Everything to Lose: Reflections on the Baker/Parsons Training Weekend

(Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung NYC)

By Jhari Derr-Hill

Over the last weekend in June, I joined upwards of 35 women, trans, and gender-nonconforming members of the DSA in Manhattan for an intensive two-day organizing workshop. To go, to be of that cohort, to know we represented a greater network, felt like an act of power-taking, -building, and -sharing. We came from around the country, from urban, suburban, exurban, and rural places—from chapters of only a few members and chapters with hundreds. The training was coordinated and funded through a collaboration with the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Foundation. They named the weekend after Ella Baker and Lucy Parsons, also socialist activists and organizers like Luxemburg, whose lives and work continue to inform socialist feminist praxis.

Cis-gender men were not offered space to participate. We can’t argue our way out of our reputation as a white-guy’s club—it is what it is—though I have to admit there are several guys in DSA whom I lovingly think of as my brocialists. In Raleigh, my branch, I’m often one of two women at our meetings, actions, and social events. I was one of five at our last general meeting, though it remains to be seen whether or not those numbers amount to a demographic shift or are a random spike. There are many ways for us to fail as an organization, and lack of representation among women, transgender, and gender-nonconforming people is one of them. (Of course, the same applies to race and class.)

When we all signed up for DSA, most of us contributing to an unprecedented swell in its membership in the past nine months which national was hardly prepared for, we were signing on to an organization dedicated to the principle that strong people can run their own lives, as opposed to being led by strong men and oligarchs. In this era of crisis, we were also signing up for new responsibilities, including developing the DSA into a viable mass organization. To do that, the national, chapter, and branch levels need a common structure, principles, and habits. While we are big tent and not democratic centristalists, we have to agree on a few things at the outset and need to routinely revisit and reinforce them in both collective and interpersonal contexts. Equity for women, trans, and gender-nonconforming people is a part of that, which is why my chapter takes stack and states pronouns at the start of our local meetings.

We also have to acknowledge the challenges of organizing for those of us who are not cis-men. As socialists, we have a vision for all, for the working class, for people who don’t or can’t work, people with disabilities, black and brown people. To successfully build a multicultural base, we have to plan for it, speak to it, and make room for it. At the workshop in New York, I was reminded of the need to reinscribe an explicitly feminist lens, as well as an explicitly race-conscious lens, in my work in or as a representative of DSA. While more hard work is sure to follow, it’s clear to me that race and gender must be at the core of our vision for the future and the organizing we’re doing to achieve it. The structures we build now, in these critical months and years as a political organization enjoying a newfound profile as the potential lodestar of the American left, will determine our success.

The two days of training were packed with modules on a variety of organizing methods. We spent a lot of time in break-out sessions, role playing and discussing specific, real-world experiences related to community building, gender, race, and communication, highlighting the challenges and successes we’ve had. The co-chair of a chapter in Iowa discussed two members of her chapter who are running for city council—an exciting example of DSA making a mark on the world. The same woman discussed the logistical challenge of access for several members of the chapter who live with extreme disabilities. Members from Boston relayed episodes of doxxing at the hands of the alt-right, as well as having to expel people in their branches for acts of sexism and racism. The co-chair of Phoenix described her chapter’s push to remove ICE agents from public jails.

Somewhere in the thick of diagramming capitalism and citing examples of transformative versus liberal reform, it occurred to me that the weekend was a stellar example of what it means to be organized. I feel that I’m part of an organization that understands the value of building community and developing leaders. My greatest challenge this year, which has also been exciting to tackle, is working through this process as I help strengthen my branch in Raleigh, North Carolina. Everything has been done in fits and starts. We have had achievements and, with a consistent base of people, become a decently functioning branch. That said, while our ambitions grow, our numbers have been unstable up to this point.

Recruitment is one avenue to make up the difference, but those of us who continue to show up are already overtaxed. In our smaller, newer branch of a chapter with a similar profile, we need to be more organized and firm up our processes as we call people to join us. The first observation I made as a part of the election-season membership cohort was that not everyone who signed up was prepared for or wanted the responsibility of building a branch or chapter. A lot of people coming to meetings were looking for actions to take part in on their very first day, but it was as though those members had been invited to a party with lousy hosts. There were no chairs. There was no music. There wasn’t even any food. I consider problems like these growing pains, rather than issues for which blame needs to be assigned. And yet, anyone organizing with DSA this year carries a sense of personal responsibility, which can shade post-election organizing missteps, such as not having a clear initial plan or strategy, with a sense of personal failure.

The workshop reframed my thinking around how to expand our base and redeem us after so many amateurish mistakes. Many of the solutions are uninteresting and administrative (much like that deeply gendered profession celebrated on a Wednesday every April). Whatever campaigns and events we plan, whatever work we do with affinity groups, all that has to be informed by a strategy and that requires note taking and record keeping and follow-up; in a term, project management. None of these things were in place when we came together as a branch.

During one of the modules, I was introduced to the bullseye of organizational structure. The concept is referenced in Secrets of a Successful Organizer from Labor Notes. Though the example in the book is oriented around labor organizing, our trainers used the bullseye to facilitate discussion of ways to build power and capacity in DSA. The bullseye is a tool for assessing individual members so that when we talk about participation rates and member retention at the chapter level, we can better strategize about how to motivate people to take action. At the center of the bullseye is the core, the next ring out is marked for activists, then supporters, and the final ring is marked for the disengaged.

As an organizer, your objective is to identify where you find yourself and other members on this bullseye. If you are a core member, you are highly involved in sustaining the organization and you may hold an elected position. Activists show up and get things done, whether supporting the group at a rally, on a picket line, or knocking on doors. Supporters affirm what we do by signing petitions, wearing buttons, reposting our calls to action on social media, etc. The disengaged have checked out—they may or may not be members, though they’re likely to have come to at least one meeting or action (and nothing since).

For our purposes, as an organization with a lot to lose, how much faith should we have in our numbers for 2018? To asses this, I suggest collapsing the traits for supporters and the disengaged into a single category. We can always use supporters, but they aren’t useful until we begin engineering our own campaigns and building institutions. Without knowing the actual numbers, our biggest problem now is converting those once-upon-a-time engaged members into regular meeting attendees, regular activists, and regular enthusiasts for the democratic socialist cause.

Our trainers recommended those at the core organize around developing active members toward greater responsibility and migrating them nearer the center. On this subject, I heard people talk about organizing themselves out of a job. As a core member of DSA in my part of the world, the day that happens will be a happy one. Until then, there are several ways we can increase engagement and build community within our organization. One strategy is to speak with members one-on-one to learn about them and their interests and mutually discover ways they can become more involved. To follow up, we can present them with a short list of asks, not expecting a commitment to all of them, but just hoping to demonstrate the breadth of work there is to do, some of which they will be more suited to than others.

In another module, I was introduced to the five Cs: character, courage, commitment, chemistry, and conviction. Briefly, character calls us to live what we stand for as democratic socialists. Courage is the mark of a person or organization that can work through obstacles, choose next steps, and follow through with them. Commitment is what we demonstrate when our principles endure. Chemistry—charisma—is necessary for any person or organization to lead a movement. Finally, conviction was described first in the imprecise language of “authenticity,” though we were also given two specific examples: having faith in other people to fulfill objectives (delegation), and recognizing the ongoing responsibility to nurture relationships.

There are plans, at the national level, to make some form of intensive training available to all members. Outreach and education on that scale is possible because members who receive organizing training can be then trained to lead workshops. It’s so perfectly socialist, to help each other flourish in this way. I ask again, though: what will we be in 2018? This community we have joined has increased the vibrancy of all our lives, but its fate is currently more precarious than even that of the Democratic Party.

A few days after I returned home from New York, tired and inspired, conflict erupted on Twitter around the process and fees for the DSA national convention. As far as Twitter beef goes, it was tame. But as far as community in-fighting goes, it felt worse to observe than when a Republican voter stood on the steps of his McMansion and told me that North Carolina’s gerrymandered districts were “just fine. I love ‘em” as I canvassed for fair maps. Of course, we can’t control for the behaviors of individuals and I would argue that there is a healthy lawlessness to Twitter. To see the fault lines of our organization in the crucible of social media platforms, however, I had to reconsider whether this community is just an ephemeral one. We can’t hold it down online and we have not found a way to hold it down at home, in real life, in our community. I want our community—this community of Democratic Socialists—to be as deep and consequential as the workshop weekend inspired me to feel, as it feels when I see a comrade at whatever call to action we have on the calendar that week, and as it feels to be agitated by the gut-punching cultural and political analyses of journalists on the left. We have every reason to feel fired-up and confident that our ideas are better and to congratulate ourselves for emerging with such force that liberals are beside themselves. But until we shore up our commitment to each other and put in the necessary time I fear we will lose it all.

Jhari Derr-Hill is a member of North Carolina Piedmont DSA. A longer version of this piece appeared on their website.

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