The Path to Growing DSA in Small Cities and Rural Areas

C.R. Mills argues that path to strong rural and small cities chapters can’t be purchased with a few hundred bucks a year – they need trained organizers and well-developed strategies to build regional alliances, labor power, and real plan to grow.


Entering this year’s National Convention, one of the decisions delegates representing rural and small city chapters will face will be between two competing goals: to either provide more resources and support to small chapters through increased staffing and programming at the National level, or more direct funding to small chapters by changing the way DSA collects and distributes dues. The goals stand at odds with each other, as sending more direct funding to local chapters, even in small amounts, adds up to a major cost that necessarily reduces the dollars that can be invested in the resources and support National could provide to us.

The effort to send more direct funding to small chapters represents a laudable goal. But in my experience building a chapter in the rural foothills of California, small chapters don’t need money as much as they need consistent, easy-to-access support with running campaigns, growing their membership, and the logistics of building a chapter. While a variety of proposals seek to provide this sort of support, Collective Power Network’s (CPN’s) platform presents the most impactful and cohesive vision for a DSA that could directly help incubate small and rural chapters so we can get off the ground, grow, and ultimately achieve our political goals.

SUPPORTING NEW CHAPTERS

Building a new chapter from scratch can be a confusing, frustrating endeavor. Figuring out how to structure meetings, finding places to hold those meetings, getting people to attend, and creating a decision-making process for your group represent far less sexy tasks than what most imagine when they decide to start a DSA chapter.

Particularly frustrating: the lack of dedicated DSA staff to nurture and grow folks trying to start a chapter. Many times our group would send e-mails to overworked National staff and receive no response, or get conflicting or confusing information from the DSA website about what to do next on our path towards creating a chapter. More than a few attempts in California to create new chapters weren’t as lucky as we were and died on the vine despite initial interest. If we truly want to build a socialist movement in every part of this country, something needs to change.

While anger at National for a lack of responsiveness has sparked a slew of convention proposals that seek to dismantle or kneecap it, a far more constructive and potentially powerful solution exists: create dedicated staff positions to provide easily accessible, hands-on help to chapters just starting out.

CPN’s National Office Proposal does just that, designating three organizers to be focused solely on supporting organizing committees and developing stable new chapters, with a particular focus on rural areas and small cities. To build a rural DSA, we need to provide new organizers the support they need to build chapters in their hometowns – direct lines to National, consistent mentorship, and increased training through new organizers represents the most powerful way to achieve this.

 GROWING MEMBERSHIP

Members can be hard to find in rural areas. Folks are spread out, often forced to drive significant distances to attend a DSA meeting or action. Our group operates in a deeply red area (the county I live in, for example, voted for Trump by an 11% margin), as do many other rural chapters, and not that many total avowed socialists exist in our territory. In addition, those that do exist can be afraid of openly associating with a socialist organization for fear of retaliation from community members, employers, or both.

Not only that, but small chapters often include more than a few folks with little or no organizing experience. The tools of the trade for reaching out to and connecting with new members aren’t readily available to us, nor do experienced organizers often live close at hand to share their knowledge locally. The solution lies in providing small chapters with dedicated resources and trainings on how to grow their group. Often DSA represents the only trusted socialist source members have about how to organize, yet nuts-and-bolts guidance on the DSA website remains painfully hard to find. 

That’s why small city and rural DSA members should support CPN’s 100k Strategy, which seeks to develop a concrete plan to grow our membership quickly over the coming years. Part of that plan includes the development of standard materials and trainings for recruitment, member engagement, and leadership development; with subsidized production and shipping costs of such materials and trainings offered to smaller and newer chapters. These resources could prove invaluable to isolated bands of organizers working to build DSA in their areas and potentially prove the difference between a failed small chapter and a flourishing one. 

REGIONAL CONNECTION & ASSISTANCE

Connecting with other DSA chapters can be a challenge for small and rural groups. For one, with limited numbers, many members spend much of their time building their own chapter, and have few hours left over to develop relationships with other chapters. Members of large, urban chapters with big centers of power rarely pass through our areas, and opportunities for casual interaction remain slim. Trips to these larger chapters’ events can also be difficult, requiring funds and valuable time to get there.

Plugging in to regional campaigns can be particularly problematic, as defined decision-making systems and power structures usually don’t exist for regional collaborations. Without trust and communication built between chapters, it can be hard to establish these systems and structures as rural chapters with few relationships or members to devote to coalition work. Not only that, but each proposed campaign often involves an entirely new group of comrades, requiring systems and structures to be re-created from scratch every time a different campaign begins.

That’s why regional organizations represent such a crucial element of ensuring that small and rural chapters can both easily plug into regional efforts and can have an equal seat at the table as these efforts get put together. Regional organizations also provide an excellent forum for big-city chapters to share the collective expertise and experience of their much larger membership. CPN’s Regional Representation Program provides the concrete means for these regional organizations to coalesce.

The program creates Regional Councils for regional organizations, the structure of which directly benefit small chapters: no chapter can have a majority on the Councils, preventing undue influence of big-city chapters. The program also provides the dedicated staff assistance necessary to make sure regional organizations get formed while, again, placing special focus on ensuring rural areas and small chapters take a significant role in this process. To that end, the program would form a Regional Coordinating Committee to build up regional organizations, and the Committee’s membership would be drawn from as many regions nationwide as possible, with an emphasis on rural and small-chapter representation. 

No other proposal so directly ensures small chapters have a seat at the table as DSA chapters grow their power through regional collaboration and organization.

INVOLVING PEOPLE WHERE THEY WORK

When our chapter recently underwent a priority-setting endeavor, supporting labor came up as one of our top three priorities. But without experienced labor organizers in our ranks or a clear idea of how we could best establish connections with labor and support their efforts, this priority has withered at the expense of other priorities with more clear paths to action. Where I live and work, there is extremely low union density, with the economy largely made up of non-unionized service workers and small businesses. The public sector unions that do exist are often conservative and quiet, leaving few entry points for our chapter to easily engage with labor.

By developing more infrastructure for labor involvement, we can meet rural and small city folks where they’re at – in the work place. The best way to achieve this would be through the guidance and involvement of a dedicated labor organizer, which CPN’s Labor Strategy would create. This staff organizer, along with the current Democratic Socialist Labor Commission, would work to build local labor formations in chapters throughout the country, including small and rural chapters.

This type of assistance would be invaluable in allowing small and rural chapters to receive the training we need to begin developing support in the labor movement locally, as well as determine how best to develop campaigns that could involve local workers and dramatically grow our small chapters in the process.

WHAT WON’T GET US THERE

Rural and small city chapters must be particularly careful when considering arguments that claim the only way to grow in size and success is through more direct funding. In comparison to having the support to build our chapter’s size and skills enough to to run real campaigns that could transform our local communities, funding represents a minor issue. Not only that, but for many chapters, such as our own, the point remains moot – nearly every proposal for increased funding to locals requires a bank account, not an insignificant barrier for a small group of volunteers spread too thin until they receive more assistance in building their chapter’s size and logistical skills.

Most importantly, sending small amounts of money to chapters adds up to big sums for the organization and robs Peter to pay Paul. What rural areas and small cities truly need from DSA right now cannot be purchased with a few hundred bucks a year– instead, we need experienced, well-trained organizers and well-developed strategies and resources that can help build and grow chapters, connect small chapters with larger ones, develop regional alliances, and ensure labor can become a major part of small chapter organizations. 


C.R. Mills is the Secretary of Central Sierra Foothills DSA and a rank-and-file teacher with the California Teachers Association