OP-ED: How Philly DSA’s LILAC Fights for Democratic Socialism in America’s Poorest Big City – Democratic Socialists of America

By Brittany Griebling, Dave Backer, and Greg Laynor

Philly DSA, Local Initiative/Local Action Committee (LILAC)

Philly DSA at the Poor People’s Campaign Healthcare Day in Harrisburg, PA

Philadelphia is the poorest big city in America. Like so many places, Philly is a tale of two cities, written in blood. In Philadelphia life expectancy can vary from zip code to zip code by as much as twenty years. In Old City, 76% white, median income $100,653, life expectancy is 88. In North Philly, 97% non-white, median income $22,487, life expectancy is 68.  

The city is not working for everyone, and it’s the difference between life and death for so many people. At the December 2017 general meeting of Philly DSA, the membership passed a resolution creating a Local Initiative/Local Action Committee (LILAC). We at LILAC believe that socialism can actually solve the problems we face as a city, and that’s why we fight.

Philadelphia made history in November 2017, when a labor-backed multiracial coalition proudly elected movement activist Larry Krasner as Philadelphia District Attorney on a platform of ending mass incarceration, protecting immigrants, and confronting abusive police. Krasner’s victory showed the world the collective power that Philadelphians have when we rally together, electing somebody who fights for us.

LILAC envisions a socialist struggle that can collaborate with local fights like the Krasner campaign. We want to build on local momentum to develop a range of projects that earn the buy-in of our membership and engage us in the struggles of our working class city. We wrote our resolution last December with this vision in mind.

The vote for the LILAC resolution was contentious. Some argued that a chapter with 500+ members did not have the capacity to engage in more than one campaign (Medicare for All). Others responded by speaking of the need for our chapter to have a space in which to develop campaigns based in the struggles of our city. The resolution passed and according to the December meeting minutes, the vote was 63-54.

LILAC’s organizing philosophy is that an engaged organization, one in which each member develops and utilizes their skills to the fullest, makes us a more powerful and effective socialist organization. To that end, LILAC has created a vibrant committee culture focused on coalition-based organizing and participatory democracy.

LILAC uses a “buddy system” of facilitation. Two committee members facilitate each meeting. At the next meeting, one facilitator stays on and a new member comes on to facilitate the meeting. Agenda items are solicited from members via email and agendas are then sent out for member feedback and approved by online vote.

In addition to three elected coordinators who coordinate administrative tasks, LILAC has multiple rotating leadership tasks at meetings so that we have a “leaderful” committee (scheduler, spacefinder, snackperson, stacktaker, timekeeper, notetaker, opening reader, activity leader). A less hierarchical, more horizontal structure draws members in by showing how essential everyone’s contribution is to the functioning of the committee.

Meetings begin with a reading selected by the person who volunteered for the task that day (these have included poetry, short stories, songs, and passages from Karl Marx and Paolo Freire). Meetings end with an optional group activity (these have included singing “Solidarity Forever” and painting a LILAC banner). Each meeting has time for a Resolution Incubator, in which members can receive feedback on campaign resolutions before submitting them to our chapter’s general meetings.

LILAC also provides food and childcare at all meetings and events. LILAC members are organizing a Childcare Brigade, recruiting male-identifying members of Philly DSA to provide childcare at meetings (since childcare is labor that typically falls to women). 

At LILAC’s first meeting in January, 35 members sat in a circle and brainstormed local issues large and small that we might work on. There were nearly 80 ideas, which the meeting facilitators helped combine into ten overall issues. Members then ranked the issues they would be most committed to working on. The top four were: criminal justice, education justice, housing justice, and racial justice. Members broke out into four groups based on each issue and planned meetings to discuss the issue.

In the past six months, LILAC has met monthly at Philly Improv Theater and Asian Arts Initiative. Committee meeting attendance ranges from 20-40 people. The four interest groups have developed three campaign resolutions, two of which have passed at our chapter’s general meetings.

The housing justice group wrote a resolution for Philly DSA to support "Good Cause" legislation in Philadelphia City Council, protecting Philly renters from evictions without “good cause.” Additionally, the group developed a proposal for a panel on socialist responses to the potential impact of Amazon on Philadelphia housing (voted down by the chapter’s Political Education Committee). The group is now developing a campaign to take on the eviction courts in Philadelphia.

The criminal justice group has researched states that have eliminated cash bail. Members have also engaged in bail watch, and discovered just how hard it is to actually eliminate cash bail in practice.

The education justice group wrote a resolution supporting the Our City Our Schools coalition’s People’s School Board campaign to demand that the mayor appoint working class parents, educators, and students to the new Philadelphia School Board. The resolution was narrowly voted down at the Philly DSA general meeting in February. The education justice group is moving forward with a new resolution supporting the Our City Our Schools coalition’s equitable funding proposal to tax the 1% to fund our public schools.

As stated in the Philly DSA resolution that created the Local Initiative/Local Action Committee back in December, LILAC will develop “members’ skills and knowledge through direct involvement in discussing, voting on, researching, planning, and participating in locally-focused campaigns.” To help develop these skills, the racial justice group hosted a Socialists of Color training facilitated by NYC-DSA members in DSA’s Afrosocialists Caucus.

The group also wrote a resolution for Philly DSA to be involved in the Poor People’s Campaign in Pennsylvania (following the DSA NPC’s endorsement of the Poor People’s Campaign nationally). For this work, the racial justice group undertook the first mass phone bank of the entire chapter membership, completing nearly 700 phone calls. Over 60 members expressed interest in participating in the Poor People’s Campaign, many of whom have not previously been active members in the chapter.

LILAC enthusiastically turned out members to canvass for Philly DSA-supported candidates for State Representative, Elizabeth Fiedler and Kristin Seale. LILAC members are collaborating with members from our chapter’s Outreach Committee and Electoral Evaluation Committee to create a local politics email news update like NYC DSA’s The NYC Thorn

Moving forward, working with Philly DSA’s Social Committee, LILAC members are now organizing summer meetups where members can socialize while discussing socialist perspectives on local issues.

Alongside the chapter’s exciting Medicare for All work, Philly DSA’s Local Initiative/Local Action Committee is blooming. We believe in using a diversity of tactics for organizing, building power, and winning victories with Philadelphia’s working class. By creating a nourishing committee culture and fighting for housing, education, criminal justice, and racial justice we are working with our comrades to grow democratic socialism in America’s poorest big city.


Brittany Griebling, Dave Backer, and Greg Laynor serve as coordinators of Philly DSA’s Local Initiative/Local Action Committee (LILAC).