Finding DSA’s Niche in Rochester, NY

By Karen Vitale

Electoral politics is my least favorite form of political engagement. Yes, voting is arguably the most widely recognized democratic action, but it is a shallow act in isolation.  I prefer direct action organizing as defined for me in the 1990s by Steve Max and Heather Booth at the Midwest Academy – figure out who can say “yes” or “no” to your demands and make them answer that question publically, in front of a broad coalition of people affected by the answer. I like union campaigns and collective bargaining campaigns for the same reasons. On a personal level, I enjoy radicalizing people at work by asking uncomfortable questions that undermine their assumptions about daily life, and pointing out the obstructionist mechanisms of neoliberalism and assessment culture in our midst. Throughout the 2000s, I lost any interest in education campaigns and awareness campaigns and poorly-attended rallies, and I became a dormant activist.

But here we sit in Rochester, NY in 2016 and Bernie Sanders is running a competitive campaign for president with an explicitly democratic socialist platform. My friend Andrew said “We need to start talking about socialism” and I responded with “I know just the organization!” We decided to start Rochester Area Democratic Socialists as a local chapter of DSA.

Right now more than 50% of Rochester children are living in poverty; among cities its size, Rochester has the highest level of children living in extreme poverty. In 2012, Rochester had the lowest graduation rates of African American male teenagers in the country, at 9%. From 1985 to 2005, Rochester lost 44% of its manufacturing jobs, and that’s before the economic collapse of 2008. The conditions that exist in 2016 are similar to or worse than the conditions that led to the July ’64 Rochester riots.

A number of community groups have strategic campaigns to address local issues: some organizations are from-the-gut activist groups like Take Back the Land; they’re on the front lines of saving families from foreclosure, and Enough is Enough!, which is confronting local police brutality and misconduct and campaigning for statewide legislative changes.  Metro Justice is a member-driven, grassroots organization dedicated to social, economic, and racial justice in Rochester and will celebrate its 52nd anniversary this year. They are hooked in with statewide and national campaigns like The Fight for 15, Working Families Party, and Citizen Action initiatives.

So why have a DSA local chapter at all?

Because of Bernie.

Because of Bernie, we now occupy a very important niche here in Rochester.  We are democratic socialists, and Bernie’s platform is our platform. Because of Bernie, people are asking us “What is democratic socialism?” We have an answer that provides hope. Because of Bernie, people are asking “What’s a super delegate and wtf is going on?!” We can tell them exactly what a super delegate is and why it’s important. People are calling us up and seeking us out.

So even though it sounds uncomfortably like an awareness campaign and electoral politics, our goals for the Rochester Area Democratic Socialists are to 1) educate people from all walks of life on what democratic socialism looks like, 2) explain and help people engage in electoral politics, and 3) mobilize for and amplify the efforts of our local social justice partners.   

What do these goals mean for building our local chapter? Specifically, we educate people on what democratic socialism is by organizing a series of entry-level discussions called “What is Democratic Socialism?” in urban, suburban and surrounding rural counties.  We emphasize that democratic socialism is what happens when we focus on “we” and “us” instead of “me.” It’s important to us that we (who are mostly white right now) partner with African-American and Latino partners who can also articulate visions of democratic socialism. It’s not an academic discussion.  In rural communities it means asking why a Walmart is getting 10 years of not paying taxes in exchange for offering a few part-time, starvation wage jobs. Family farms are barely staying afloat – we can share with them what the Bank of North Dakota (a state-owned bank) is doing to help family farmers, and why they’re able and happy(!) to do it. Democratic socialism is all around us. And as Bernie says, these ideas are not radical.  

Bernie has electrified the electoral process for so many new voters. We will explain electoral politics and help people be engaged, because that’s what people locally want. They want to know who the progressive candidates are; around whom should they mobilize next? Some of them are ready to run for office; many are ready to join or build a third party. We can explain the differences between cross-endorsements and running one’s own candidates. Every time someone from another DSA chapter announces that a democratic socialist is running for office in their city or state, we put the word out locally and people are inspired!  They’re taking us seriously.

We mobilize and amplify our coalition partners’ work by showing up and listening – whether that’s to a meeting or a rally or a fundraiser. We recognize their work. We invite our coalition partners to share the stage with us at media events. We seek their input and guidance. If they have a series of events around a particular campaign, we’ll offer to host a “sister event” that dovetails with their efforts but highlights democratic socialism. Recently, when our DSA general meeting conflicted with the Monroe County for Bernie GOTV training, we publically announced that people who’ve never phone-banked or canvassed before should skip our general meeting and attend the GOTV training. We’ll have more meetings, we told them, but we only had one chance to win NY for Bernie.

I hope we’re good partners. I know that we’re a counterpoint to politics as usual. This week we’re joining a Verizon picket line, and this weekend we’re convening a gathering of key people to talk, listen, reflect and plan how to grow our left progressive numbers.  We are dedicated to keeping the momentum in the AfterBern.

Karen Vitale is the co-chair of Rochester Area Democratic Socialists.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

DSA Queer Socialists Conference Call

April 24, 2017
· 36 rsvps

DSA is in the process of forming a Queer Socialists Working Group. This call will cover a discussion of possible activities for the group, its proposed structure, assigning tasks, and reports on the revision of DSA's LGBT statement and on possible political education activities. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.


Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

April 30, 2017
· 51 rsvps

Join Philadelphia DSA veteran activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 4-5:30pm ET, 3-4:30pm CT, 2-3:30pm MT, 1-2:30pm PT.

DSA Webinar: Talking About Socialism

May 02, 2017
· 6 rsvps

Practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table in public.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

This training is at 9:00pm Eastern, 8:00pm Central, 7:00pm Mountain, 6:00pm Pacific, 5:00pm Alaska, and 3:00pm Hawaii Time. Please RSVP.


Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

In Talking About Socialism you will learn to:

  • Have a quick response ready to go next time someone asks you about democratic socialism.
  • Create your own elevator pitch about democratic socialism and DSA.
  • Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism.
  • Think through the most important ideas you want to convey about democratic socialism.
  • Have a concise explanation of what DSA does, for your next DSA table, event or coalition meeting.

Training Details

  • This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources.
  • If you have a computer with microphone, speakers and good internet access, you can join via internet for free.
  • If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt <> 607-280-7649.
  • If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt <> 608-335-6568.
  • Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance, by midnight Sunday.


DSA New Member Orientation Call

May 06, 2017
· 44 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  2 pm ET; 1 pm CT; 12 pm MT; 11 am PT.  

Film Discussion: Rosa [Luxemburg]

May 31, 2017
· 68 rsvps

Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix. 9 ET/8 CT/7 MT/6 PT.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 17 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.