American Express NGen Award Winner Maria Yuan: On Building a Democracy for All of Us

“I’m really committed to a democracy that works for all of us,” said Maria Yuan, 2021 American Express NGen Award Winner, during her Main Stage talk at the 2021 Upswell Summit in October. Maria was introduced by Richard Brown, Vice President of Philanthropy at American Express.

Maria Yuan

Over the past 12 years, American Express has fostered the leadership potential of more than 140 nonprofit and philanthropic leaders through NGen programming, including Independent Sector’s American Express Fellows program, and the American Express NGen Leadership Award, which honors an emerging charitable community leader age 40 or under who is demonstrating significant impact in addressing a community challenge and accelerating transformative social change.

Maria is Founder and CEO of IssueVoter, an online platform where individuals can become informed on key issues, make their voices heard, and track their representatives’ voting records. IssueVoter is a nonpartisan resource that makes civic engagement accessible.

During her Main Stage talk, Maria explained that her father’s family had fled from Communist China, and how growing up in the United States, her parents “always voted and taught me the value of civic duty at a young age.”

Inspired by her parents, Maria eventually managed a campaign in Iowa, a state known for voter engagement, and noticed that voters continued to ask the same question: “Is my representative actually representing me?” Saying “there’s no easy way to know what happens between elections when the real work that affects our lives gets done,” Maria founded IssueVoter to “give everyone a voice in our democracy by making civil engagement, accessible, efficient, and impactful.”

Photo courtesy of Hadiya Williams

In addition to an honorarium intended to support her work and/or further her leadership development, Maria also received a multimedia award designed by Hadiya Williams, a local Washington, DC area artist. See below for more about Hadiya and her work.

A tradition of award design by local artist

Continuing an Upswell tradition of the American Express NGen Leadership Award being designed by an artist in the locale of the Summit, the 2021 award was designed by artist Hadiya Williams. (Note: the 2021 Summit was produced virtually from Washington, DC due to safety concerns arising from the pandemic).

Hadiya Williams is a mixed-media artist and designer based in Washington, DC. With over 15 years of experience in graphic design, she founded Black Pepper Paperie Co. in 2017. She has since expanded her art and design practice to include handmade ceramic objects, surface design, and visual art. Hadiya’s work is inspired by the relationship between history, cultural memory, migration, and ritual.

Describing the award she designed, Hadiya said, “This piece was inspired by the idea that many leaders excel because they take the hurdles and challenges of life and use them as steps toward impactful and progressive change.”

Learn about the 2021 American Express NGen Award finalists: Richard Reyes, Alejandro Gibes de Gac, Kashif Shaikh, Andrew Plumley,  Nick Monzi, and Meghan Shea.

Types: Blog
Global Topics: Civil Society, Election, Innovation, Leadership Development, Purpose, Voice