DSA’s Political Revolution

 James Cajuste and Jeevan D’souza, members of the NYC DSA local, participated in a bilingual tabling in Spanish Harlem last month. (Credit: Miko Brandini)

By Elizabeth Henderson

These are remarks that DSA’s We Need Bernie campaign co-chair Elizabeth Henderson gave during a plenary at DSA’s recent convention in Bolivar, Pa., Nov. 13-15. — Ed.

It’s great to be here and to be able to talk with you all this afternoon about DSA’s We Need Bernie campaign. We hope that this plenary will give you all more insight into how we are all putting socialist theory to work in this campaign. 

When Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, announced his presidential bid last April, political activists throughout the country — myself included — maintained a cautious optimism about his candidacy.

Since then, Sanders has more than proven himself as a presidential contender, drawing crowds of tens of thousands of supporters in Portland, Los Angeles, and Boston and bringing in enough donations in the last fundraising quarter that his campaign raised $2 million shy of Clinton’s $28 million.

Sanders is using this momentum to call for a “political revolution.”

In a speech in Iowa earlier this fall he said: “What this campaign is about is not just electing a president, it is transforming America. We need to bring people together to stand up loudly and clearly and to say ‘Enough is enough.’”

And this is exactly what DSA’s We Need Bernie campaign is doing, one member at a time. Hundreds of DSA activists in more than 20 locals are using the opportunity presented by Sanders’ campaign to talk with people from all walks of life about socialism.

Last month, I had the opportunity to talk with DSA locals and learn more about their work on the ground. From Austin and Atlanta to New York City and Washington, D.C., locals are recruiting members, developing leaders, and connecting with new communities through Sanders work. This work also provides an exciting opportunity for current members to increase their involvement in DSA through Bernie work.

I’d like to go ahead and share with you what I learned through these conversations.

In New York City, members are routinely tabling to get the word out about Sanders. Through tabling, the local has developed a presence and connected with new members.

They are also offering creative programming to reach a broader audience. Earlier this month, the local organized a theatrical performance of the Democratic presidential debates.  

Member recruitment, though, is often a long-term undertaking that happens one member at a time. While the Philadelphia local tables once a week for We Need Bernie, the deeper conversations that convert Sanders supporters into dues-paying members are happening at monthly happy hour events and bi-weekly discussion groups.

In Washington, D.C., We Need Bernie work has energized members and motivated them to get more involved in local work. This is the case in other locals, as well.

The D.C. local recently organized a We Need Bernie rally with writer and progressive political activist Jim Hightower and author and DSA honorary chair Barbara Ehrenreich earlier this fall. The event had around 100 attendees. The New York City local also organized an event with Hightower last month.

Coleson Breen, a member of Washington, D.C. DSA, says that Sanders’ campaign 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,” Coleson said. “This is the time to really step up and get involved.”

Other locals, including those in Atlanta, Austin, and Knoxville, Tenn., have found that collaborating with other groups on Sanders work has also 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.

These petitions are a great organizing tool, and as a result local members are having weekly conversations with people about socialism.

Travis Donoho, of the Knoxville committee, joined the New American Movement when he was just 18 years old, and became a member of DSA when it merged with the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee in 1982. Travis says that now is the time to recruit people to DSA.

He told me: “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 ended up doing work through Texans for Bernie after they developed relationships with a number of local progressive groups while organizing an event for Sanders and Jim Hightower last spring. The Austin local, which was officially chartered last February, has 60 members who are participating as individuals in Texans for Bernie.

This level of participation, combined with DSA members being open about their membership at Texans for Bernie meetings and events, makes it possible for DSAers to have plenty of discussions about socialism with potential members.

Many members of the Austin local also have strong ties to local labor unions and progressive groups, which provides them with an immediate network of potential recruits.

Coalition work is also central to the Metro Atlanta local’s organizing approach, with local members participating in Georgia for Bernie. Atlanta DSA’s ties to Sanders stretch back to his first Senate run, when members did fundraising work for his campaign and Sanders was then the keynote speaker at the local’s first Douglas-Debs awards dinner in 2007.

Through the local’s organizing work with Georgia for Bernie, which includes tabling, participating in marches, and organizing forums, members of the local believe that the people they come in contact with are now one step closer to becoming socialist organizers.

We also have locals on the ground who are working to improve the diversity of DSA.

A handful of locals, all of which recognize that DSA’s national membership is overwhelming 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 have canvassed in predominantly African American neighborhoods. 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 their We Need Bernie work to make more inroads with Latino and African-American communities. Members of the group previously did outreach work in these communities during socialist candidate Jorge Mújica’s campaign for 25th ward alderman earlier this year.

Chicago is a diverse city, and more than 60 percent of the population is comprised of African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians.

When the local started their We Need Bernie work, they wanted to continue their efforts in communities of color. Members of the local have routinely distributed flyers at community events, including farmer’s markets and art festivals, where a significant number of African-Americans or Latinos are present.

Sanders’ 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.

I’d like to close with something that Maria, our National Director, recently said about the historic opportunity presented by the Sanders campaign, and DSA’s involvement in Sanders’ “political revolution.”

She said: “Now it’s 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 teach us there is no alternative. Let’s prove them wrong.”

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