In Conversation with the Young American Coalition for Unity (YACU) | The Cornell Review
The Cornell Review had the pleasure to converse with five directors of the Young American Coalition for Unity (YACU). This is a high school and college student organisation, dedicated to the promotion of bipartisan dialogue and non-partisan evaluation of American politics. Speaking to Dan Mikhaylov were the group’s Political Director, Andrew Juan, Communications Director, Andrew LaBerge, Organizing Co-Director, Michael Li, and Digital Director, Alexis Maese.
Please, note that questions and responses have been redacted and abridged for stylistic purposes by the interviewer. The YACU is a non-partisan organisation, and does not publicly endorse politicians or policies. Any opinion comments reflect exclusively the views of the individual who made them.
Dan Mikhaylov: Thanks for reaching out to The Cornell Review. How did you decide to launch your organisation? Were there any turning points in US politics that persuaded you to do so?
Michael Li: By starting the Young American Coalition for Unity, we wanted to address the lack of bipartisan and civil political discussion in high schools across the country. There was no platform for students to engage in it, whereas now, our high school and college chapters function as hubs of political discussion on both the local and the national levels. Modern politics is a food fight, practically: Democrats and Republicans throw insults at each other without addressing those policy issues where overlaps exist. Our platform allows people to find their own opinions, meet likeminded people, and discuss opposing views.
Dan: Do you think this polarisation is a recent phenomenon or something cyclical?
Andrew LaBerge: We have had polarisation in the US since the time of George Washington. People like grouping themselves with like minded people, which, in turn, has created radical shifts in different people’s beliefs and is now tearing states between the far-left and the far-right ideologies. We have created the YACU to bridge this gap and create a brand name not for a party organisation, but an inclusive politics society for students.
Dan: We have two big parties, supposedly big-tent but increasingly monolithic in ideological outlook? Is breaking party politics into smaller groups a potential solution?
Michael: In the history of the United States, there have always been two parties. Whenever a third party emerged, it failed and was short-lived. There are ways to remedy this. Some have suggested rank choice voting — if your vote fails for the first person, it will still matter, as it will go to the next candidate you endorse. We believe that voting based on the party is bad and that one should vote based on opinions and policies.
We should certainly have more parties, but it is a matter of making them popular and impactful. In the current political system, it is hard for them to shine, but hopefully, future changes will give such minor movements as Libertarians and Progressives an opportunity to be heard rather than to flock to the big parties.
Andrew L.: I think the last time we had a real third-party candidate was Ross Perot (1992 and 1996). Ralph Nader shook some things up in 2000 but it has always been tough for third parties to enter the political system. 1860 was perhaps the last time we had three factions.
Dan: Were you inspired by any role models when creating your organisation?
Andrew Juan: I worked with the Andrew Yang campaign, which received more bipartisan support than most other campaigns at the time. Yang’s example helped me formulate the concepts we wanted to continue: engaging young people in politics and exposing them to multiple perspectives.
Michael: I look up to community leaders rather than to politicians. I do advocacy work for the poor in Rochester, which ranks fourth in the US in terms of child poverty and has low education completion rates. Politicians often forget that politics is about changing people’s lives, whereas some community leaders in my area put politics aside and think about the community instead of the next election.
Alexis Maese: For me, it is Stacey Abrams and Michelle Obama, because they are powerful women in politics.
Dan: I perused your website and found you have high school chapters in eleven states and D.C, and are especially active in Arizona, New York, and Texas. Any reason for this?
Michael: I am the Organising Director, and deal with chapter growth and youth engagement. Since we are relatively small and new, we depend on enthusiastic youths to give us representation. In those states, we have very enthusiastic people; in Arizona alone, we have eight chapters around Phoenix, AZ, because our local activists have mobilised their friends.
Dan: You currently have physical and virtual chapters. How do you manage such a complex structure?
Michael: We have different servers on Discord — one for the whole organisation, one for the leadership and many more for the different chapters we have. Chapters leads do most of the content work, and we only supply them with event ideas and graphics.
Dan: Have you successfully partnered with other youth organisations, or is this still a distant goal?
Andrew J.: At one point, we partnered with the High School Democrats of America, but they recently elected a new board and we have not had the chance to reconnect. I also reached out to Teen Age Republicans several times but received no response. We are hoping to connect with more organisations, whether they are established or equally bipartisan-oriented.
Dan: You organise many different activities, including debating and Model UN? Does the impetus come from the board or from the chapters?
