Maria Svart built DSA

In the mid-aughts, as New York City DSA struggled to rebuild as a chapter, the late Michael Hirsch, then a national DSA leader, remarked in a planning discussion that “the only presentable person we have is Maria.” That Maria, of course, was Maria Svart.

At the time, Maria was the co-chair of Young Democratic Socialists (now Young Democratic Socialists of America, or YDSA) and I was its National Youth Organizer. Like hundreds if not thousands of socialists activists, I would not have been as active in DSA without her organizing chops, leadership, and mentorship.

On January 14, Maria Svart resigned as the Democratic Socialists of America’s National Director after a dozen years of service. She was DSA’s longest-serving top staffer, and her tenure coincides with the unprecedented growth of both DSA and the US socialist movement. She played a significant role in the dynamism that led to each.

My first contact with Maria came as a 20-year-old YDSA chapter activist in 2004 when she emailed me to encourage me to come to the annual YDSA summer conference. I did, and soon found myself its International Secretary, more due to the lack of interest in the post among the other two or three dozen attendees than my own skill.

Maria, originally from Oregon, grew up in a union family with a Mexican-American mom and white father. She attended the University of Chicago, more famous for its exportation of neoliberalism abroad than left-wing activism. Young Maria first participated in feminist clubs on campus, a foreshadowing of one of her first national initiatives in DSA — an annual national project to centrally organize DSA chapters to field Abortion Bowl-A-Thon teams. She said chapters needed a unifying yet simple project: a way to build chapter capacity and community while showing material solidarity with local abortion funds. Since then, DSA has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for reproductive freedom and justice. In her senior year, she was recruited by future Jacobin editor Peter Frase to join the Young Democratic Socialists chapter that was busy kicking Taco Bell off campus for its lack of support for the rights of their subcontracted immigrant tomato pickers. YDSA would continue participating in this campaign with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers for several years with different corporate targets.

While a chapter activist for less than a year, Maria was an indispensable part of YDSA leadership for nearly half a decade, first as the now defunct role of Feminist Issues Coordinator and then as national YDSA co-chair for about five years. In this period, she also worked movement jobs, including as an organizer for the SEIU Committee of Interns and Residents. 

In the early 2000s, DSA and YDSA were practically autonomous organizations, with nearly no YDSA members joining or starting a DSA chapter upon graduating from college. Their leadership might as well have been in two separate groups. Maria played a critical role bridging the divide and moving graduating YDSA cadre into DSA chapters. This was a result of several strategic initiatives she guided with a handful of others, including an initial effort to recruit student activists to attend the DSA convention in 2007. While only a dozen came, this still accounted for nearly one-sixth of the whole convention attendance (another attendee: newly elected US Senator Bernie Sanders). Maria spearheaded organizing trainings at the convention focused on skills like chapter-based fundraising and campaign planning.

Maria Svart (second from right) and the author, David Duhalde (first from right) help close the 2007 DSA convention in this photo from the Democratic Left.

But she knew one event wasn’t enough. The same year, Maria and others, such as longtime DSA leader and first YDSA paid organizer Joe Schwartz, led an initiative to build bridges between the DSA and YDSA leaderships. This initiative began holding retreats between the two bodies before youth section summer conferences. These intimate gatherings created both intellectual and personal connections between generations of socialists. In 2009, Maria was elected to the National Political Committee (NPC), DSA’s elected leadership, as a full member (having previously served on the board as the YDSA Co-Chair with half-a-vote). Maria got things done and embodied the spirit of “each one, teach one,” training the people around her and organizing herself out of her role by recruiting and supporting new leaders. 

When Maria took over as DSA National Director in 2011 from Frank Llewellyn, (at that point, the longest-serving occupant of the position), she began a process of modernizing the organization to meet the times. This included overseeing the redesign of a website stuck in the late 1990s and other infrastructure changes. Maria led the transition away from a paper-heavy organization where chapter applications still came by mail. Digitization, among other changes, was critical to both allowing for a more remote workforce and the influx of chapter applications during DSA’s unprecedented growth period in the coming years.

