Jordan Falciani argues why we need to shift our model for outreach and organizing in order to develop DSA into an organization that has millions of socialists capable of taking mass action.
We often hear that DSA doesn’t look like the working class, and that’s true. Our current organization is whiter, more male, better educated, and more likely to be downwardly mobile from the middle class than to have been born outside of it. So what does the American working class look like? That question often gets answered with statistics, but the best answers are in observable action. The American working class looks like teachers mobilizing in West Virginia and feeding the children in their community while they do so; it looks like domestic workers organizing across immigration status in Florida, like Black and Latinx workers in New Orleans forming a common organization to push back against post-Katrina exploitation that pitted them against each other.
If our goal is to develop DSA into an organization that has millions of socialists capable of taking mass action, we need to think critically about what the growth of our organization should look like and how it has happened so far. To this stage, the bulk of growth in DSA has been passive. Members invite friends, co-workers come along to a meeting, tweets and instagram posts spread the word in the same social networks in which we live our lives – networks that are deeply, historically, and intentionally segregated. Without active recruitment—being deliberate in our conversations, and making direct asks of people to organize with us —the people that join DSA will continue to reflect the existing demographics.
This reflects the lack of a coherent recruitment strategy, but also the individual structures of local chapters and the activist dynamic that emerges from these structures. Most chapters are organized around issue-area committees working independently on separate projects and campaigns, rather than stable organizations capable of making collective strategic decisions. The result is that membership growth is often a self-replicating model of activist-organizers able to attend multiple meetings a month, rather than spaces where busy workers and newer organizers are able to meaningfully contribute. Unless we take an intentional active approach to recruiting and retaining, DSA will continue in its embryonic state, perhaps continuing to achieve certain material victories, but failing to become a mass organization capable of wielding working-class power against capital.
As part of Collective Power Network’s platform for the 2019 Convention, we have called for the creation of a national Growth & Development Committee and set a goal for that body of one hundred thousand members by 2021. We recognize that a committee alone cannot produce the changes we need, but it can play a critical role in guiding a coherent, flexible strategy across chapters and regions:
- We need to build intention into our recruiting at every single level of organizing: from individual members to national office support, the way to win is by building strong relationships and specifically recruiting organizers from communities and identities underrepresented in our current membership.
- We need a national office that is equipped to help identify and directly support organizing and recruitment in areas where members are already clustered and we need strong regional bodies able to foster ongoing formal connections and convenings between chapter leaders.
- We need to develop our capacity to better share knowledge; creating collectively developed materials and subsidized access to them so every chapter will be able to recruit, mobilize, and retain members with the same strength.
These chapter and regional strategies should encompass multiple campaigns, with tactics that are diverse, escalating and flow from the national strategy we shape together. The national strategy should have room for many visions of liberation, but unify them in the singular purpose of organizing a militant working class capable of wielding singular collective power against capital.
It is essential as part of developing a national strategy for recruitment and retention that chapters also undergo a process of collective strategy development and planning, with a focus on making our work easier to navigate for working-class organizers by reorienting from campaigns acting independently of each other, to instead develop chapter-wide priorities that reflect what recruitment and retention should look like in their organizing spaces. This could take a number of forms. Chapters could begin by power-mapping their communities; in the process, they would begin understanding how power flows through them, what existing work is being done by others, the material conditions around them, and to identify existing working-class institutions to work with in coalition. Chapters could also engage in coalition work with carefully identified organizations already deeply embedded in struggle, working directly with them in a way that doesn’t constitute entryism or co-opting, but solidarity and recognition that we are building a project together.
Chapters should engage with the community on their own terms but recruit from working-class communities where they are building trust and relationships through their organizing. We should be building a base that reflects the diversity of our local communities and of the working class, one capable of taking leadership in our chapters, as well as developing new campaigns that are built directly from and by these communities. We’ll do this when we meet people where they are and organize with our neighbors around shared demands and in shared conditions. We could do this through locals structured around neighborhoods or workplaces rather than campaigns and issue areas. Groupings that are more immediate to struggle will be easier to navigate for a wider range of organizers, and will also begin to address the activist dynamic.
Through neighborhood-level formations we could begin to build campaigns out of immediate neighbor relationships and solidarity. We could build campaigns that involve deep organizing but don’t require activist-level participation. This could start with something small, maybe a group of neighbors repeatedly reporting an illegal AirBnB for fines, fixing up houses to stop the blight complaints that often lead to foreclosure, or getting everyone on your block together to clean out an errant catch basin in flood-prone part of the neighborhood. These tiny acts of fighting back can begin to build solidarity, open doors to hearing what issues matter to the people around us and allow the larger resources of a chapter to be leveraged as they escalate. Maybe there is a small win and the AirBnB gets shut down. It’s here that we should escalate and begin to think about a larger organizing strategy. It’s here that we should make the ask of involving organizers in the larger strategic vision of our local work.