Andrew L.: A lot of our events are member-initiated and member-run; we just provide them with resources. Chapters likewise host their own debates to supplement the nationwide events, scheduled by the organising team.
Dan: How has your speaker series been going thus far?
Andrew J.: Our speaker series has been doing well. We have only had members of academia up from the University of Illinois, USC, and Cornell among others up to this point, but we will have an event with a campaign manager this week. Many members attend these events.
Dan: We have qualitative analysis, but I wish to know about the quantitative side of things too. What is the average viewership of your website, podcast, and blogs?
Andrew L.: On the blog, we let members do the edits and write articles they care about. On most pieces, we have approximately 30 views, and we are trying to advertise them more. With the podcast, we recently did a live stream with some of our members, who were discussing the New Jersey primaries.
Dan: Have you been as successful on social media as on the website?
Alexis: I handle the group’s social media. We have had some growth since quarantine, as everyone is now at home, especially in our Instagram and Twitter.
Michael: Although our following on social media and blog posts, we have good turnouts at our debate events. It exceeds twenty people consistently, and some events even have 30+ active participants. Our proudest numbers, however, are on the ground — we have 1000+ members of this moment and are expecting more growth in September, once students have the chance to come back to schools and advertise the YACU.
Dan: Are you targeting younger students as well?
Alexis: We cannot have anyone under thirteen participating digitally under American law. However, having younger members would be great.
Andrew L.: We mainly focus on high schools, since they provide a good climate for political discussion, Many pupils take US government and history classes, which provide them with the knowledge needed to engage with politics.
Michael: Our New York City chapter has been emailing primary school teachers and asking them if they do a presentation on US politics to primary schoolers. We have also advised them to reach out to other educational institutions in their area. This is a good example of how we are seeking to make an impact in our local community.
Dan: You also publish policy papers. How do you reconcile non-partisanship with reviewing policy?
Andrew J.: Our policy papers are read and re-read to make them as neutral as possible without discarding the facts. They form the bulk of our policy programme discussions, which take place once or twice a month. At these sessions, our members propose their solutions to policy issues, and our policy papers provide the cost and benefit overview of said issues.
Dan: Where do you see yourself in a year’s time?
Andrew J.: Becoming a brand name for political discussion at schools across the country.
Andrew L.: We hope to get our podcast on more platforms, such as Google Podcast and Apple Podcast.
Dan: How do you delegate your resources (financial and human) to accomplish your goals?
Andrew L.: We have good company structure. Our national board consists of nine members. I handle communications, Alexis does digital media, Michael focuses on organisation, etc.
Andrew J.: At the time of the YACU’s founding, I was the only one present from the current lot of directors. The others joined the organisation as deputy directors and worked their way up. Andrew, for instance, was admitted to the Instagram team before becoming the Deputy Communications, and later stepped into his current post.
Dan: While cultivating non-partisanship, how do you avoid succumbing to faceless pragmatism? Should there still be a place for ideology in politics?
Andrew J.: I think that striving for common ground is different. There are many bipartisan initiatives in Congress, but the press does not give them the coverage they deserve. People are no doubt engaged by the idea of idealism and fighting for what they
Alexis: Idealist politics has plenty to do with how people self-identify. Many think that if you support somebody, you have to like all their ideas and policies. However, when you take off such labels as Democrats and Republicans, you realise we have plenty in common.
Dan: Quite a few of you support Yang. Do you have many Republicans in your group, or is there an imbalance towards the Democratic camp?
Andrew J.: It has been difficult to find young conservatives, given our lack of communications with young Republican groups. I did reach out to TP USA at one point and we made a connection, but could not use it as much as we would have wanted. The disparity in size between our organizations did not help.
Our organisation is about discovering your ideas. So, identifying with the GOP or with the Democratic Party does not prevent you from supporting the policies of the other side.
Dan: Have you tried reaching out to people who crossed the aisle, such as the Democratic politicians supporting Trump?
Andrew J.: No, we have not. It is a great idea, however.
Dan: It was a pleasure speaking to you. Obviously, not all are familiar with your organisation just yet. How would you summarise your organisation in three to five words for our readers?
Andrew L.: I would use the three words on our website; they are near and dear to my heart — Engage, Promote, and Volunteer.
Andrew J.: These three things make us unique: we are not only youth-led, but also simultaneously bipartisan and non-partisan.
The Cornell Review thanks members of the Young American Coalition for Unity for donating their time and we wish them all the best in their future endeavours to bridge the partisan divide.
Originally published at https://www.thecornellreview.org on August 16, 2020.