Josiah Gilliam
Josiah Gilliam, executive director of PUMP, poses on the Smithfield Street Bridge, Downtown. Photo by John Beale.

Ask Josiah Gilliam what excites him about becoming the new executive director of the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project (PUMP), and he responds without an instant of hesitation.

“It’s an organization that offers a way for folks to jump into the city, give back, follow their own interest and have options,” he says. “You get to explore the city’s culture and meet people you probably wouldn’t have met.”

Gilliam, 36, is a Pittsburgh native and Downtown resident who recently served as special initiatives coordinator at the City of Pittsburgh and program coordinator for My Brother’s Keeper at Homewood Children’s Village. 

He joined the PUMP board of directors in 2019 believing in the importance of telling “the story of this moment in Pittsburgh.”

PUMP has been enthusiastically telling Pittsburgh’s story since the late 1990s through the lens of wellness activity and civic engagement, as it morphed from a series of informal business mixers into the full-fledged nonprofit Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project. 

PUMP founders hoped the “magnet metaphor” would spotlight the mission of persuading recent college graduates and young professionals to resist the siren calls of bigger cities and remain in Pittsburgh to foster the positive social change needed here.

Today, PUMP programs annually involve close to 25,000 participants, mostly through its Pittsburgh Sports League, which fields teams in basketball, bowling, dodgeball, flag football, kickball, pickleball, running club softball, tennis, volleyball, darts and cornhole. 

Josiah Gilliam
“I loved this idea that it had all these different facets to the organization,” Josh Gilliam says of PUMP. Photo by John Beale

The organization’s athletics overlap with community support — Kickball for a Cause has raised tens of thousands of dollars for local nonprofits and charities, the annual Steel City World Cup celebrates Pittsburgh’s cultural diversity, PUMPed to Run organizes a weekday running and walking group composed of residents of local homeless shelters and volunteer mentor runners.

“Advocacy is built into the DNA of PUMP,” Gilliam asserts. In 2018, PUMP was a primary sponsor of the Our Kids Our Commitment campaign that resulted in Allegheny County establishing the Department of Children Initiatives; in 2019, PUMP partnered with Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy to pass the Pittsburgh Parks for All ballot initiative

This spring, PUMP presented a nonpartisan Countywide Candidate Event moderated by Gilliam and KDKA-TV’s Lisa Smith. 

Preparation for a new strategic plan is in process, Gilliam says, noting that the last round undertaken in 2014 drew 11,000 responses suggesting ways to educate, engage and mobilize Pittsburgh’s young people in tackling a myriad of urgent civic issues.

Josiah Gilliam
Josiah Gilliam, the new executive director of PUMP, lives Downtown and visits the farmers’ market in Market Square. “This is my neighborhood,” Gilliam says. Photo by John Beale.

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NEXTpittsburgh: What was it that initially attracted you to PUMP?

Josiah Gilliam: I had been working in the nonprofit space and kept encountering them kind of organically. A lot of my friends did the PUMP sports leagues. I liked the bike events like Open Streets PGH and PedalPGH, and I would see PUMP have a presence there.

NEXTpittsburgh: Were you surprised by how focused it was on advocacy and volunteerism?

Gilliam: I loved this idea that it had all these different facets to the organization. It wasn’t just direct service like a mentoring program. It wasn’t just, you know, a running club. It was always different things. And then I attended the mayoral forum PUMP presented when Rev. Welch was running against Mayor Peduto. That really firmed up my interest. The idea that you could have an organization bringing these experiences directly to people in a nonpartisan fashion was very compelling to me. 

NEXTpittsburgh: PUMP’s sports leagues have been quite popular. Are there new sports you’re thinking about? 

Gilliam: We are rolling out a Gaelic football experience this summer, which is something I had to learn about. Pickleball has been the most recent explosion; we’re out of space with pickleball. We have been talking with Three Rivers Rowing Association about ways to introduce rowing and partner with them in some fashion. 

NEXTpittsburgh: Beyond sports, is PUMP planning any new program areas?

Gilliam: Folks have reached out to us with some really interesting ideas. This summer we’re going to kick off a Strategic Road Map process. We’re hoping to reintroduce ourselves to the community and get feedback on different things they would like to see PUMP do more of, or incorporate or maybe start anew. 

NEXTpittsburgh: It’s impressive how PUMP evolved from a general meetup group into a very strong advocacy channel. 

Gilliam: I think our current policy agenda reflects that. It’s community-driven. It’s about what people care about. It’s the idea of “How can this place become more dynamic, more diverse, more compelling for young professionals?”

The advocacy work gives us a lot of opportunity to ideally foster a sense — even beyond politics — that people can make a difference here in Pittsburgh. You’re wanted, you’re needed and you can make an impact.

Josh Gilliam talks with Chris Hornstein, director of Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works, left, and Kathryn Vargas, director of Pittsburgh’s Parks and Recreation, at Creative Coffee & Supply on Smithfield Street, Downtown. Photo by John Beale.

NEXTpittsburgh: Who in the organization decides on the issues to prioritize and what positions to take? 

Gilliam: We take incoming [ideas] as a team, and we talk about it there. The board also has a lot to say, and there’s a public policy and advocacy committee with its own chair that will bring things to our attention. At our last board meeting, we had a presentation from a fellow named David Thornburgh, who is part of the leadership for the Ballot PA initiative seeking to repeal closed primaries in Pennsylvania and allow the growing number of independent voters to choose a primary to participate in. It’s a dynamic conversation and a chance for the board to have their questions answered, to see if that’s something they want PUMP to be a part of. 

NEXTpittsburgh: With a year-round calendar of games and events, it seems that PUMP also provides a boost to local businesses.

Gilliam: We have the Hometown Hot Spots program where our members can enjoy discounts at participating bars and restaurants while socializing. Members can also get discounted tickets at arts venues like Benedum Center and City Theatre. We’re always looking for ways to help people explore the city, do more fun things. 

NEXTpittsburgh: Is PUMP thinking about adding another area of focus besides the sports leagues and the advocacy opportunities?

Gilliam: We’re working on a couple of new service projects later this year, including one with Greater Pittsburgh Area Community Food Bank. We’re volunteering with OpenStreetsPGH. We have good relations with The Mission Continues vet service organization that is big in the region. 

PUMP can be a switchboard and ideally be an effective and efficient communicator to say, “Here are cool things happening. Go have a great time.” I think that’s the key to the whole thing.” 

L.E. McCullough is a Pittsburgh musician/writer/journalist with a lifelong curiosity about who, what, when, where, why and especially how.