Report from the 2020 YDSA Winter Conference

DSA’s youth section is united in building a mass organization of socialists that can move the working class into action. Jacob W reports back from the YDSA 2020 Winter Conference.

On Valentine’s Day weekend, over 250 Young Democratic Socialists descended onto the Chicago Teachers Union Hall for the 2020 YDSA Winter Conference. 

When I joined YDSA in the summer of 2018, there were less than 60 chapters. Today there are 80 going on 100. This growth reflects the growing popularity of democratic socialism in the U.S., an ideology that now boasts a 40 percent approval rating among college students. More concretely, Bernie Sanders is favored by 50 percent of college students for the Democratic presidential nomination. 

Socialism is having a moment among younger people radicalized by the material conditions of austerity, climate change, and racial capitalism. The task of YDSA today is to harness the energy of young working-class people and move them into socialist organizing, developing a rising generation of militant socialists and movement leaders for the future.

In contrast with DSA, which has a national convening once every 2 years, YDSA holds annual Winter Conferences and Summer Conventions. The former has, in my experience, provided a center for training new organizers, while the latter focuses on procedure, formal business, and political debates.

Hosting a yearly training conference is one of the most essential functions of YDSA as a national organization. This year, workshops addressed topics such as leadership development, one-on-one organizing conversations, list work, political education, and press management. Importantly, workshops shared a common theme that the overarching goal of DSA is to build a mass organization able to move the working class into action.

“[Building] a mass organization” is not an ideologically neutral statement. Even if there are many interpretations as to what a mass orientation looks like in practice, unity around this goal illustrates a broadly-shared desire for a bigger, more ambitious YDSA and DSA–a desire that CPN’s 100k platform plank for the 2019 DSA National Convention began to address in concrete terms. Multiple times throughout the conference, the question of making YDSA more accessible and diverse accompanied discussions about mass organizing, showing serious interrogation of what it would take to build a working-class organization in the U.S..

Breakout sessions of states, regions, and identity groups offered a productive opportunity for cross-chapter collaboration. Having time to coordinate with other members in Virginia enabled us to begin to identify common struggles across campus. The identity-based groups offered a chance for socialists in YDSA at UVA to develop ideas about how to make our own chapter more attractive to socialists of color and as a result more accurately reflect the working class at our university. 

YDSA Conventions of recent years created, and subsequently restructured a number of regional organizations. These regional bodies have often faltered from low participation and a sense of directionlessness. Far from representing a shortage of interest among YDSAers when it comes to regional organizing, this year’s breakout sessions indicated that a lack of sufficient organizational support has led to the ineffectiveness of these bodies.

Much of the conference revolved around plenaries of guest speakers. Memorably, one plenary entitled “Unite, Fight, Win” featured Chicago Alderman Rossana Rodriguez, Chicago Teachers Union member Christine Dussault, Chicago Alderman Carlos Rosa’s Field Director Lillian Osborne, and highschooler and organizer David Range. 

The event included a lot of valuable discussion, including many questions from the audience. In particular, speakers emphasized that the recent victories of Rodriguez, Rosa, and four other socialist Aldermen involved leveraging support among the city’s working-class communities. The trust built up in Latino communities through years of committed organizing and outreach–including know-your-rights canvassing, tenant organizing, and previous electoral campaigns–paved the way for institutionalizing socialist power in Chicago.

Later, the audience was captivated by a keynote speech delivered by Bernie campaign surrogate and Dream Defenders co-founder Phil Agnew. Agnew’s central themes of solidarity, organizing, and fighting provided a rousing conclusion to the weekend. Just before he announced he was officially joining DSA, Agnew recalled the ways in which he wished he could have been a part of historical working-class movements. “[But] here we are now,” said Agnew in closing. “I no longer have to wish, or stand on the sidelines as you all do the work!”

Political questions specific to YDSA deserve a deeper analysis than I can provide here. At the very least, DSA members should take heed of the direction of our organization’s youth section. The simple fact that all YDSA members are committed to building a mass organization represents a level of unity currently surpassing DSA. YDSA’s focus on questions of recruitment, diversity, and regional coordination reflect many critical, yet unanswered questions in DSA. 

The practical value of YDSA convenings for transmitting effective organizing skills is an example for the whole of DSA. Smart, disciplined, and sustained organizing is required to take full advantage of DSA’s current period of growth. The YDSA Winter Conference demonstrated that the energy the Bernie campaign is harnessing on college campuses extends to the broader socialist movement. There are hundreds of socialist cadre, and thousands nationwide ready to organize and fight!

Jacob W is a student and member of the University of Virginia chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America in Charlottesville, VA.