A Journey to Chapterhood in Lancaster, Pa.

Since December 2023, Brett Chalupa has been documenting the process of restarting a chapter in the Lancaster, Pa., region on the National Discussion Forums. The following is an excerpt adapted from his posts.

There was a DSA chapter in Lancaster before I moved here. It’s tough to tell why it went defunct. It appears to have lost momentum around 2020 or maybe a little earlier. Lancaster is a rural-ish county in south-central Pennsylvania situated between Harrisburg and Philadelphia. The county has about 500,000 people, with a city at the heart of it also named Lancaster, with a population of nearly 60,000.  Lancaster is mostly rolling hills, with a large farming community due to its favorable growing season compared to the rest of the state. There’s a  “plain sect” (Amish, Mennonite, etc.) population of over 33,000 people, which may be what the area is most known for.

Having a chapter in Lancaster would be a great counterbalance to the conservatism in the county. I think we could be really successful building an organization with clear, progressive, accessible, socialist values that’s regularly making efforts to improve the lives of the working class. There’s opportunity to strengthen the labor movement here, with some of the largest employers not having unionized workforces. There are challenges the community faces, like unusually poor air quality for the area, that we can work to improve. If even 0.1% of the registered Dems in the county were interested, that’d be 100 potential members. I have to imagine that’s in the realm of possibility.

So, at the end of 2023, I attended the DSA chapter interest call with Dana (the Chapter Pipeline Coordinator) and Hayley (a field organizer for the western states). After fantasizing about what forming a chapter could be like for a couple months, it was great to be on a video call with other comrades looking to form chapters in their areas (Honolulu, Hawaii and Sarasota, Fla.), as well as get to ask questions about the process. To see chapters in the process of forming at various states and sizes was really motivating. I want to sit in more rooms with other socialists!

After taking a week to rest up as 2023 came to an end, I jumped right back into organizing the Lancaster chapter. I got some of the key next steps done such as registering some online accounts, creating an Action Network, and filling out the chapter’s zip code jurisdiction list so that at-large members in that area can be notified of the new chapter forming. I really hoped that last item would fan the flames so we could start having meetings and organizing. 

We got some contacts through the Action Network interest form within a few days of launching it. Then when Dana from National sent out an email to at-large members in the proposed jurisdiction, we got a bunch more responses. Between those tools and Instagram, I was now in contact with about 20 people, half of which are dues-paying DSAers, within a few weeks of initiating the process. Since we had more than enough people to apply to become an Organizing Committee, I submitted that application in mid-January. 

We started to do some outward-facing organizing. A group of us showed up at public comments for a new prison being built in our county, and I read a statement demanding fewer beds, carceral reform, and an advisory committee more representative of the people incarcerated. It was the spiciest comment there, but there was lots of support from the audience and the general sentiment was along the same lines. This action helped get the number of beds decreased in the new jail!

We also began organizing regular actions for Palestine. Some of us joined the January 13 March on Washington for Palestine, where we met up with DSA members from many different chapters. Then, on January 20, we organized our first local rally calling for a ceasefire with some other partner organizations. It went well, with over 55 people showing up despite temperatures in the teens. Since then, we’ve been holding rallies basically weekly.

Brett Chalupa stands in front of a group of people holding a red banner read "Democratic Socialists of America."
Chalupa in front of Greater Baltimore DSA’s banner at the Jan 13, 2024 March for Gaza in Washington, DC | Photo Courtesy Brett Chalupa.
A crowd of a few dozens stand in a square holding signs, some of which say "free Palestine". In the foreground, a protester waves a large Palestinian flag.
Lancaster rally for a ceasefire in Gaza on Jan 20, 2024 | Photo courtesy Brett Chalupa

Towards the end of January, we tabled at a local punk festival called Toilet Fest with the band Apes of the State. It was great to be out in the community and talk to people. Folks were stoked DSA was returning to Lancaster. We talked to over 30 people and got 17 sign ups of interest. People loved the buttons in particular. I tabled with Comrade Ayesha M., a member of Central Jersey DSA who had moved to our area recently and started helping us reform the chapter.

Two people sit behind a table covered in DSA merchandise and hand-outs.
Lancaster Organizing Committee members Brett Chalupa and Ayesha M. tabling at Toilet Fest | Photo courtesy Brett Chalupa

Around this time, we also started getting more people actively helping to build the chapter, and we started to formalize our roles while we worked towards chapterhood. At the guidance of our field organizer Kaitlin, we formed an interim steering committee. People self-nominated, and, so far, I think it’s been really helpful to have these roles in place. It’s a nice way for people to test their interest in serving in these positions and gives some more clarity to ways people can be involved in these early days. 

I’ve been thinking of the interim steering committee as being primarily responsible for keeping us running smoothly and getting us to chapterhood with bylaws and then an official steering committee election. It’s been so awesome seeing other people get involved, and I’m very happy to be sharing or handing over responsibilities to others so that this is now less “my thing” and more “our thing.”

On February 2, DSA National officially recognized Lancaster DSA as an Organizing Committee! We started a weekly working session at a local coffee shop every Sunday so we can hang out and collaborate on campaigns. We also had our first Socialist Social, and let’s just say the commies took home the trivia trophy and a $25 gift card. People really enjoyed getting to meet one another in person and hang out! 

Then, on March 10, we held our first general meeting. 14 people were there in person and 10 more joined us online. We didn’t have any resolutions or that sort of stuff, but I think we’ll prepare to get into that habit at our next general meeting. 

We’ve begun organizing a larger scale campaign for trans rights and bodily autonomy, with a rally planned for March 30 for Trans Day of Visibility. We’re already seeing a lot of interest and support, and to be making an impact on multiple campaign fronts shows how much impact a small, newly forming chapter can have.

Something cool that’s been happening is that other people are taking the lead on various campaigns and working groups! I asked people directly and they’ve been running with it and doing amazing stuff. A member drafted a Trans Sanctuary City Resolution, two others are preparing a Trans Teach-In event, and a bunch of people are starting up a Political Education Working Group. It’s really happening! Love to see it.

At the beginning of February, I counted 22 dues-paying members with another dozen or so interested or supporters. About 8 to 10 of those people were engaging daily, or close to it, with chapter efforts. But now that we’re an OC, we get membership reports, and I was shocked to see that our official numbers report that we have 68 members in good standing and 94 constitutional members already. It’s comforting to know there are DSA members around who I haven’t met yet. The most engaged members are those who are new to the organization and excited. By the end of February we had about 20 people regularly showing up, engaging, collaborating, etc. Our next goals: draft bylaws, agree on them, and apply for chapterhood. 

If there’s one takeaway I have so far from helping start a chapter, it’s this: don’t wait to start taking action, just do it! There are socialists near you who want to get involved, and you don’t have to have everything figured out to start making an impact.

Check out Brett’s full account on the National Discussion Forums. Sign up for the Discussion Forums if you don’t have an account yet.