The year was 1979. Jimmy Carter was President, disco was king, and 29 year-old Alan Sugiyama established the Center for Career Alternatives (CCA). And now, after thirty-one years as the Executive Director and the public face of the CCA, Al Sugiyama has decided to step down.

So why now? Sugiyama stated, “When I first started CCA, I thought this would last about ten years, then I’d go on to something different, “ said Sugiyama. “But ten years became fifteen, then twenty, then twenty five. As it turned out, there never was a good time to leave and I really enjoyed what I was doing. But now after thirty years, I wanted to try one more thing, a second career where I could make a difference, while I still had a little bounce in my step.”

Back in 1979, Sugiyama saw a need for employment training and vocational education in the minority communities. But as he explained, “Services were ethnic-specific. Asians went to EOC (Employment Opportunities Center), Blacks went to the Urban League. I wanted to take a multi-ethnic approach, services for everyone, regardless of race.” Funded by a two-year $75,000 demonstration grant from the US Department of Education, Sugiyama established the Center for Career Alternatives to provide career counseling, specifically targeting minorities. More grants followed. The agency grew. What began as a two-person operation (Sugiyama and Mark Okazaki, current Executive Director of Neighborhood House) in a small office on Rainier Avenue in 1979 now operates with a staff of 33, a $3.0 million operating budget, with offices in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, Everett, and Kent. Over the past 31 years, CCA has operated more than 200 programs providing education and employment-related services to over 30,000 youth and adults.

Under Sugiyama’s leadership, CCA has earned numerous awards for workforce development, including National Anne E. Casey Foundation Cultural Competence in Workforce Development Award, the Seattle Jobs Initiative’s Cultural Diversity in Workforce Development Award, and national recognition as a Model Program by the National Youth Employment Coalition’s Promising and Effective Practices Network (PEPNet).

Despite the numerous awards, when asked to cite his proudest accomplishments, Sugiyama said, “the number of people that we were able to make a positive difference in their lives.” Sugiyama said that CCA served clients “who were the hardest to serve,” those who faced multiple barriers to employment and education—newly arrived refugees and immigrants, the unskilled and the uneducated, high school dropouts, at-risk youth—empowering them with the tools to find meaningful employment, providing options for success in life through vocational college education, vocational English as a Second Language, apprenticeships, employment training, and mentorships. The huge number of success stories—those who overcame the barriers to self-dependency—kept Sugiyama at CCA when he had numerous opportunities to leave.

Having been so long associated with CCA (more than half of his life), does Sugiyama’s leaving hurt CCA? Sugiyama replied, “Right now in the short-run, CCA, like a lot of non-profits, are struggling. We’ve had to downsize, lay off or furlough staff, which has been very difficult for me. It’s cyclical, right now, it’s down, but it’ll be back. CCA still provides services that are much needed in the community. I have a lot of confidence in Peter Tsai (who is now serving as Executive Director). And Sugiyama really hasn’t left CCA. He still goes to the office three times a week, but now as a volunteer. He is writing small grants, assisting in program supervision, and doing what he can to help CCA out.

Sugiyama does have a life outside of CCA. He is a former Board President of the Seattle School District. He holds or held memberships with numerous organizations and boards, including the Advisory Council to the University of Washington President, serving as the current Vice President for Building Better Futures, the Asian Pacific Islander Directors Coalition, and the Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month Committee.

So what does the future hold for him? Sugiyama replied, “I’m excited about the prospects. I’m open. But if I had to choose—I’ve been on the side where you have to go begging for money to convince people that what you are doing is worthwhile. I’d like to know what life is on the other side, where you can give out the dollars to programs that are innovative. In any event, I am going to do something that will make a positive impact on society.”

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