How Does Democracy Matter? Let Us Count the Ways




"The key moment is when 'they' becomes 'we'." This advice came from Professor Paul Lyons on the first night of the first ever Democracy Matters National Summit Colgate University during the weekend of February 8th. A gathering to connect students working for campaign finance reform, the summit left the members of various campus chapters feeling united for a common cause.

After this weekend we feel like we are a part of the Democracy Matters family. This family has grown to include members in thirty colleges across the country, but it still reflects the intimacy of the five founding schools that has grown into a bond that holds the entire organization together.

Why campaign finance reform? Until now there has not been an organized group of young people fighting for this cause. But, considering increased awareness about issues such as corporate globalization, and the aftermath of both the Enron scandal and the 2000 election, it is becoming clear that clean elections benefit everyone.

Democracy Matters is a non-partisan group that works to get money out of elections so that there is an equal voice in politics. It looks to change the way political campaigns are shaped and affected by corporate and private donations, and acknowledges that both the Democratic and Republican parties have been directly shaped by those who fund their campaigns.

The group was founded just six months ago by Adonal Foyle, an NBA basketball player with the Golden State Warriors. Foyle was raised on a small Caribbean island and came to the United States as a teenager to pursue his education. He has since graduated from Colgate University and co-founded the organization with his surrogate parents Jay and Joan Mandle (former Colgate professor and the current director of the organization), and Adam and Anne Weinberg.
We were expecting to meet students with the same interests at the summit, but we found that there were actually a number of students from conservative backgrounds. The group from Cornell University, for instance, talked a lot about their attempts to involve students from their Republican student groups.


This summit was about the sharing of ideas and the exchange of experiences between the diverse and extended members of the Democracy Matters family. We sat between students from southern state universities and east coast Ivy League schools, eyes wide, as Bill Bradley spoke of the importance of reclaiming the individual's voice in democracy through the depreciation of money in politics.

Following Bradley's address, Professor Paul Lyons shared firsthand experience and welcomed discussion in his talk "Student Organizing Lessons of the 60's." Lyons and Foyle then accompanied us to the campus pub to talk one on one with the students in an informal setting. While the presence of such experienced social activists was compelling, equally inspiring was the dialogue that we shared with other students.

On Saturday we met in small groups with students from different colleges to discuss over lunch the specifics of our chapters and the ways that we can help each other's campaigns. Here at Vassar the Democracy Now chapter was founded by a sophomore student who was also very interested in working for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights. Other members here, saw a connection between campaign finance and environmentalism as well as the peace and civil rights movements.

We were expecting to meet students with the same interests at the summit, but we found that there were actually a number of students from conservative backgrounds. The group from Cornell University, for instance, talked a lot about their attempts to involve students from their Republican student groups. It was exciting to learn that all students have a stake in this movement.

Amidst useful lectures, panels and workshops, each campus group also got the opportunity to report to the entire group on the successes, failures, and future goals of their chapters.

One might think that after a full day of workshops, lectures, and facilitated discussion we would have been glad to discuss something other than politics. But the conversations surrounding campaign finance reform continued as we walked around campus, sat over meals, and celebrated the retirement of Adonal Foyle's Colgate jersey. Through talking with each other we gained insight into the diversity of this issue and the different ways to be active at our respective schools. When we got to know the interests of the other students we saw how the fight for campaign finance reform is the essential stepping-stone for people across the political spectrum, with passions for a wide range of issues.

Here at Vassar we have targeted our efforts toward the diversity of this issue. Our first and most consistent campaign has been to make flyers every other week about how campaign finance reform would benefit a variety of groups, from workers to environmentalists to civil rights activists. In doing so, we have educated ourselves and the campus while also building coalitions with other on-campus organizations. Our educational efforts have included teaching local high school students about this issue and what they can do to get involved. Our chapter broadened its goals since the Summit in the anticipation of how we can work with a larger body of people. New York chapters will also strive to bring campaign finance reform to the forefront of upcoming elections. The New York chapters have already started planning for a lobbying day in Albany this April. We also look forward to the continuation of the organization's growth as new chapters seem to arise every week.

The students that we met this weekend were dedicated to expanding this movement beyond our experiences as college students. For many of us, this will be a path that we will pursue far beyond college--not as a momentary punch from the outside but a life-long dedication to changing the system from within.



Contact Democracy Matters through their website to find out more about starting your own chapter.

Caitlin Horrigan, Alexis Lynch, and Sarah Powelson, are current members of Democracy Matters and students at Vassar College.



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