Democracy Matters

adonal foyleIf you have happened to catch a Golden State Warriors basketball game in the last few years, then you have seen 6'10" Adonal Foyle in action. Adonal plays center for the Oakland, California-based NBA team, and has been with the Warriors since the 1997 draft. The average fan may think of him as any other player, but then the average fan would be wrong.

On top of playing basketball and pursuing a Masters Degree from John F. Kennedy University in Moraga, California, Adonal is the founder of Democracy Matters, an organization advocating for campaign finance reform. Yes, that's right, campaign finance reform! He is dedicated to working with high school and college-aged youth on campuses across the country to change the political environment in the United States.

After leaving the islands where he was born and raised, Adonal attended high school in the US and college at Colgate University. He is an avid reader and poet, and has gotten numerous awards for his community service. On top of juggling all that, he made time recently to answer some of my burning questions.

WireTap: What was it like growing up in the islands? Were you conscious of politics in St. Vincent and the Grenadines?

Adonal Foyle:
I grew up on a tiny island, Canouan, which is one of the small islands that are part of the country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. On Canouan there were less than 1,000 people, no electricity, and my tiny house had no in-door toilet and a kitchen outside. I was raised by my grandmother and great-aunt who "gardened" -- growing peanuts and other ground crops. I grew up working in the garden and doing many other chores all day when I was not in school.

Everyone is aware of politics in St. Vincent because the country is so small. Also, people on Canouan and the other small Grenadine islands think that they get ignored and shortchanged by the main island where most of the politicians are from, so we are very aware of what is going on.

WT: When you were a child what did you think you would be doing when you grew up? What was your dream?

When I was a child I dreamed of becoming a judge but I knew that I would end up like everyone else on Canouan -- fishing, gardening, or working for the government in a road crew doing maintenance work.

WT: Why did you decide to come to the US for high school?

Two American professors came to my island to do research and I met them. They asked if I would like to get an education in the US and I immediately said yes though I did not know them at all. Everyone I knew dreamed of coming to America and getting a chance to get ahead because there was little chance if you stayed in the Grenadines.

WT: When you left high school you decided to go to Colgate University and studied history. Why did you decide to go to a small school, as opposed to a school with a large focus on basketball? Do regret that decision?

I decided to go to Colgate for one main reason: I really wanted to be sure I could get the most out of my college education. I loved small classes where you could have discussions and really get to know the faculty. Colgate is a school that is highly ranked on the academic side but still plays division one sports so I thought I could have the best of both worlds that I loved: basketball and education. I was worried that at a school that was a basketball power I would be forced to neglect my studies. I have absolutely no regrets!

adonal foyleWT: How did you get interested in politics?

I have always been interested in politics -- but when I came to the US at age 16 I of course wanted to understand this new country, and understanding politics is an important part of that. In addition, my American parents -- the Colgate professors who brought me to the United States -- were very politically involved. Both Joan and Jay Mandle were part of the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle to end the War in Vietnam. Joan was director of Women's Studies at Colgate, and Jay has written many books on globalization and poverty. So our dinner table was always an education in itself -- mostly about politics and social change.

WT: It seems to me that athletes are often very present in the media but only for playing sports. Are there other athletes who are interested in politics? Do you talk to your teammates about politics?

Not too many athletes like to speak out about politics. They may be interested in it but I think they are cautious because they don't want to stand out of the crowd and be controversial in that way. But in fact I talk to my teammates and other basketball players about politics all the time and they are very interested.

WT: As a professional basketball player you are a role model for many people. Why is it important to use your influence to interest people in politics?

We are role models as professional basketball players whether we want to be or not. I am using my influence to get young people and others interested in politics because I believe that a democracy can only work well if everyone is involved and participates. It isn't really much of a democracy when only a small proportion of people vote and most feel that their government isn't interested in them and doesn't represent them. When this happens, like today, it is very dangerous because important decisions that affect everyone like issues of war and peace, education, health care, the economy, civil rights, the environment and many others are decided by only a tiny fraction of the American people. I believe that everyone has the right and the responsibility to decide what kind of world we live in and ought to be involved in making these important decisions.

adonal foyleWT: What is the point of Democracy Matters? Why campaign finance reform?

The mission of Democracy Matters is to activate young people around the issue of money and politics as a way to deepen democracy in the United States. Campaign finance reform sounds boring but it is the most important political issue to work on because it affects all the issues I care about. It is the reform that will allow all other reforms to occur.

