|Metro Atlanta DSA members (from left to right) Barbara Joye, Minnie Ruffin, Barbara Landay, Brandon Payton-Carillo, and Adam Cardo marching to a Bernie fundraiser in Atlanta in September. Photo: Reid Jenkins.|
By Elizabeth Henderson
From Austin, Texas, and Atlanta, Georgia, to New York City and Washington, D.C., DSA locals and organizing committees are recruiting members, developing leaders, and connecting with new communities through work on Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Conversations with local leaders from around the country show that people are more receptive to talking about socialism as a result of Sanders’ candidacy.
In New York City, most of the people local members encounter are “super receptive,” says Rahel Biru, co-chair of New York City DSA, especially when they hear about Sanders’ plan for expanding Social Security and funding free public higher education. “It is so common sense and it appeals to people,” she says.
After spending more than a decade volunteering for political campaigns, including Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, Biru started coming to DSA meetings last winter. Since then, Biru says, Sanders’ run played a big role in her decision to become a leader in the New York City local. Biru says that routine tabling has allowed the local to develop a presence and connect with new members. “They’re looking for a group where they can do things, and they’re ready to get to work. They see our DSA Bernie table and they’re like, ‘Yes, I want to do that.’”
Member recruitment, orientation, and retention, though, is a long-term undertaking that happens one member at a time. Although the Philadelphia local routinely tables for We Need Bernie, Adam Goldman, co-chair of the local, says that the deeper conversations that convert Sanders supporters into dues-paying members are happening at monthly Happy Hour events and bi-weekly discussion groups.
Goldman, who joined the local in 2011 after getting his start at Temple University’s YDS chapter, saw We Need Bernie as a chance to increase his involvement in the local, and he is now chair of the local’s Sanders work. “My trajectory shows how much of a long-term game recruitment and fostering activists in the organization is,” Goldman says.
In Washington, D.C., We Need Bernie work has energized members and motivated them to get more involved in local work. Coleson Breen, a former co-chair of the local, is hopeful that the newer recruits will join DSA, but like Goldman, he takes the long view.
“I think it’s too early to tell if some of the people that we’re signing up through Bernie work will stick around, but I am hopeful that they will,” Breen says.
Breen increased his involvement in the local to help plan a We Need Bernie rally featuring writer and progressive political activist Jim Hightower, author and DSA honorary chair Barbara Ehrenreich, and retired Communication Workers of America president Larry Cohen, among others, earlier this fall. The event had around 100 attendees.
Breen thinks that Sanders’s campaign, unlike the financial crisis in 2008 or Occupy Wall Street, presents DSA with a historic moment to get the word out about democratic socialism. “We’ll never have a better opportunity to do this work. This is the time to really step up and get involved,” says Breen.
Working with Others
Many locals and organizing committees, including those in Atlanta, Austin, and Knoxville, Tennessee, have found that collaborating with other groups on Sanders work has been a successful way to educate people about Sanders’ candidacy and strengthen local membership.
Members of the DSA organizing committee in Knoxville are working as individuals with local progressive groups to get Sanders on the ballot for the presidential primary. Because We Need Bernie is an “uncoordinated independent expenditure” campaign, DSA locals and organizing committees must refrain from directly coordinating with the official campaign, which includes collecting signatures.
Travis Donoho, one of the coordinators of the Knoxville committee, says that the petitions are a great organizing tool. “People who would give us 20 seconds or ten seconds if we were handing out a flyer give us three or five minutes as they sign the petition.”
Donoho joined the New American Movement (NAM) when he was 18 years old and became a member of DSA when NAM merged with the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) in 1982. Donoho believes that there’s “never been a better time to ask people to join DSA. Bernie is making it okay to talk about democratic socialism. And we haven’t seen that in 40 years.”
Austin DSA, which Donoho helped found with current co-chairs Alice Embree and Danny Fetonte before moving to Knoxville, has worked through Texans for Bernie after its members developed relationships with a number of local progressive groups while organizing an event for Sanders and Jim Hightower last spring. Sixty members of the Austin local are participating in Texans for Bernie.
