Foyle’s a Real Player on Campaign Finance

Posted June 8, 2004 at 6:26pm

Professional basketball player Adonal Foyle has taken a pivotal role off the court.

When he’s not playing center for the Golden State Warriors, he is galvanizing young people to get involved politically through his nationwide college campus organization, Democracy Matters. [IMGCAP(1)]

Foyle is helping students organize and dispel the perception that they are part of an apathetic generation. His rallying cry is campaign finance reform.

“We believe that campaign finance reform is one of those ingredients that can fundamentally change the landscape of politics,” Foyle said at the “Take Back America” conference sponsored by the Campaign for America’s Future in Washington, D.C., last week. His 6-foot-10 inch frame commanded the crowd’s attention.

Young people become more involved when they have serious responsibility on political campaigns and don’t just work on the fringes as go-fers, according to Foyle.

“We need to [give] young people a reason to come back to the political system,” he said. “We have to sell them the idea that they can make an impact.”

Reducing the power of big money in the electoral system is one of the nonpartisan organization’s core goals, and one that Foyle said resonates with young people. The Democracy Matters Web site features almost 50 articles published by student members who present a clear knowledge of the issue and seek to educate their local and campus communities.

Foyle recalls a particularly heated classroom debate on youth apathy when he was an undergraduate at Colgate University in upstate New York. He refused to believe that the students he saw participating in community service and volunteering in soup kitchens were unconcerned about issues facing the general public.

This debate was part of what led Foyle to start Democracy Matters. If young people are taught how to fundamentally make change, “they’ll bite,” he said.

Political awareness is nothing new for Foyle. He was born and raised on the islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean.

“When you’re a part of a small island you have no choice but to be involved because whatever happens affects you very quickly,” he said. “An edict is passed and it affects you tomorrow.”

When Foyle was 15, he met Jay and Joan Mandle, two college professors from New York who would help change the course of his life. Jay Mandle was refereeing one of Foyle’s basketball games in Dominica.

Soon afterward, Foyle moved to the United States to pursue his education and polish his athletic skills. The Mandles became his legal guardians. Foyle refers to them as his parents.

When Foyle was in college, cultivating a basketball career left little time for involvement in campus groups. His dedication paid off: He was drafted into the NBA in 1997.

Just after his second year in the league, Foyle said he started thinking about how he could put his wealth to work in the community.

He approached his parents with the idea of starting an organization, and the endeavor became a family affair. According to Foyle, his parents immediately loaded a stack of political literature on him so that he could get started.

Foyle recalls traveling to basketball games, struggling with 12 books and a computer while his teammates were traveling with their portable video games. In 2000, Foyle funded a pilot chapter of Democracy Matters at Colgate. When outside financing materialized from a host of foundations, the organization started to expand. Foyle continues to provide significant funding as well.

The official launch of Democracy Matters was in 2001. The organization is now on 60 college campuses from coast to coast, with two high school chapters in California.

Joan Mandle left her tenured teaching position at Colgate to run the organization full time as the executive director. Jay Mandle is the treasurer but still teaches at Colgate.

Respect for young people’s leadership potential is an ethos Foyle has embedded throughout the organization’s structure. Student directors work under the supervision of staff members but have ample freedom in running the chapters, Jay Mandle said. The organization’s chapters take on a variety of projects, based on the will of their leaders.

“Our students basically initiate their own activities and we allow them to really follow their passion,” said Amira Diamond, the West Coast coordinator. According to Diamond, a high school chapter in California organized a panel of gubernatorial recall candidates in September 2003. Several hundred people attended the event.

Campus coordinators also receive a stipend, which “ensures a greater degree of commitment than just volunteering,” Jay Mandle said.

During the NBA off-season, Foyle travels around the country speaking at conferences and college campuses about campaign finance reform and Democracy Matters. Once a year, he hosts a summit where campus coordinators from across the country come together to share their experiences on running the organization and learn from each other’s mistakes and successes.

Although Foyle’s post-basketball career is unclear, his political involvement is “no short-term thing,” Jay Mandle said.

It is too soon to tell whether Foyle has any aspirations of running for office, Mandle added, but he will continue to be a political activist.