Adonal’s Opening Remarks 2003 National Student Summit

Democracy Matters was born out of many parts of my past. I want to try to share some of that with you today why I think that your participation in Democracy is so important in so many ways and why speaking out and standing up in a democracy is so important to me personally. I lived on a tiny island with fewer than one thousand people in my grandmother’s house. I didn’t really know we were poor, even though we did not have running water, we did not have indoor plumbing and no electricity. Almost every thing we ate came from the ground, and I spent many hours in my grandmother’s garden growing peas and corn. But that is what everyone did. The only work was fishing or working for the government repairing the dirt roads that were the only form of transportation on the island.

But we did have a school and I think it was there that I first got a taste of the difference between real power and powerlessness. Teachers, though they were not really trained to be teachers and were often not much older than we were, had complete control over us. And they used it – often arbitrarily. Maybe it was because I was big but it seemed that all the teachers loved to beat me – and there was no way my grandparents would have stuck up for me, even if I was right.

But I stayed in school because I always knew I wanted to prove something to those teachers and find a way to do more than fish or work on the roads. Our school on Canouan went up to 6th grade, and that was when I got my second lesson. We still had the British system where every kid at 11 has to take a Common Entrance exam to decide whether they could stay in school or not. I thought this was really unfair – to decide a kid’s whole life on the basis of one test, but there was nothing I could do so I took the test with everyone else. But I failed, and I watched as the kids who had passed the test left Canouan for other islands in our country, St Vincent and the Grendadine, to continue school. I remember feeling that I was doomed.

But then I found out that I could take one more test the next year and if I passed I could go on. Everyone told me I was too big and strong for school and I should to get a road job. But I studied by myself – mostly by candlelight – fighting with my grandmother who kept telling me how expensive candles were and that I was wasting them. And in the end I passed, and went on to Union Island for high school. But the lesson of some people having a chance and others not was seared into me – I knew that most kids on Canouon didn’t make it while the people in the city on the mainland, St Vincent, had more chance.

As I grew, I learned other things too. Politics in the Caribbean was alive and as important as your next drink of water. In such small islands, when a law is enacted you felt the effects the next day. When it was election time you did not have to tell people to go to the polls. They knew the importance of voting. If they did not show up at the place to vote, someone would bring a mule and say I did not see you at the polls — here is a mule to take you.

But I began to hear people complaining about unfairness because we were a tiny island, one of several that belonged to the country of St Vincent but were treated as second-class citizens compared to the mainland. People were angry about the fact that there was no work in Canouan and that we had no high school or doctors compared to the mainland. We only saw dentist once a year and that was when he came to pull everybody’s teeth who had a problem – including mine. People on Canouan were frustrated because they were poorer and had less opportunity than those on the Mainland. My grandmother used to say “No one in that place is even listening to us. We could die and they wouldn’t care.” In fact I almost didn’t get to come to the United States because when Joan and Jay told people on the Mainland that they wanted to do research on some of the Grenadines, they were told that nothing important was happening there.

I also began to learn that St Vincent basically was a one party democracy with little chance for the opposition to get elected or influence anything. So though we voted, it became clear to me that people on my island didn’t have much of a say. Politics there was also very immediate – politicians can’t hide because everyone knows who they are, who their families are, where they live, and what they do. And as I grew up I learned that corruption was rampant, and that politicians on the Mainland lived very differently than my family and me on Canouan, having big houses, and sending their children to private schools and then on to the United States for college.

Coming out of this life I had no choice but to be political. Although I couldn’t have articulated it I developed a sense of the inequalities and unfairness and felt angry at them. I remember – even when I was really young on Canouan – that I wanted to be not a lawyer but a judge (I didn’t know you had to be a lawyer first) so I could set things right.

When I finally came to the United States when I was sixteen, I entered into a very political family so my interest in these issues continued. At the dinner table politics was always discussed – my mom was particularly involved with women’s issues as head of Women’s Studies at Colgate, and my Dad was writing about global poverty and especially the economic situation of African Americans in the United States, and they both had lots of stories about their involvement with the early civil rights movement, so we had lots to talk about. As I studied Martin Luther King’s writings in both high school and then intensively in college, I found myself fascinated with the power of a movement of powerless people to make change. Six years ago I found myself writing a poem to Martin Luther King and I was really proud to have it chosen as part of the NBA’s celebration of his life.

THE KING

The King was a prize fighter
Refusing to raise his gloves
Inflicting a moral whipping
Like a kid he dares the bully to take a punch.

From his wounds the blood of love poured
His tears quenched the thirst of millions
His religion was a beacon on unchartered waters
His imprisonment the hope of his children
His death the price for our freedom.

Love was the dagger of his salvation.
A matador waving his cape before
A raging bull forcing it into submission
Despite its sharpened horns

And finally, there are two more recent and striking aspects of my life since I left college that continue to press me to take a strong stand against injustice. One is the story of my sister who is two years older than I am, who never finished high school, was married and had two children at 16, and was working as a maid and nanny for people on Long Island with her children left back home in St Vincent. The hardships she went through, the exploitation and incredibly low wages she got for really hard work of raising three kids for a family, her inability to find a way to improve her education so she could be qualified to do something else, her finally being evicted from her apartment in Brooklyn because she couldn’t pay the rent — all her troubles went to my heart. When I got drafted I was in a position to help her get an education and a good job, but I know there are millions of Marians out there with little hope. The only hope for them is to elect politicians who are responsive to their needs.