Fetonte says that this level of participation, combined with DSA members being open about their membership, makes it possible for DSAers to have plenty of discussions about socialism. “The key is to just let people know who you are, and if you’re open about it like Bernie is, people will ask a lot of questions and you’ll be talking about it all the time and you can recruit people,” Fetonte says.
Through this approach, as well as by encouraging all attendees at local DSA meetings to join the organization, Austin has recruited a dozen new members since the campaign started.
Coalition work is also central to the Metro Atlanta local’s organizing approach, with local members participating in Georgia for Bernie. Daniel Hanley, an at-large member of the local’s Executive Committee, says that although the local wants to increase its membership numbers, it sees the value of building the broader progressive movement by plugging people into other activist movements such as Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter.
“We hope they become DSA members or, at least, a member of some organization, like a DSA coalition partner, and then we can continue to build relationships with people in those groups,” Hanley said.
The local’s ties to Sanders stretch back to his first Senate run, when members did fundraising work for his campaign. Atlanta combined efforts with other locals in a bundling campaign to help the DSA PAC raise $60,000 for Sanders. The newly elected senator was then the keynote speaker at the local’s first Douglass-Debs awards dinner in 2007.
Through the local’s organizing work with Georgia for Bernie—which includes tabling, participating in marches, flyering on public transportation, and creative outreach tactics like banner drops and light projections on buildings—Hanley believes that the people they come in contact with are now one step closer to becoming socialist organizers. “I think the seeds have been planted with a lot of people.”
Since Black Lives Matter activists interrupted a Netroots Nation forum featuring Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley this past summer, the senator’s platform on race has been in the spotlight. Additional critiques from racial justice activists led Sanders to release a racial justice platform addressing many of their concerns.
Some DSA locals, recognizing that DSA’s membership is overwhelmingly white, are working to connect their Sanders work with racial justice organizing. These locals aim to bring attention to issues of racial justice while simultaneously building a more diverse DSA.
The Philadelphia local is currently organizing a forum on racial justice and Sanders, and members of the Washington, D.C., local canvassed for Sanders in the Fort Totten area, a predominantly African American neighborhood in the northeast section of the city. The New York City local recently started bilingual tabling outreach with volunteers who speak both English and Spanish.
The Greater Oak Park branch of the Chicago local is also using its We Need Bernie work to connect with Latino and African American communities. Members of the group did outreach work in these communities during socialist candidate Jorge Mújica’s campaign for 25th ward alderman earlier this year.
Bill Barclay, co-chair of the Chicago local, noted that when individual members of the Greater Oak Park local attended a meeting of Sanders supporters last spring, they looked around at the mostly white faces in the room and decided that they should prioritize getting the word out about Sanders to communities of color in Chicago. Since then, members of the local have routinely distributed flyers at community events, including farmers’ markets and art festivals, where a significant number of African Americans or Latinos are present.
Peg Strobel, treasurer of the Chicago local, notes that it’s important for white activists to get used to working in communities of color. “I think people need to get over a sense of discomfort and being one of the few white people around,” Strobel said.
More than 60% of Chicago’s population is made up of African Americans, Latinos, and Asians. Tom Broderick, co-chair of the Greater Oak Park branch of the Chicago local, says that bringing Sanders’ platform to all of these communities is vital to the success of the campaign. “The Chicago area is a metropolis. We have all kinds of folks around here who may or may not know who Bernie Sanders is, and what we need to do is get them to know who he is,” Broderick says.
‘It’s Up to You and Me’
Sanders’s presidential campaign has created an unprecedented opportunity for progressives in general and socialists in particular. Since the senator from Vermont announced his decision to run last spring, DSA’s membership has increased, and eight new organizing committees have been established.
Maria Svart, DSA’s national director, says that the next phase of DSA’s involvement in Sanders’ “political revolution” is “up to you and me. Do we utilize this window of opportunity to turn people interested in democratic socialism into members of DSA? Do we build a democratic socialist movement that reflects the diversity of the working class and is truly capable of winning? The capitalists tell us there is no alternative. Let’s prove them wrong.”
Elizabeth Henderson is a freelance writer, member of the Philadelphia chapter of DSA, and chair of the DSA We Need Bernie campaign.
This article originally appeared in the winter 2015 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.
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