Real neighborhood-level organization is key to making these campaigns a part of the community and not just something that happens in or to the community. While building a campaign in a neighborhood may often win demands, it often does not do the work to fundamentally change the capacity of the workers in that area to institutionalize their own power and continue to build on it. The key difference is clear: a neighborhood level organization has real democratic decision-making capacity while an issue campaign does not. No matter how many activists are drawn in from the neighborhood, if the campaign is ultimately the property of the organizers at the core and beyond that whoever is holding the purse strings, then it cannot build a mass movement, it can only uphold the status quo.
It is essential that we actively recruit because black and brown communities are critical to working-class power. We cannot make the decision to join in this collective political project for our neighbors by not bringing them into our organizing spaces and strategizing and with them. In the past, white organizers have often been reluctant to do this, but it is critical that we do. By failing to do this we’re continuing a legacy of white saviorism and colonialism, not including those we’ve built trust and solidarity with through our struggle into the larger political project. This is something we’ll need to do to have a shared strategy and continue to escalate our demands. Part of this will come from centering demands that win immediate material changes, and part will come from making our organization easier to navigate, but we must make direct asks of people for them to have ownership in the organization and to exercise that ownership.
Our proposals for a nation-wide strategy around recruitment, retention, and leadership development help connect these developments at the chapter level to a national process of restructuring DSA. By developing growth targets by region we can start thinking about what growth at each level of the organization looks like, and how it feeds into a larger strategy: at the neighborhood level, the chapter level, the regional level, and the national level. Growth targets are also key to making sure our growth is intentional. In implementing this strategy in New Orleans, we are planning to create neighborhood-evel formations not just in areas where our members are currently clustered, but using our understanding of our membership to identify which neighborhoods we aren’t in and beginning to organize there, with special emphasis on our city’s black and brown neighborhoods that are the heart of the working class.
The mass organization model is about building a working-class institution. It’s about an organization capable of collectively making decisions and acting on them. When we organize with people through our projects but don’t include them in the institution we aren’t building an institution which can meaningfully organize around their demands. We aren’t asking people to join something that is ours, we are asking them to join a collective political project that we all own. We can undertake this process collectively and democratically, driven from experiences of organizers on the ground but connected and shared across the country and regions so that newer chapters don’t need to reinvent the wheel. These aren’t mandates handed down from national, these are shared organizing lessons and practices that grow out of the real work chapters are doing. Everyone should be able to share these lessons and everyone should be able to implement them in a way that reflects their local conditions and existing organizing.
National campaigns should incorporate local demands to reflect these local and regional variations. For an issue like Medicare-For-All, we can do movement work nationally, while emphasizing the importance of it locally in community health campaigns, access to abortion clinics, and building our campaigns to highlight health disparities and continue to push for health justice outside of the reforms Medicare-For-All would provide. Having working-class people’s only interaction with universal demands being focused at the federal level obscures how these demands specifically resolve the material needs in black and brown communities. And local campaigns should be built to support national campaigns in a way that center these needs.
Hundreds of years of racial capitalism have left black and brown communities with disproportionate damages. Black and brown communities are at the front lines of capitalism’s destructive forces: from redlining and predatory lending blocking opportunities for real estate investment, to marijuana criminalization feeding the private prison system, to the front lines of climate disaster. If our organizing work centers a demand for Medicare-For-All, but ignores the rural hospital closing, the Black maternal death rate, or a neighborhood plastered with signs offering cash for diabetes testing supplies, then who are we to demand that anyone sign on to a petition? Our universal demands should be rooted in resolving the particular injustices inflicted on black and brown communities by capitalism.
It is only by building a national movement of radical demands that DSA can develop the coherent class consciousness necessary to transform the United States. We know, however, that the conditions that lead to people supporting universal demands are not ideological, but often extremely personal. For many black and brown communities, the material conditions of their communities—the threat of deportation, displacement, lack of healthcare, environmental racism, police brutality—are what draws people to radical politics and universal programs. For our organizing to be a project of true solidarity we should be there, where this violence happens, learning to be accomplices in the struggle against racial capitalist violence in all its forms, and helping to make the sort of direct change that builds a meaningful socialist project into a mass working-class organization.
Jordan Falciani is co chair of New Orleans DSA.