Ironically, the second aspect of my life that makes me think about justice all the time is being an NBA player. Because there is no buying your way into the NBA with money. You are good enough or not; and that is the bottom line. The same holds true once you are in the league. As veteran athletes, we never have the security of resting on our laurels. At any point in our career, we can lose our job to a younger or superior player. Money has nothing to do with it. To stay in the NBA, players like myself need to improve and find ways to continue to compete – and win — against serious challengers. The opportunity to bring performance to the table and be judged solely on that basis represents the ideal of justice an ideal that is approximated in the world of professional basketball.

A player who has the ability to make it to the NBA can come from anywhere – like me.

In very much the same way, politics should give all of our gifted and talented citizens an equal chance to compete to serve in political life. They must be given this opportunity without the interference of wealth or connections, but on the basis of their talents. Incumbents too should face real challenges. Elected politicians must be able to stay in office if and only if they are more in tune with the needs of their constituencies and if they continue to demonstrate that they are on the cutting edge of political creativity. Their re-election should not be determined by the fact that they have access to more money and connections than their challengers.

However, in politics today this is not the case. Unlike getting into the NBA on the merit of your skills, politics predominantly relies on the size of your own bank account or on your spending time sitting in a room making calls and begging wealthy people and special interests for money. Unfortunately in our political system, incumbents win a majority of the time not because they are trying to find ways of making our country great, but because they have a huge fundraising advantage over challengers.

It is not an unattainable stretch to think that politics might be as just and fair as professional sports. After all it is a bit more important! Thus I believe we must fight for a political system that makes our political leaders focus on creating good public policies. To do this we need a system of rules for playing the game that is fair for everyone, where everyone’s voice can be heard, and which does not allow private money to dictate social policies.

Campaign finance reform is an issue that is universal. It is important to anyone who cares about the integrity of democracy. In a democracy, elections should be an arena like sports, where you do not buy your way to power. If basketball were like politics today — where unskilled people can buy their way into the league, where older players positions are secure not because of superior skills but because of their influential connections and greater wealth, and where the rules only work for a few players, while others are put at a disadvantage in influencing the outcome of a game — no one would ever watch. Can you imagine a team of Ted Turner and George Bush and Ross Perot and Bill Gates. It’s a joke!

What makes basketball attractive to a lot of people is its fairness – that it affords everyone the opportunity to compete on an even playing field; that on any given night, anyone can win. Politics on the other hand drives people nuts, because it is not fair. Just as they wouldn’t participate in sports that were unfairly rigged to give wealthy people and special interests an overwhelming advantage, we should not be surprised – only alarmed – when people refuse to vote or participate in what they believe is a rigged political system.

So Democracy Matters was born as my way of helping others and myself to join the national debate about what is good and important for our country – about fairness and democracy. To be part of an organization that is tolerant of different points of view, that respects differences, that works for concrete goals, and that legitimates political participation and activism. A few weeks ago, during the celebration of Dr. King’s birthday, I asked myself if he would be in favor of campaign finance reform. Re-reading “Why We Can’t Wait” I have no doubt he would say yes. In it he writes: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Clearly the injustice of wealth dominating our political process would have attracted King’s attention.

I want to close on a personal note. Most people I talk to want to know why I am interested in politics. The answer is simple–because if I not interested in it then some one will make decision that affects my life while I stand on the sideline saying why god why. One of the greatest gifts we have in this country is freedom of speech. To not exercise your right to question the government or other authorities is to disregard a wonderful gift.

Since September 11, I have been afraid of a lot of things. Though not everyone may agree with me, it was my fear and frustration that inspired this next poem which I wrote a couple of months ago and I want to end with it.

BENEATH THE WAVING FLAG, Nov 2002

Beneath the waving flag
The ground feels no rain
The earth remains the same
Withering plant finally dies.

Beneath the waving flag
Everyone sings the hymn of conformity
Dialogue locked in the coffin of fear
Feet trampled in unison and contempt.

Beneath the waving flag
No one can hear me scream
I cannot see the sun
Faces hidden in zealousness.

Beneath the waving flag
Stupidity is called patriotism
Greed and revenge moral codes
Terrorism a mad man’s reprieve.

Beneath the waving flag
Enron becomes a memory
Questions are the enemy
Fear our justifiable gift.

Beneath the waving flag
My freedom borrowed
We become blind Al Quaedans
Passion without moderation.

Beneath the waving flag
I cried for dead victims across the world
I cried for September 11
I cried for clarity of leaders.

Beneath the waving flag
We raged when unmanned
Planes killed Americans without due process.

Beneath the waving flag
Barbara Lee vilified for her
Conscientious votes.

Beneath the waving flag
Killing their innocents
Collateral damage and ours
Unspeakable horror and murder?

Beneath the waving flag
I am afraid to sign this poem.

Beneath the waving flag

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