Democracy in action at Metro DC DSA’s 2023 Local Convention

IT'S NOT OFTEN you get to sit with almost 150 socialists to strategize, learn, debate, and ultimately vote on how we’ll work together and what we’ll work on. But for members of Metro DC DSA, this is how we get to spend a weekend every December during our local convention. From approving our budget for the coming year, to debating chapter-wide priorities, to voting on updates to our bylaws, it’s a weekend to put our chapter’s democracy into action and set us all in motion for the coming year.

Local convention is a critical time for our chapter to take a step back from the day-to-day work of organizing, both to think about how far we’ve come and to strategize together on where to go next. We took time during this year’s convention to welcome a keynote speaker, Madinah Wilson-Anton, a DSA-endorsed Delaware State Representative who recently participated in a hunger strike in support of a ceasefire in Gaza. Wilson-Anton highlighted the DSA’s critical role in Palestinian solidarity support, and urged our chapter to continue this work in the coming months. We also heard from DSA’s newly elected co-chair Ashik Siddique about DSA’s national Solidarity Income-based Dues Drive, which is asking DSA members to change their dues payments to 1% of their income in order to standardize (and increase) dues rates for the national DSA.

Convention also included local-level reflections and strategizing. On Saturday, we heard the 2023 Annual Report from our 2023 Steering Committee Chair, Aparna R. It’s been a big year for our chapter and this was an important moment to reflect on our wins — from successful campaigns and solidarity actions to newly launched member development projects and more. We also heard reports from our Finance, Administrative, Political Engagement and Member Engagement Committees. And on Sunday we heard a presentation from chapter member Alex Y on the relevant electoral districts in our region that we could target in the future, a project set in motion by a resolution passed previously by our membership. These reflections are critical parts of our local convention, because they open up space for us to think about where we’re coming from just in time to debate where we want to go.

Making it happen

Local convention could not happen without a team of dedicated volunteers who stepped up to support their fellow chapter members. From wrangling logistics to resolving tech issues to preparing the agenda to training folks on Robert’s Rules of Order, making local convention happen took a team of dedicated socialists from across the entire chapter.

This year’s local convention was hybrid, gathering in person at two different venues in Shaw with others calling in from all around the DMV. Offering both options meant people could choose what felt right for them. For example, chapter member Nicole Z recounted that she “attended virtually because [she] was house sitting for comrades who live further away from DC than [her] and had family obligations both days — [she] was grateful that the hybrid option allowed [her] to balance all of those responsibilities!” Member Andy C said, “this was the most well executed hybrid format meeting I've ever been a part of. The presentation was good, there were no major technical issues that I saw, and flow between in person speakers and speakers joining virtually felt mostly seamless.”

Pulling off a successful hybrid local convention with well over a hundred participants live-voting is no small task. A sincere thank you to everyone who helped make convention possible -- our chapter’s democracy is fueled just as much by your efforts as the debate on the floor.

Budgets, Priority Campaigns, Bylaws … oh my!

Debate started on Saturday with a discussion on the 2024 budget, which passed unanimously, thanks to the work of our Treasurer and Finance Committee to prepare the resolution.

We then dove into debate on priority campaigns. Each year, our chapter approves up to five priority campaigns that are eligible to receive dedicated chapter funding and first-access to other chapter resources. This helps us to coalesce around shared priorities and pushes working groups to develop campaigns with clear strategies for how to turn resources into wins for the working class. Working groups had a month to write and submit applications to the Campaign’s Council for consideration. This year, five campaigns applied for five spots -- Labor, We Power DC, Electoral, Abolition, and Stomp out Slumlords. These applications were shared with the full chapter membership on December 4th, and members could submit statements via our member portal until December 10th. During convention, organizers from each campaign got up to share their plans for 2024 and make the case for their campaign’s prioritization, and chapter members had the opportunity to raise questions and voice their support for or concerns with each application.

Overall, the priority campaign process pushes our chapter’s working groups to develop strategic campaigns with clear work plans towards winnable goals. It also encourages our formations to reflect on what kinds of resources they need to make progress. And points raised against priority campaign applications during convention reflected this — chapter members asked if campaigns had winnable goals and if their tactics were well thought out, and raised concerns over how campaigns would work with each other productively. Member Nicole Z was “grateful that a few comrades spoke against a couple of our priority campaigns [because] convention is a good time for us to reflect on what has and hasn't worked in the chapter over the last year.” 

