Meet 2021 American Express NGen Award Winner – Maria Yuan

Innovative thinking. Bold moves. These are the qualities that fresh, new leadership can bring to address today’s complex challenges. For over 10 years, Independent Sector has honored an exceptional emerging leader with these qualities with the American Express NGen Leadership Award, in recognition of their creative and collaborative leadership that is helping to solve an intractable community challenge.

Maria Yuan

We’re proud to present Maria Yuan, recipient of the 2021 American Express NGen Leadership Award. 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.

You’ll meet Maria Yuan on the Upswell Summit Main Stage, Thursday, October 21 at 4:30-5:00 PM ET, but you can learn a bit more about her now..

  • It’s been a particularly challenging couple of years, what has kept you grounded and whole in this time?

My family, friends, and team, including amazing volunteers and interns! Our team, internship program, Advisory Board, and volunteers all grew throughout 2020 and 2021. Interested in joining them? Express your interest here. And last fall, we launched an Ambassador Program, IssueVoter’s first virtual event-series! Ambassadors get to hear from Congressional staff, think tank leaders, campaign experts, and more. Express your interest here.

  • Who or what has been the biggest inspiration to your growth as a leader?

There isn’t a single person. What keeps me motivated when challenges arise is IssueVoter’s vision: Imagine a world where our democracy truly represents the people. Together, we can create the world we want to live in through truly representative democracy.

Plus, knowing that individuals are using IssueVoter across all 50 states, all 435 congressional districts, and Washington, D.C. inspires me to continue to improve our features and programs. We’re working toward a vision of a healthier democracy for all Americans.

This year, we’re fundraising to build an app, add language translations to IssueVoter, and grow our civic education programming. Please email of any of those sound interesting to you!

  • What attracted you to become involved in your organization’s mission?

I’m committed to a democracy that works for all of us because my parents always voted and taught me the value of civic duty at a young age. In second grade, our teacher did a simple activity in class that stayed with me until this day: mock voting.

I first envisioned IssueVoter while managing a state senate campaign in Iowa, a battleground state known for its voter engagement. Having previously worked for a Representative, I knew how little contact voters have with legislators year-round, despite the fact that federal representatives really do count every constituent contact. There was no easy way to know what happens between elections, when the real work that affects our lives gets done! In Iowa, just like everywhere else, people are super engaged during election-season, and disengage during the off-season.

I thought, “How can we extend engagement beyond elections? How can we help everyone understand new laws that will affect their daily lives?” I founded IssueVoter to give everyone an effective, easy-to-use digital platform to voice their opinions and play an active role in the policymaking process.

  • Upswell, a meeting ground for Independent Sector’s changemaker community, is focused on creating a healthy and racially equitable nation. How does this vision tie into your organization’s work?

Our mission is to give everyone a voice in our representative democracy. Why is IssueVoter important? America’s representative democracy remains inaccessible to most, and barriers disproportionately hinder younger generations, low-income families, and communities of color. Over 15,000 bills, which are inherently challenging to understand, are introduced each Congressional session, yet the public only hears about a few. By informing you of legislation affecting issues you care about and sending your opinions to lawmakers, IssueVoter helps you see how often you were truly represented. Afterall, policy is what creates large-scale, lasting systemic change.

The core civic motivation of IssueVoter is to strengthen the very fibers of democracy by engaging people on the issues they care about, bringing transparency to the policymaking process, and empowering constituents to participate in accountable governance. A strong democracy requires access to policymaking, and IssueVoter empowers constituents to be truly heard.

  • What attributes and perspectives do today’s emerging leaders bring to accelerating the sector’s work to address our nation’s challenges?

There is broader awareness of systemic inequality and increased ability to leverage technology for good ethically. This evolution, I hope, will speed up the rate of change that needs to happen.

For example, our partners’ work is inspirational. We work with Right2Vote and deliver our bill summaries to individuals incarcerated across more than 400 prisons so that even those without access to the internet are able to engage beyond elections! We’ve worked with educators to bring access to IssueVoter and civic education into the classroom, before students are eligible to vote!

  • How would you challenge all of today’s changemakers to become more involved in building a healthier and more racially just nation where all can thrive?

I encourage today’s changemakers to follow policy and make your voice heard by your elected representatives. We all care about something: Take a moment to think about an issue you care about. Is it the future of our planet? Equality? Our healthcare system? Education? The economy? We are a nation built on laws, so policy change is what creates the large-scale, sustainable, better future that we envision. And there are so many issues that the majority of Americans do support! At IssueVoter, we love collaborating and partnering with organizations, funders, and educators to make having a say in Washington accessible, efficient, and impactful.

Want to learn about the 2021 American Express NGen Award finalists?

Learn about Richard Reyes, Alejandro Gibes de Gac, Kashif Shaikh, Andrew Plumley,  Nick Monzi, and Meghan Shea.

Types: Blog
Global Topics: Civil Society, Election, Equity, Race, Equity, and Inclusion, Upswell
Focus Areas: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion