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A Farewell from the National Director

I am speaking outside my typical monthly communication to members to tell you that I have tendered my resignation to the National Political Committee. I will spend the next month ensuring there is an orderly transition into their hands or their chosen next National Director. I’d like to take this opportunity to explain why I am leaving, reflect on my time as national director, and list the main opportunities and challenges I see DSA facing in the coming period. 

It has been an absolute honor to serve the tens of thousands of members who together constitute the power of DSA. Outside of unions, there are too few places where working class people can decide together the direction of our lives and fight for it rather than sit at home alone while the world burns and the authoritarians rise.

Why I’m Leaving and Why Now

I made my decision this fall and intended to announce my departure two months ago but chose not to do so at a time when my decision had the capacity to disrupt our critical Palestine solidarity work. To date, DSA has organized almost 400,000 calls to Congress and organized numerous local actions despite early attacks from centrist Democrats and the Right. History has already vindicated us and in that moment I refused to risk my decision to leave being mischaracterized to further attack DSA.

That said, there will never be a perfect time to go. DSA is undeniably rowdy, as is any democratic organization, but also incredibly important, and meeting challenges is how we collectively learn and build power. I have no doubt that we will weather the months ahead.

My DSA life started on campus, at the University of Chicago Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter in 2001. Within years I was elected YDSA national co-chair, and later to the NPC. I have a lifelong commitment to democratic socialism, but when I first started as National Director, I had hoped to stay for five years. It has now been twelve. 

Being a DSA staff member is a demanding job, with many stakeholders to answer to and relentless pressures. We have limited time in the day and we deal with the complicated legal and operational questions of a national multi-million dollar budgeted organization, particularly since we face constant external political/media/regulatory threats. I have overseen massive, transformative growth since 2011. When I started, our budget was only $350,000. It’s now over five million. Our staff started at three and it is now over 30, supporting hundreds of chapters, dozens of national committees and campaigns, and tens of thousands of members. 

With fewer responsibilities, I hope to spend more time with my partner, my parents, and our families, including my step-grandson who is already three years old. I have realized that time waits for no one.

I also greatly miss organizing. Running a rapidly growing and increasingly complex national organization has forced me to focus on administrative matters. In an average week, I spend most of my time coordinating across staff directors and departments, moving projects forward smoothly and identifying and solving problems, developing and strengthening systems and structures to manage the work, and ensuring fiscal and legal compliance across the board. I also provide the NPC context necessary for decision-making and make sure staff have clear guidance on priorities and direction, including pushing for clarification as needed from the NPC as a politically diverse body. I have learned a lot of important lessons about running an organization of DSA’s scale but spent less and less time with chapters and mentoring rising leaders, my original love. I will take some time to rest and recharge, but it’s building power with people that I will always come back to for the rest of my life.

Transition and Next Steps

I notified senior staff last fall, before I had to postpone my announcement, and we have been transition planning. We have submitted a recommendation to the NPC on how to ensure critical work continues and institutional memory is not lost in the interim while the NPC decides on longer-term next steps. But for those of you reading this from outside DSA, understand that this transition is not like a typical non-profit executive director departure. Staff anchor the organization nationally with essential organizing, compliance, administrative, communications, fundraising, financial, tech, and governance infrastructure, but our power also comes from our membership rooted all over the country, and they elect our political leaders. Unlike a dynamic where the executive director brings in and then leaves with big funders, at DSA, our NPC answers to our membership, and 86% of our income comes from membership dues.

I expect that this moment will be a challenge and even risky, but this membership base is the source of our vitality. We are continually learning new lessons and I trust the members to navigate this moment and make the right choices to strengthen DSA. 

Looking Back 

I remember when the 2009-2011 NPC hired me as National Director. DSA had about 5,000 members, less than a dozen elected officials and 25 chapters. It was in the midst of the Arab Spring uprisings, the same year as Occupy Wall Street, and just days before the Christian nationalist massacre of 69 people at a left-wing youth summer camp in Norway. The authoritarian opposition has grown stronger since then. But so too have we, with more than ten times as many members today.

