In Dark Times, Growing Pains And Opportunities

By Maria Svart

DSA is now almost quadruple the size it was last summer. It’s a far cry from the organization I joined sixteen years ago as a student in Chicago. Many longtime members had lost steam, and new folks weren’t joining, yet the politics and strategy of DSA resonated with me. I rose in the ranks as an elected YDS and then DSA leader, eventually joining staff as the National Director in 2011.

During those years, a team of national leaders and staff collectively transformed DSA. We held summer relationship-building retreats between YDS and DSA leaders. We developed more organizing trainings. We made the right strategic choices, such as supporting Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary and using a highly democratic, bottom-up participatory process to develop a national strategy document, “Resistance Rising.”

That work paid off. At our November 2015 convention I could feel and see the respect forged through joint work and the commitment to dealing with organizational weaknesses through practical and concrete new initiatives. Without the foundation that we built then, we could not now successfully absorb and be changed by the new members and energy we’ve experienced since the presidential election.

Make no mistake: what we build in DSA is an experiment in collective transformation. It is a foreshadowing of the vision we have for a democratic socialist society.

Organizing is not just about assessing dynamics, planning campaigns, and winning victories. It is also about transforming ourselves into agents of change through the democratic process of collective struggle. It is impossible to restructure our society without unlearning the helplessness that capitalism teaches us. Our goal is to create space for all people to do this together. Giants from Eugene Debs to Peggy Terry speak of how, in the words of Ella Baker, we need “organizing to be self-sufficient rather than to be dependent upon the charismatic leader.”

Central to this work is our commitment to participatory democracy. We operate through a federated chapter structure and elected leadership at all levels. Such a structure is an investment in transforming people and thus in our long-term strength. It’s a truism among organizers that the good ones organize themselves out of a job. In other words, our work as an organization is to strengthen our community and build leaders and, to paraphrase Linda Sarsour, “open more doors to the movement.”

On the other hand, our recent rapid growth puts a target on our back, and learning how to do democracy is tough. Capitalism doesn’t train people from wildly different backgrounds to work through conflict respectfully and together come up with mutually acceptable solutions. Those who study history know how often movements have foundered on the shoals of our learned habits of competition and division.

It is in this context that I invite you to approach participation in this beautiful experiment called DSA by adopting these practices as we build socialist power together!

1. Ask well-posed, open-ended questions that demonstrate curiosity about the other person’s experience and invite them to be introspective.

2. Take a moment to absorb and reflect on what others say to you, rather than immediately formulating your response. Does what they are saying change you?

3. Think of concrete organizing work as the place where we can better understand each other—including both our differences and our mutual interests.

4. Use conflict with comrades as a way to learn. Remind yourself that we all have unique experiences but we are together in DSA to build a better world, and even when we push each other to grow, we have faith in our shared humanity.

Maria120.jpg  Maria Svart is DSA’s National Director 

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

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.