Nicole also reflected that the format of convention could be better suited to allow these conversations to happen. While the “for and against” speech structure of debate keeps things moving, there are certainly other ways to structure our time to discuss chapter priorities and ensure the discussion is useful. But as one of the sponsors of the application from We Power DC, I can attest to the huge benefit this process has in pushing our campaign to evaluate our strategy and develop tangible goals. And as chapter member Advait A shared, the debate on priority campaigns “showcased just how much support the campaigns all built around their short-term goals and long-term visions.”

All campaigns that applied ultimately met the two-thirds vote threshold on the OpaVote ballot sent out following convention, and will meet in the new year to divvy up funding and get to work.

Image: Results of the 2023 Priority Campaign elections following the 2023 Convention. Metro DC DSA chapter members voted through an online platform following the convention to record their votes.

The other big-ticket item up for debate at convention was amending our chapter’s bylaws. Our bylaws are essential to guiding how our chapter and leadership are structured, and local convention is our annual chance to evaluate the rules we all agree to as members. To help make sure all members had the knowledge needed to participate, there was a resolution workshop during the November General Body Meeting preceding convention, which covered how to write a proposal. Members then had from November 15th to November 26th to submit bylaw amendments and general resolution proposals. Three bylaw amendments were submitted this year, and shared with the membership on November 27th. Members then had until December 4th to submit any amendments to the proposed bylaw amendments. Final versions of all proposals were then shared with the chapter, and everyone had just under a week to review what was up for debate. At convention, bylaw amendments were introduced by one of their sponsors, debated, and then voted on live. All amendments needed to hit a two-thirds threshold to be accepted.

This process is long and a bit formal, but it needs to have those features to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to make their voice heard in creating the convention agenda. The multi-step process for developing and sharing bylaw amendments gives sponsors a chance to socialize their ideas across the chapter, and gives others a chance to analyze and reflect beyond the heat of convention debate. A process without formal rules would most likely end up dominated by the loudest voices, and a process based on open-ended deliberation would have a hard time reaching the definitive conclusions we need to keep our chapter moving forward. 

The Minutiae of Democracy

We debated three bylaw amendments at convention this year, all of which proposed significant changes to core chapter rules. The first bylaw amendment reversed a decision made at the 2021 convention by dissolving the standalone Member Engagement Committee (MEC) and housing its responsibilities and structures back under the Administrative Committee (AdCom). The amendment maintains leadership for the Membership Engagement Department within AdCom, and specifies responsibilities like intentional outreach for the department, so comrades currently leading and contributing to this work will continue to do so, but without a steering-appointed MEC chair and within the structure AdCom provides. The authors and motivators of this bylaw amendment were very frank about the fact that changing up this structure won’t do much to improve member engagement without intentional organizing on this issue from the whole chapter, but they were confident that the structural change would make it easier for member engagement to be integrated with the administrative functions it relies on. Several speakers involved in the MEC, and in related recruitment and member development work, spoke for this bylaw amendment, none spoke against, and it passed with over 95% of the vote.

Image: Results of Bylaws amendment 1, which reorganized MDC DSA's Mobilization Department under the Administrative Committee. Members voted live at the convention on this proposal.

Bylaw Amendment 2 was by far the hottest topic of convention, spurring significant debate on Slack (the chapter’s workspace) in advance of convention itself. During the two days at convention, members on both sides flyered, sparked chats during our breaks, and then spirited debate on the floor. BA2 proposed implementing state-based geographic representation on the chapter’s 11-person steering committee, with state delegation size determined by the number of members in good standing in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. Members would then vote only for steering candidates running in their state. There was also a motion to suspend the rules of convention to allow for a friendly floor amendment to be made to BA2, but with 56.6% of the votes against, this motion failed to pass the two-thirds threshold.

Proponents of BA2 argued that under the current system, where the full steering committee is elected by the full membership, DC residents have dominated chapter leadership and organizers based in other states are underrepresented. They argued at convention that this leads to a lack of attention to our chapter’s branches in Northern Virginia, Montgomery County, and Prince George’s County, which under-develops branch leaders and overburdens the chapter steering committee. Opponents of BA2 argued that a geographic-based steering would lead to further silos in our chapter, pushing leaders to focus on building constituencies within arbitrary geographic boundaries rather than working to lead the entire chapter cohesively. 

