From the NBA to Social Activist: An Immigrant Star Tries To Repair Democracy

Former Golden State Warrior Adonal Foyle is pushing students to help solve the money-in-politics problem.

An NBA Star Fights To Restore Democracy

Retired NBA star Adonal Foyle shown here chasing a basketball during a 2001 game, is now devoting his considerable energies to reining in the influence of money on politics. (Photo: Jon Hatch/AFP/Getty Images)

Following last month’s Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening demonstrations in Washington, invited activists — some of whom participated in the protests and others who did not — to tell us how they’re continuing to fight for campaign finance and voting rights reform. This essay,  from the group Democracy Matters, is the latest in that series.

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 snowy Hamilton, New York, Foyle worked hard to balance schoolwork, home life and basketball. He was remarkably 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 eighth pick in the first round of the NBA draft.

Foyle, who had grown up in the impoverished island 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.

On the court, everyone played by the same rules. Anyone with talent had a chance to succeed and no one could buy victory

One thing Foyle loved 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 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 Foyle didn’t believe students really were apathetic. In his view, students were politically disengaged not because of apathy, 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 501(c)(3), non-profit, non-partisan student organization. His vision was to get big money out of politics by engaging students in a movement to pass public campaign financing for local, state, and federal elections.

With its unique program of paid undergraduate internships to create and maintain membership chapters on college campuses, since 2001, Democracy Matters has sponsored nearly 1,000 interns in 32 states. 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.

Democracy Matters interns with the organization's founder, Adonal Foyle.

Democracy Matters interns with the organization’s founder, Adonal Foyle.

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, and personally lobbying their elected representatives; speaking at local high schools and civic organizations, and participating in April’s Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening demonstrations.

Democracy Matters chapters have created 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 coordination show Democracy Matters students that they are not alone, infusing local movements with new enthusiasm and ideas, and empowering the broader student movement.

What’s more, last summer Democracy Matters launched a new program, “Restore Democracy.” Democracy Matters interns spent the summer in Iowa and New Hampshire grassroots organizing and working with other groups to make money in politics a central issue of the 2016 presidential primaries. This coming summer, even more Democracy Matters interns will be in these states organizing.

The 2016 election clearly has generated enormous excitement and increased political engagement among young people. Democracy Matters chapters are planning to harness and sustain that energy. In their ongoing organizing and programming this fall, Democracy Matters students will emphasize the presidential candidates’ proposals concerning campaign finance reform — especially public campaign financing.

And, after the November elections, Democracy Matters activists will continue to organize on money in politics, emphasizing the importance of holding the new president accountable, ensuring that promises to fix our dysfunctional campaign financing system become a reality.

Over the past fifteen years, Adonal Foyle’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, tapping into their deep commitment to a fair and inclusive future, and making sure that their voices are heard.

Joan Mandle

Joan Mandle is the executive director of Democracy Matters and associate professor of sociology and anthropology, emerita, at Colgate University. She has written a number of books, including Change Elections to Change America (2014), a comprehensive look into the founding of Democracy Matters.

Adam Eichen

Adam Eichen is Democracy Fellow at the Small Planet Institute. He just completed his first book, Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want co-authored with Frances Moore Lappé. He sits on the board of Democracy Matters and served as the deputy communications director for Democracy Spring. Follow him on Twitter: @adameichen.