When we see that the clean air laws are being eroded or that college tuition is rising or that the unemployment rate is climbing, these are all policy decisions made by politicians. When we see this country spending billions of dollars in Iraq, or cutting basic services to homeless people or children, or putting new restrictions on Internet access, these are political decisions made by the people we elect. They affect us but we have little influence because we can't contribute big bucks to politicians' campaigns.

Democracy Matters wants to elect representatives who care about all the people, not just the funders. We can do that by publicly financed election campaigns like they have in Arizona and Maine, where anyone can run for office whether they are rich or poor. That is the American dream and that is real democracy. It affects everything happening around us and to us, even though we may not realize it. If we change how elections are funded -- supporting public financing -- we can change America.

WT: Right now is a very important time in our country, this being an election year. What are you doing to support voting? Are you working on the "youth vote?"

I am working on the Youth Vote. I am part of an effort called the New Voters Project and of course Democracy Matters, on our 60 campuses around the country, has been deeply involved in a non-partisan way. We do not endorse candidates, but Democracy Matters students have been registering new voters, holding mock candidate debates, distributing information on candidates, sponsoring teach-ins and discussions on money and politics, and holding Democracy festivals, all-day dialogues, and parties! Politics should be fun too. Check out our website to see more about how to make political engagement fun and how to make a difference.

WT: The perception of youth culture is that youth are concerned with friends, school, sports, entertainment, driving and money. That is it. How do we get these youth interested in current events and politics?

The way to get youth culture involved in politics is to show that friends, school, sports, driving and money are all affected every single day by politics. Whether your friends will be drafted to fight a future war or not; whether your school has funding for after-school programs, art classes, and sports or not; what college tuition and student loans cost and whether you can afford the gas to drive your car or not; and whether you have a job when you finish school so you can earn any money -- these are all affected by POLITICS!!! They are affected by who is elected and who they listen to. Right now politicians listen to their campaign contributors and big bucks, but we can change that. You too -- young or old, rich or poor -- should be able to influence those decisions in a democracy. We need to show young people these connections and the vision of how they can take their democracy back and have fun doing it. That is what Democracy Matters is all about!

WT: You are a basketball player and you are involved in your organization. How do you juggle the NBA with Democracy Matters?

I am very busy with basketball, but everyone has some time that they can and should give to making the world around them a better place -- especially for people who are disadvantaged. I am lucky because I have a great staff at Democracy Matters who can carry out a lot of the functions of the organization. So I talk to my Executive Director all the time, making decisions, and try to speak out publicly whenever I am not involved in basketball.

WT: What books are you reading right now? What do you recommend?

I am reading Bob Woodward's book, "Plan of Attack" and I just finished reading Paul O'Neill's "The Price of Loyalty." Both of these are about the present political situation. I like reading non-fiction that gives me information about what is happening in the world. I would recommend these books, as well as Al Franken's "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them." I also read and write poetry, but I can't recommend anything specific because I like so many different poets!

WT: How do you spend your free time? What do you do to unwind?

I don't have a lot of free time, but I listen to music a lot and I like to watch movies as well as hanging out with close friends and my family. I also am the Vice President of the Basketball Player's Union and that takes up a lot of my time.

WT: What is next for you? What is in the future?

What is next for me is unknown because I have just become a free agent. I played with the Golden State Warriors for the last seven years and now I get to choose where I will play. I will be interviewing teams that want me to play for them and will make a decision about where I will go later this summer. I know I will be playing basketball next year but I don't know where. I am also getting a Master's Degree in Sports Psychology, but I am not sure yet what I want to do after my basketball career is finished. I know I will keep working with Democracy Matters and our effort to get young people interested in important political issues.

WT: Is there anything else you would like to tell Wiretap readers?

I would like to tell Wiretap readers that every one of you can make a difference in the world around you. Young people will inherit this world. I urge you to go beyond trying to help only a few people to thinking BIG! Thinking about how you can affect the MOST people at once through involvement in big political issues like poverty, civil rights, peace, and democracy. These issues remain crucial both before and after elections. They need new creative ideas that only young people can offer. JOIN WITH OTHERS AND MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

Darla Walters Gary is a staff writer for WireTap. She is 17 and impatiently awaiting high school graduation in June. She will be finally leaving the Bay Area to go to Sarah Lawrence College in August.

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