As National Director, Svart was often the face of DSA in the media, as in this 2012 segment on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Prior to the massive influx of members after Donald Trump’s electoral college win, Maria was the face of DSA in many ways. Before DSA became a household name — at least for the politically active —Maria could be found on the Daily Show and C-SPAN reaching the homes of many unfamiliar with our beliefs and practices. Maria was also happy to amplify other members spreading socialist ideas — a testament to her commitment to leadership development within the ranks.

None of us could have predicted how DSA would explode after the defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016. But there was no guarantee DSA would be the recipient of much of the energy of Sanders supporters. DSA had been roughly the same size as two other pro-Bernie grassroots groups: Progressive Democrats of America and the socialist Committees of Correspondence.

DSA outgrew these allied- pro-Bernie formations with a bit of luck and plenty of pluck. Sanders called himself a democratic socialist, which made those interested in the term more likely to find DSA first. But the pluck (or spirited planning) reflected how Maria and others made sure organizing was a key part of DSA’s “We Need Bernie” campaign.

Svart helped execute an independent pro-Sanders DSA campaign in 2016 that positioned the organization to benefit from a new wave of interest in democratic socialism.

Maria understood people were moved by ideas and theory. But it was strategic and systematic organizing that would mobilize these inspired socialists into making change (and joining DSA). The NPC at the time proposed and developed the idea: instead of just telling people to volunteer for the Sanders campaign, DSA could launch its own project that explicitly tied democratic socialist values and agenda to those interested in putting Bernie in the White House. But Maria oversaw the independent expenditure, ensuring all the work complied with election law, a feat for a national but relatively decentralized organization undertaking such a massive project for the first time. This helped plug in DSA members and introduce potential members to the organization throughout the country.

Even before DSA grew dramatically, this kind of organizing was getting noticed. In 2016 National Nurses United asked DSA to co-organize the People’s Summit, which for two years brought together about a dozen pro-Bernie unions and activist organizations and several thousands of their members and unaffiliated Berniecrats. At the final gathering Maria was invited to speak to the entire conference, alongside a handful of other movement leaders. 

At that moment, you could feel that DSA had made it. Not only were we growing and people were noticing, but we – through Maria — were literally on stage with major players.

The years until Bernie’s second race were both amazing and difficult – for Maria and DSA. The organization’s growth brought historic gains such as the election of members such Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib to Congress in 2018, expanding Medicare for All and Green New Deal coalition efforts with a socialist voice, and winning victories on the local levels via laws and referenda on worker rights, housing, and more.

Growing by tens of thousands brought many new voices into the organization. DSA transformed from an essentially social-democratic left-wing formation. That iteration of DSA made the choices — like the full-throated affiliation with the Bernie Sanders campaign — that led to its rapid growth into a socialist coalition with more competing political formations. Maria, the face of the organization from the pre-2016 period, has often been the target of ire of those who disagreed with the organization’s direction. 

Meanwhile, DSA’s national elected leadership became a revolving door. Maria became a key pillar of institutional memory from just before DSA exploded, as each new leadership election brought a new cohort with different goals and few seasoned incumbents to learn from. When Maria started, the 16-member NPC could expect a retention rate of 70 to 80 percent after every two-year term. After 2017, the numbers reversed.  That said, her insights could be invisible at times as her duties became increasingly tied to administering a staff that had grown from three to thirty. DSA also became much more complicated. Not only did the number of chapters grow, but DSA national working groups each became de facto nonprofits in their scope and budget. (She also has served as the part-time Executive Director of the DSA Fund, a 501c3 sister nonprofit, which I chair now, as part of her duties.)

For all these challenges, DSA is stronger than we could have imagined when Maria and I were starting YDSA chapters in our early 20s. With Bernie 2020 in the rearview mirror, it is unclear what will be the next project to unite the organization in domestic politics. The solidarity with Palestine has been unifying in recent months, but many questions remain in this presidential election year. What is certain is Maria left DSA stronger than she found it. For that, we should be forever grateful. 

Maria Svart’s farewell message can be found online. The Democratic Left welcomes pitches about individuals making a special contribution to DSA at [email protected].

Correction: This article was corrected after publication to indicate that Maria Svart served as the part-time executive director of the DSA Fund. The original text of the article incorrectly described the position as unpaid. (March 20, 2024)