joy of theater to children 

Pupko has channeled her love of theater and desire to teach children into a successful business venture. As a successful actress and entrepreneur who is the founder and executive director of Treasure Trunk Theatre, Pupko, ‘05, is passionate about providing children in need with the same opportunities that she had as a young girl to develop and expand their creativity.

Elisa Pupko and her niece at the Treasure Trunk Theatre

Elisa Pupko and her niece at the Treasure Trunk Theatre

Growing up in a family facing financial challenges, Pupko pursued her love of theater through the help of scholarships. “As a kid, I did summer programs every year, a lot of them at Seattle Children’s Theatre, and I was always on scholarship. That was the only way we could afford for me to participate in theater,” she explains. Years later, she hasn’t forgotten the positive role that others’ generosity played in her life, and now she’s paying it forward. “Now that I’m in a position to bring theater to children, I make sure that I can give it to as many kids as possible.” Last year, Treasure Trunk Theatre’s Community Outreach Program, funded by donations from the parents of children who attend the school, provided a full year of programming to 120 children in two locations. To ensure that Treasure Trunk can continue to bring classes to under-served communities, Pupko donates 5 percent of all company profits to supporting the Community Outreach Program.

Mike Pope: Providing legal representation to help youth reclaim lives of dignity

For Pope, ’05, being a force for social good has meant pursuing his dream of providing legal representation to youth who have been involved in the criminal justice system and are seeking reentry into society. While at the UW, Pope majored in Law, Societies, and Justice. Today, as Legal Director for Youth Represent, a holistic youth defense and advocacy nonprofit organization, Pope leads the organization’s community lawyering model. He is also a Board Member for the American Bar Association’s Commission on Youth at Risk and is Co-Chair of the Criminal Justice Section’s Young Lawyers Committee.

Mike Pope, Legal Director of Youth Represent

Mike Pope is the Legal Director of Youth Represent

When Pope joined Youth Represent as the organization’s third employee, reentry was not a topic that received the widespread attention that it does today. Now that reentry is receiving widespread attention, “The question is, what can we leverage now toward making systemic change, to incarceration, to providing real resources for disenfranchised communities?” Pope says. The number one focus of Youth Represent? Raising the age of criminal responsibility. New York and North Carolina are currently the only two states in the United States where youth over the age of 15 are automatically prosecuted in the adult system, even for minor crimes. On the positive side, Pope notes that New York has one of the strongest Fair Chance Acts in the country. Also known as “Ban the Box,” the Fair Chance Act prevents employers in New York City with four or more employees from asking about applicants’ criminal records until after a conditional job offer is made.

Finding inspiration and role models at the UW

Pupko’s and Pope’s experiences as students at the UW helped inspire them academically, personally and professionally. “I was a Costco Diversity Scholar for the UW, which is how I made my final decision to attend. I was very lucky to have a scholarship to attend a great school and pursue theater in my back yard,” says Pupko, who majored in Drama. Both have positive memories of faculty members and advisers who supported their professional and personal development at the UW, particularly the following:

Lincoln Johnson

Lincoln Johnson

Lincoln Johnson, Associate Vice President and Director for Student Life and the Husky Union Building (HUB): Johnson has known the couple since both were students at the UW, and he remains in touch. “Lincoln is a very dear friend of both of ours, and we’re lucky that we get to see him every time he comes to New York. For both of us, Lincoln is a big part of our development at the UW and also just our current life now,” Pope says. The admiration is mutual. Johnson explains: “There’s a joy about them, there is a comfort with wherever they are, certainly with each other. The support that they have for each other, the love that they have for the school–they are Dawgs, they are Huskies, and their connection to the school has only increased the last couple of years. They fully embrace their life experience.”

Jackie McMurtrie, professor of clinical law at the UW and founder of the Innocence Project Northwest (IPNW), was a major influence in Pope’s life and career. During his time at the UW, Pope served as an intern at IPNW, which frees innocent prisoners using DNA and other new evidence.

Jacqueline McMurtrie

Jackie McMurtrie

“Through Jackie letting me be her undergraduate intern, I really saw the work and passion and impact that a lawyer can have on different types of communities, in particular low-income, disenfranchised communities,” Pope explains. McMurtrie wrote a recommendation in 2009 for Pope’s successful application for an Equal Justice Works Fellowship. In the recommendation, she refers to Pope as “one of the most exceptional and promising young adults I have encountered during my decades in academia. He is a person of uncommon intelligence, drive and passion …  and I believe he will become a leader in the public service community.” The Equal Justice Works Fellowship led to Pope’s work at Youth Represent (he joined the organization in 2010 under the auspices of the fellowship).

Shanga Parker, Associate Arts Professor at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, one of Pupko’s favorite faculty members, was head of the undergraduate drama program at the UW when Pupko was a student.

Shanga Parker

Shanga Parker

For his part, Parker fondly recalls having Pupko as a student. “I remember her as being one of the hardest working students in the department. She always had a smile and made those around her feel better. Elisa was a great example to her classmates in that she is undaunted in her desire to find work … She is a great credit to what an actor can do–look and find work all of the time–if an actor never stops,” Parker recalls.


Finding love and building connections at the UW 


Elisa Pupko and Mike Pope (second from the right and furthest right), with other New York Huskies at the chapter's annual barbecue in June 2016

Elisa Pupko and Mike Pope (second from the right and furthest right), with other New York Huskies at the chapter’s annual barbecue in June 2016


Although both tell different stories about how they first met, Pope’s and Pupko’s friendship and romance centered on the UW. (Earlier this year, Pope and Pupko and several other couples shared their respective “how I met” stories in this video.) So where do their stories ultimately converge? Both had the same astronomy class. As Pupko jokes, “You could say our story was written in the stars.” Both remain involved with the UW, serving as co-chairs for the annual New York Alumni Chapter’s salmon barbecue event and also chairing the chapter’s theater events.

Mike Pope and Elisa Pupko with their dog, Zoka, in New York

Mike Pope and Elisa Pupko with their dog Zoka in New York

Though they have made a home in New York and don’t plan on relocating, they return every year to the UW campus and have brought a bit of Seattle with them to New York in the form of their dog, Zoka. In true Seattle style, Zoka’s name was inspired by Zoka Coffee, where the couple spent hours studying during their time at the UW.

For both Pope and Pupko, the UW is very much a part of who they are. UW alumni share something special, as Pupko explains. “It’s an instant connection, and it’s really fun to have that community,” she says.