Meet the reformer: Maria Yuan, who's put issue knowledge and advocacy a click away
It took a decade for the germ of an idea to develop into the launch of IssueVoter, right after the last presidential election. Four years on, creator Maria Yuan says her interactive civic engagement and voter education tool has more than 2 million subscribers dispersed across all 435 congressional districts. The concept came to her during her one stint as a political operative, running a 2006 Iowa legislative campaign, and took flight after getting an MBA and working as a startup consultant and investment bank analyst and recruiter. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.
What's the tweet-length description of your organization?
Legislative information on the issues subscribers say they care about, plus translations of bills into layman's terms and an easy way to express views to members of Congress. Also, a personalized scorecard about lawmakers' votes, so they can be more informed in the next election!
Describe your very first civic engagement.
My second-grade teacher in California did a simple activity that has stayed with me until this day: mock voting! We were asked to cast our votes for president. I wrote mine on a small slip of paper, folded it and placed it confidently into our classroom's homemade secret ballot box. The teacher announced the votes and showed us a map of the country, and I got a taste of democracy and civic participation at 7 years old. I felt empowered and included. Plus, it was fun!
What was your biggest professional triumph?
About 15 years later, I went to manage a successful campaign for an open state Senate seat in Iowa, a state known for its voter engagement. (I always say, if you want to meet famous politicians then don't go to D.C., go to Iowa.) Still, like everywhere else, people get super engaged in campaign season but disengage during the off-season. This makes no sense: You would never promote employees without seeing their work, yet that's what we do when we re-elect people without paying attention to what they've been up to.
So what I learned was that politics and campaigns completely overshadow what's important — the policy. We are a nation built on laws, and policy is what affects every single issue you care about. Policy is what can create the better world we all desire.
And your most disappointing setback?
I learned that I wasn't inspired to continue working in politics, which had been the plan. I even had job offers to work on other campaigns afterwards.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
Unfortunately, it's our identities that influence the way others see us — unconscious or not. It's my experience, skills and personality, rather than my identity, that influence the way I work.
I am results-oriented and a driver. I am a verbal processor, thinking aloud. I disliked being micromanaged, so I give members of my team a ton of autonomy. I enjoy bringing people together behind a common goal and believe measurable impact can be accomplished efficiently, and at great scale. I am a strategic thinker and can see the big picture. I have tons of new ideas.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
You can't quit. That's what mom said when I didn't get the lead in a children's "mini actors" class. It was a lesson in perseverance but also a reminder that other people depend on you.
My favorite advice right now is from Toni Morrison: If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
One where you have to mix red and blue sections together for it to taste good? Maybe not. The best ice cream is Mexican Vanilla at Amy's in Austin, Texas, my home town. A blend of Madagascar vanilla bean and Mexican orchid, it needs no improvement.
What's your favorite political movie or TV show?
Actually I don't watch a lot of political TV or film. But I do remember liking "The Newsroom," the HBO series about a fictional cable news channel handling real news in the recent past.
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Check my calendar for the next day and set a time to wake up — though I usually get up before my alarm anyway.
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I used to have a restaurant blog that was exclusively reviews of the huevos rancheros and tortilla soup at places I visited.
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