When DSA launched its recruitment drive that ran from October to November 2020, hopes were confidently modest. Instead of the expected 5,000 new members, though, some 12,000 people signed on, exceeding expectations and laying the groundwork for the 100K goal for 2021. Perhaps the most unexpected result was that chapters in southern states—which tend to be more rural than urban—had some of the highest recruitment rates. The results surprised even some southern leaders. The Southwest Louisiana chapter credits its success to a mutual aid program that it helped organize during the recruitment drive, while the Charleston, South Carolina, chapter emphasized personal outreach as the main force behind recruiting new members.
For the Southwest Louisiana chapter, which topped the recruitment leaderboard, the drive came at a stressful time. Chapter member Megan Romer recalls that they were recovering from a brutal hurricane season on top of the COVID-19 pandemic. The combination of social and economic disarray and social distancing could have made recruitment efforts much more difficult. Yet the chapter prevailed. Collaborating with other organizations, such as Mutual Aid Disaster Relief for distribution, the chapter raised about $20,000 for mutual aid disaster relief supplies distributed at “free stores,” where chapter members volunteered. Romer notes that chapter members had to have a negative COVID-19 test result, and everyone was required to wear a mask.
The project was new ground for the chapter in terms of scale. Previously, its biggest mutual aid project had been a brake light clinic. Disaster relief is more complex. Not everyone affected by the hurricane season necessarily needed the same supplies, so the chapter found a way to incorporate requests from local residents by having them fill out a Google form online. The project actually made recruitment easier: “I do think that for smaller, rural chapters, mutual aid is one way of growing membership and growing recognition,” Romer says. The Southwest Louisiana chapter’s mutual aid work received some press coverage from local television stations. Chapter members were a bit nervous about the media coverage, as some of the general public had reacted negatively to the chapter’s brake light clinic project. The response on social media, however, was much more positive than expected. “Comments were rolling out and you got a lot of people saying ‘Well, I don’t care what political affiliation they are. They are doing something good.’”
The Charleston chapter in South Carolina met about 300% of its recruitment goal. Jasmine Rogasner, the chapter’s communications chair, says that she credits the charisma of two people in her chapter who spearheaded the drive. Part of their strategy was to reach out to people who already defined themselves as leftists or socialists but had not yet formally joined DSA. The chapter hosted a Zoom event that served both as a new member orientation and as an introduction to DSA. About ten people showed up to the virtual event, and five of them joined immediately afterward.
One-on-one conversations, however, proved to be key to the campaign, Rogasner says. Chapter members would generally initiate contact with people who had attended meetings or were known to see themselves as leftists. They would text first and then have a phone conversation about joining DSA. That strategy proved to be more personal and more successful than relying solely on text messages or emails. “It was very clear that the one-on-one relation building and just reaching out to people worked. It is obviously much more time consuming, but it overall has better results,” Rogasner says. At the same time, she emphasizes, no matter what DSA members are doing, recruitment can be a part of it. As an example, she described a conversation with a friend who brought up her frustrations with capitalism. Rogasner suggested that her friend join DSA, and she did. If DSA hadn’t been in the middle of a recruitment drive, she wonders whether she would have brought DSA into the conversation. “It’s not hard to ask,” she says. “Sometimes it is just hard to remember.”
What recruitment strategies will be successful for a given chapter will ultimately depend on a few different factors. Romer believes that mutual aid programs can be one of the most effective recruitment tools a rural DSA chapter can have. That’s especially true because rural areas can sometimes lack the same kind of social services that cities often have. That strategy has the potential to recruit people who are otherwise politically disengaged. Still, there are a surprising number of people who identify as leftists or socialists who have yet to become dues-paying members of DSA. Reaching out to them personally, or having your chapter be more visible to the public eye, might be all that is needed for them to make the decision to join the organization. As the old saying goes, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” ( (Photos below from DSA LA members including Megan Romer, Jean Dutile Bertrand, and others who preferred their contribution be anonymous.)