Three leaders from Montgomery Country and Prince George’s County spoke against BA2 at convention, disputing the premise that our branches struggle to develop leaders and highlighting that BA2 would force branch members to run for chapter steering to ensure all 11 seats are filled, even if they are not interested in the role and would rather focus on branch leadership and organizing. Opponents of BA2 acknowledged that the most recent steering committee was composed of a majority of DC residents, but argued that this didn’t reflect an ongoing trend over many years that warranted the drastic change BA2 proposed. Overall, those who spoke against BA2 at convention argued our chapter’s steering committee should be composed of capable organizers who could earn broad, chapter-wide support because they represent the chapter as a whole in their role. Ultimately, BA2 was rejected by the members at convention with 33% of votes in favor.

Image: Results of Bylaws Amendment 2, which would have created allocated seats for steering committee based on proportion of members by state. Prior to voting on BA2, a friendly amendment was floated which would have made three of the steering seats (Treasurer, Campaigns Council and Secretary) be voted on chapter wide. This would have required a two-thirds vote in the affirmative to pass. Members voted live at convention on this proposal.

Finally, BA3 proposed that we create a new YDSA Council, through which elected YDSA leaders would formally manage the relationship between the chapter and local YDSA chapters, including by electing a non-voting delegate to the chapter steering committee. In combination with the $500 budget line-item convention passed to help fund YDSA activities, the sponsors of this bylaw amendment argued that this measure would increase cooperation with YDSA. A democratic structure like this, which includes a significant increase in YDSA’s access to information, will be more coherent and more sustainable. One comrade objected to the amendment, arguing that the YDSA steering delegate should in fact be a voting member, and motioned to suspend the rules to amend the resolution to that effect, but this motion did not carry. One speaker in favor noted that he would also have preferred that the representative be a voting member, but that building and using this structure will encourage increased cooperation even without that provision, which could move us towards a situation in which considering that amendment in the future could make sense. When we reached the vote, BA3 passed with just over 98% of the vote in favor.

Image: Results of bylaws amendment 3, which adds one non-voting delegate to Metro DC DSA's steering committee. Prior to the vote on this amendment, a proposal to make this delegate a voting delegate was rejected by the membership. Members voted live at convention on this proposal.

We came out of convention with renewed commitments to member engagement and to improving our chapter’s cooperation with YDSA comrades, and with structures that, alongside thoughtful and dedicated organizing, will allow that work to proceed with appropriate administrative support and with democratic buy-in from the chapter. We also came out of it having had vigorous debate — before and during convention — on the role of steering, its relationship to the branches, and on the overall culture of the chapter. This was healthy: It forced both sides to articulate their accounts of where the chapter is and has been, and of where they’d like to see it go. The fact that we had these debates is important because it means that, even though one side lost on the floor, the ideas they wanted to see on the chapter agenda made it there. While many in the chapter ultimately disagreed with BA2, there’s broad agreement that clear communication, integration across chapter formations, and intentional member development need to be priorities, even when we disagree on what the best way to pursue those goals is.

Practicing the Democratic in DSA

A healthy chapter democracy doesn’t mean never disagreeing; it means often disagreeing, and doing so passionately, proudly, and in the case of local convention, in front of your fellow members. James E was “pleasantly surprised” by debate at his first local convention and felt it “was so great to see people with passion expressing their views openly and honestly.”

Disagreements over how we should govern our chapter and what we should spend our limited resources on are productive regardless of which way the votes swing. Some of us will get up and speak in front of the chapter during debate at convention. Others will write up fact sheets to hand out as folks walk in. Still others will pull folks aside during coffee breaks for a quick conversation about how we’re voting. All of this is good organizing we should encourage each other to do. It’s how we learn what our comrades think and push ourselves to consider new ideas. Democracy in action shouldn’t be quiet: it's in the din of debate that we truly learn from one another. And the best part is, democracy hands us the perfect way to quiet the noise just in time to make our final decision. Because when it comes time to vote, we each have the exact same influence on the result: our one vote. That means that when the results drop we can trust they are a shared decision made by all of us equally.

Making collective decisions through democracy makes our chapter stronger. It’s an opportunity for all members to take ownership over the organization they dedicate their hours to. The stakes are high and tensions can flare up, but letting debate play out and the votes roll in is a genuine benefit to our chapter — not just because the conversations need to be had, but also because the best way for new members to understand the chapter they’ve joined is for them to see our democracy in action. As new member Andy C said, it’s a chance for members, particularly new folks, to “ask questions about the chapter, its past history, and possible futures.” And ultimately, no matter how the votes turn out, as James E shared, “we are all Democratic Socialists; we are bound by the core tenets of our beliefs, and are much more similar than we are different.”

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