Bernie Campaign 4: Building DSA Community and Leadership Development

MDC DSA is in desperate need of an organized official leadership development program. Nearly all of our chapter and working group leadership, both formal and informal, joined in the same wave of November 2016 through the end of 2017. While hundreds of new members have joined since then, few have become active and even fewer have transitioned into leadership roles. Our onboarding process consists of a new member orientation that occurs right before some, but not all, GBM’s. Our member mobilizer program does not have the sufficient support from organizers that it deserves. Our membership and leadership development strategy is akin to the free market where the onus is on individual members to go out of their way in order to receive trainings, find out about meetings, learn about our internal culture and structure. The result is an organization that is overwhelmingly white and “middle class.” This is because we’ve built a structure that directly rewards people that have free time, disposable income, university educations, and existing connections to currently active members.

The responsibility is on us as a socialist organization of and for the working class to make onboarding and leadership development a serious priority.

We should commit that at the very start of a Bernie 2020 plan that we’re going to use this as an opportunity to recruit members, but recruit them into a program of training and leadership development where every single one of them would be able to lead a project of their own if they chose too. Most Metro DC DSA members have never been through an organizing boot camp or learned how to do list work or one-on-ones. Too many of our members try to put together events by creating social media posts and then are disappointed when turnout is low. We need to use the energy of a Bernie 2020 campaign and the expanded chapter infrastructure that will create to give organizing 101 trainings to every member, and provide them with a support network to get and stay involved with organizing. This isn’t only necessary to make MDC DSA bigger, more powerful, and more connected to the working class, but also to help alleviate the burnout that has claimed so many of our best organizers.

We need a cadre school to turn our members, new and old, into organizers. The onus should not be on every working group to do their own individual training program. We as a chapter should prioritize training and developing new leaders. We could do trainings in three-month rotations where cohorts of new members are taken through the process of learning about organizing skills (how to run events, how to run meetings, how to do list work, how to do one on ones, basic rules of order, etc.) followed by a program on socialist history and political education, and finishing with a module on our organization and strategy. This can expand on the wildly successful Socialist Night School program in partnership with the Political Education WG. The program could end with us plugging them directly into our campaigns and putting them in positions for future leadership. Our current system is failing us and the numbers bear this out. We have 2000 members, but it would be a stretch to say more than 15 percent are active. We have also fallen well behind the growth rate of DSA nationally, and other chapters of similar size. We need a more reliable system of engaging new members before DSA becomes just another email list to them.

Our political education programs should also work on building a common language and baseline of shared historical knowledge among the membership. Members should know when current internal debates are actually reflections of larger historical debates within the left. We should also work to eliminate the amorphous, ideologically hollow, anti-establishment “progressivism” that is often against all of the right people but for all of the wrong reasons. We know workers must have a material analysis to guide their organizing. We also have many allies in the progressive movement that are all but socialists in name that do not understand what we mean when we say democratic socialism. This is on us for not putting out a clear program. On the other hand we have many allies that are not democratic socialists, but would benefit greatly from understanding what we mean when we say we’re uncompromising on the position of socialized medicine or removing the profit motive from questions of housing or education. With a coordinated program of political education we can make sure that we at least have a shared language that we can use to describe our differences and disagreements.

Our chapter has also refrained from doing actual recruitment drives. Part of this is because of the lack of chapterwide structure to allow such a program to exist. We can use the Bernie campaign as an easy opportunity to do actual recruitment drives through tabling and social events. We should revive our Beers for Bernie events, but there are countless other activities that we must run that don’t incorporate alcohol. We can hold “DND for Bernie” events that focus on role-playing campaigns of organized struggle against evil capitalists, “Kickball for Bernie” events in the summer, lefty movies for Bernie, Super Smash Bros Tournament for Bernie, Donate School Supplies for Bernie, etc. We need to take any event that we do that is publicly outward facing, incorporate our Bernie campaign, and then work hard to publicize it. We should not be afraid to put some money into digital ads behind it and also work to flyer or poster the event across our neighborhoods.

Electoral campaigns have been a great way to bring in new members, learn organizing skills, and foster comradery among our membership. There’s a running joke among MDC electoral organizers that our failed campaign to oust Virginia’s House Minority Leader David Toscano with Charlottesville DSA member Ross Mittiga was one of our most successful campaigns ever. It was one of our first campaigns and we had no idea what was going on, but it forged an incredible bond between the organizers and volunteers went on to be very active in countless MDC campaigns. This bond was created through “collective struggle” which was in our case, sleeping on the couches of comrade’s houses and eating junk food while knocking hundreds of doors a day in the Virginia summer heat. Almost all of the volunteers that would travel down to Charlottesville became extremely dedicated to DSA organizing and the community they were working in. It’s the same reason that many of those same organizers returned later that summer to stand with community members against the fascists that tried to march there on August 12th.

We must use the Bernie campaign as another opportunity to build links between chapters and organizers and develop the desperately needed next round of DSA leaders. DSABNB was a cleverly designed website first piloted for the 2017 DC Inauguration. It allowed members from across the country to find comrades to stay with in DC for that weekend. We should open up another system so that comrades looking to canvass can open their couch or chapter for the weekend and invite comrades from other chapters to join them. The bonds of political struggle are forged over complaining about capitalism at the end of a long day. Almost a year ago, some electoral organizers had the dream of imitating some of the organizing tactics of the New Left and considered whether it would be possible to rent houses in important primary states like South Carolina and open the doors to DSA members interested in canvassing to stay there. Currently, this does not seem like the best tactic for accomplishing our goals, but the spirit of “open your doors for fellow members looking to canvass” is a model that we should implement on the short term. Our chapter’s electoral organizers have already visited Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, and NYC to canvass for other DSA members running for office. Each trip has resulted in new relationships and does a lot to make our organization feel smaller. We should do this in a targeted manner, focusing on building relationships with smaller southern chapters.

Related Entries