Meet Lasallian Mirus Ponon: Young Filipino Changemaker Championing Sustainable Development

Mirus Ponon Changemaker Championing Sustainable Development
21-year-old Mirus Ponon has shaken up the development world through his nonprofit organization, ASEAN Youth Advocates Network. Mirus Ponon and ASEAN Youth Advocates Network photos.

“[It is always essential] to have a culture that is focused on empowerment and inclusion,” declared Mirus Ponon, a dynamic Filipino youth advocate.

Mirus Ponon is not just a name but a symbol of change and empowerment. As the founder of the nonprofit ASEAN Youth Advocates Network (AYAN), the 21-year-old former student leader of De La Salle University (DLSU) has inspired tens of thousands of youth volunteers worldwide.

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With a focus on fostering a culture that emphasizes empowerment and inclusion, he’s spearheaded social engagement projects across various communities, earning recognition on global stages like the United Nations Global Climate and Sustainable Development Goals Conference, and even a scholarship at the Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations. His message is clear: inclusion and empowerment are not just ideals but actionable goals for the new generation.

Breaking through barriers

Ponon holds a Bachelor’s degree in Development Studies from De La Salle University, where he was a multi-awarded Lasallian student leader and graduated Magna Cum Laude. Despite the lofty amount of achievements he has garnered at such a young age, Ponon recounts that it was never in his plans to start a nonprofit organization.

Nevertheless, he considered his early volunteering experiences the “seeds” that grew his passion for advocacy work. “My first ever volunteering opportunity [was] a gift-giving activity in Nabua, Camarines Sur. That municipality is where both of my parents grew up,” he recalled. “That’s where I saw poverty in the Philippines. [It is] a very rural town that’s always hit by calamity.”‌

With his parents later relocating to Paco, Manila, Ponon remembered how deeply entrenched poverty was in his hometown. “You see people always asking for help because lagi nagkakasunog sa Paco (There are always fires in Paco),” he said.

Despite wanting to help his local community, Ponon felt that his educational circle was not open to aspiring youth leaders like himself. “There’s this big boundary that the educational system has,” he reflected. “I would always get messages from teachers telling me, ‘Why do you want to be a leader if you can’t get your grades right?’”

When he eventually began leading organizations in senior high school, he met doubt from his peers. “I remember the vice president telling me na, ‘Hindi ka student leader ever since, wala kang experience_. Sino ka ba_? (You were never a student leader, you don’t have experience. Who are you?)’” he recollected. “It’s something so traumatic [for me] until today. Not everyone has experience because not everyone has the opportunity, so will we just let go of those who are inexperienced?”

Even outside of school, he noticed patterns of exclusivity in youth-oriented nonprofits; many volunteers were much older than him, as the pool was mainly composed of college students or fresh graduates. “Imagine being a 15-year-old in those situations,” he laughed.

This was the springboard for Ponon to found Youth Advocates for the Philippines in 2019. The next year, it was given a more global focus and renamed the ASEAN Youth Advocates Network. “[The organization] had an initial vision of having a safe space for the youth, regardless of their age, regardless of their advocacy, [and] regardless of what they want to do,” he said proudly.‌

Steps forward

To Ponon, the most significant milestone of his organization was the ASEAN Youth Cares outreach in 2020. The project extended aid to over nine Philippine provinces affected by Typhoon Rolly, with AYAN donating boats to a local community in Bulacan.‌

Ponon asserted that his accomplishments on the global stage do not compare to his work at home. “I honestly believe that all these milestones, regardless of how big of an event [it] is, whether that’s a UN event or [whether it] is an international event, still do not translate [to]… the community work that we do on the ground [and] in the grassroots,” he imparted.

This is why AYAN is adamant about focusing its gaze on the local arena when pursuing development work. “[International collaboration] expands our knowledge [and] enables us to solve the biggest problems… but I hope we get to point out that, before we focus [on it, we must] understand first local collaboration,” he stated. With this, the organization prioritizes a bottom-to-top approach to driving change.

Ponon also warned against having an “accomplishment-based” perspective in pursuing volunteer work. “Our biggest challenge is how to make sure that [our members] come here with a purpose that is with pure intention,” he said, seeing how many volunteers are motivated by clout or awards. For AYAN, action happens when the youth are inspired to solve problems.

“We want the youth to tackle the Philippines’ challenges,” he expressed. “[We want them] to advocate for causes–such as social justice–for us to achieve sustainable development.”

Onward and upwards for the Filipino youth of tomorrow

With AYAN now hitting its fourth year, Ponon shared that he encountered several doubts about the future of his organization. “There is the current stigma where [people believe] the youth are only limited [in their capabilities],” he lamented.

Because AYAN is a volunteer-run organization, he believes that its long-term sustainability also poses difficulties. But he declared that the youth’s self-driven desire to enact change is precisely what keeps AYAN going. “There’s a portion of trust, while [we also put forth] this inclusive guidance [to our members],” he expressed.

To Ponon, the core of AYAN is to put concrete action first and foremost. “Through action, we hope to enable the [youth’s] potential [by] paving the way and doing our part,” he asserted. All this is matched by the continuous emphasis on empowerment and inclusion in their organization.

Despite all the hardship, Ponon’s sense of purpose lies in his community of volunteers. “Seeing and having people that are committed to the mission of improving the lives of the everyday Filipino is what enables me to move forward,” Ponon ended. With inspiring changemakers like Ponon, the world for the youth remains ever-bright.

Filipino changemakers like Ponon include youth advocate Gheneva Aleta who defends Filipino Canadian immigrants’ rights, and sisters Billie and Ann Dumaliang who are leading the battle to protect natural resources at the Masungi Georeserve.

Do you know of a Filipino youth changemaker who should be featured on Good News Pilipinas? SHARE the story in the comments below.

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Summer is a political science student with a twin passion for journalism. Her hobbies include watching geography documentaries, searching the metro for plant-based food, and free-falling through Wikipedia rabbit holes. Her works have previously been featured in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.