From the NBA to Social Activist: An Immigrant Star Works To Repair Democracy
by Joan Mandle and Adam Eichen
In 1991, two college professors doing research in the Caribbean spotted 16-year-old, 6-foot 10-inch Adonal Foyle on a basketball court. Amazed by his ability, they invited him to return with them to the United States, trusting that he could use his athletic talent to get an education.
After moving to snowyHamilton, New York, Foyle worked hard to balance schoolwork, home life and basketball. He was very successful - attending Colgate University, where he led the men’s basketball team to its first NCAA appearance in the school’s history. He graduated — with honors. In 1997, Foyle was chosen by the Golden State Warriors as the eighthpick in the first round of the NBA draft.
Foyle, who had grown up in the impoverishedisland nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, wanted to use his newfound celebrity status and financial success to give back to the United States, the country that had provided him with such a remarkable opportunity.
One thing Foyleloved about basketball was its fairness. On the court, everyone played by the same rules. Anyone with talent had a chance to succeed and no one could buy victory. Yet in his second big passion, American politics, the opposite was true. Foyle saw that money — not talent or merit — dictated political success. Wealthy funders had all the power and access. The vast majority of Americans had neither.
This inequality troubled Foyle so deeply he was determined to find a solution. He wanted to make politics more like basketball — offering everyone a chance to have their voices heard. It would be his own way of giving back and making a difference.
Based on his own experience at Colgate and his conversations with students across the country, Foyle chose to take the fight to college campuses — home to notoriously low-voting, seemingly disaffected millennials.
Why? Because Foyledidn’t believe students really were apathetic. In his view, students were politically disengaged not because ofapathy, but because they lacked the tools to get in the game. With support and training in grassroots organizing, students could gain a political voice, and — as they had done in the past — play a critical role in social change, jumpstarting a grassroots movement for political equality.
Adonal Foyle founded Democracy Matters, a non-profit, non-partisan student organization. His vision was to deepen democracy by getting big money out of politics. Democracy Matters would engage students in a movement to protect voting rights and to pass public campaign financing for local, state, and federal elections.
With its unique program of undergraduate internships to create and maintain membership chapters on college campuses, since 2001, Democracy Matters has sponsored nearly 1,200interns in 32states. An experienced national staff mentors and supports these young people, enabling their campus events and programs to reach tens of thousands of students.Democracy Matters channels students’ passion and creativity toward the creation of an electoral system that is inclusive and fair, and a government that is truly of, by, and for the people.
Over the years, as Democracy Matters grew, Foyle’s belief in students was confirmed. “I learned more about how politics and public policy works from being part of Democracy Matters than from my political science classes,” Samuel Beckenhauer, co-president of Vassar’s Democracy Matters chapter, said. “I’ll be fighting for a better democracy my whole life!”
Democracy Matters chapters actively implement a wide variety of events on their campuses, including teach-ins, voter registration drives, newspaper op-eds, open mic nights, petition campaigns, screenings and concerts.
They also work off-campus: writing, emailing, petitioning, and personally lobbying their elected representatives; speaking at local high schools and civic organizations; and participating in rallies and demonstrations.
The student chapters create strong coalitions both on and off campus with environmental, labor, social justice and civil and human rights organizations. Working with these allies, students can connect money in politics to dozens of other issues important to their communities. Such coalitions demonstrate that Democracy Matters students are not alone,infuse local movements with new enthusiasm and ideas, and empower the broader student movement.
The 2016 and 2018 elections have generated enormous excitement and increased political engagement among young people. Democracy Matters chapters are harnessing and sustaining that energy. In their ongoing organizing and programming, Democracy Matters students advocate for voter registration, the protection and expansion of voting rights, and public campaign financing.
Over the past seventeen years, Adonal’s belief that students can be a potent force for grassroots social change has been confirmed. Moving forward, Democracy Matters will continue to build and sustain young people’s commitment to the grassroots democracy movement; nurturing young activists by tapping into their deep commitment to a fair and inclusive future, and making sure that their voices are heard.