I mentioned before that I originally intended to stay five years. When I started in 2011, DSA was small and marginal like all left groups at the time, and I focused on stabilizing our membership fundraising, getting Democratic Left on a regular publication schedule, developing organizing trainings for chapters, organizing national projects that could help cohere chapters such as Abortion Bowl-a-thons, and hosting intergenerational gatherings. Then DSA endorsed Bernie Sanders for president in his first presidential run and we began to grow. With millions of people supporting him, our We Need Bernie campaign was an obvious strategic decision. It allowed us to organize working-class people and contribute to Bernie’s bringing socialism back into widespread political debate in the U.S. 

There was sharp debate in DSA on whether and how to engage in the presidential election outside of for Bernie. Then Trump became president. Within minutes of Trump’s victory speech that night, literally, our member join page was on fire. People were furious with the neoliberal Democrats and terrified of Trump. Thousands of new members flooded in day after day and we struggled to manage the firehose. Those of us who were politically active at that time, whether in DSA or elsewhere, recall the panic in the air, and it was a moment that transformed DSA. 

I was nearing the five-year mark as the National Director, my self-imposed deadline to leave, but chose to stay to help DSA navigate the skyrocketing growth. We hired more staff and built infrastructure and processes for new chapters, fielded a large contingent at the Washington, D.C. Women’s March against Trump, developed mass campaigns like Medicare for All, and organized hundreds of members to attend the national People’s Summit conferences organized by National Nurses United. We also organized the first predecessor of our current Regional Organizing Retreats, a training for southern members paired with a contingent at the Canton, Mississippi UAW organizing rally with Bernie Sanders in 2017. 

We kept growing, and then AOC won her upset primary in 2018. It was our largest new member month in history.

By answering Trumpism with democratic socialism, AOC and her fellow Squad and DSA members in Congress and beyond electrified the country and laid the groundwork for Bernie’s second presidential campaign and DSA’s steadily increasing number of local and state electoral victories running democratic socialists to the chagrin of Democratic Party power brokers. We also made major organizing investments, including 14 regional organizing trainings for chapter leaders to build a shared organizing vocabulary and model, and in 2019 I asked Jane McAlevey to do a three part national online training series for members. We also launched our campaign for Bernie’s second presidential run.

I’ll always remember DSA for Bernie. Chapters learned to run field operations to knock on neighbors’ doors rather than preach to the choir. Tens of thousands of Bernie supporters found us, and DSA was invited to the People Power for Bernie coalition with base-building national organizations. We continued to grow as people flocked to us for our commitment to organizing not just towards elections but between them, and in not just the electoral arena but also in workplaces and communities. It’s hard to predict what might have happened had COVID not ground the country to a halt in 2020. 

But it did. DSA chapters went fully remote and caused a break in the leadership development (and relationship building) cycle that comes with in-person meetings, cross-chapter gatherings and in-person staff Field Organizer visits. Chapter mutual aid, labor, and tenant committees went into overdrive to provide support and solidarity as working class people lost their jobs, were forced into unsafe working conditions, or faced eviction. Black Lives Matter protests swept the country including the epicenter Minneapolis and our chapters across the country mobilized.

Despite the pandemic, we found ways to run national campaigns. DSA’s Green New Deal strategy summit planned a December 2020 day of action and 85 May Day 2021 actions to launch the Protecting the Right to Organize campaign. DSA members and new volunteers made over a million phone calls to voters in key states, while chapters organized on the ground pressure. We flipped two Senators and were a founding member of the PRO Act focused Worker Power Coalition. 

Today, DSA’s membership numbers are down from our high point of over 90,000, but we are organized. Last summer and fall, for example, close to 200 endorsed elected officials at all levels of government, and over 100 chapters with Strike Ready solidarity captains lent support to the Teamsters and United Auto Workers, while chapters all over organized dynamic strike solidarity for other unions locally. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, our chapters in Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, and Ohio fought and won abortion ballot measure campaigns, with Florida and other states coming up this year. And most recently, we have organized relentlessly against the U.S. government’s support of genocide in Palestine. As I write we have an energized base and retain a large majority of the members who joined in the “Trump bump” period.

Claims of DSA’s demise are premature, but we have work to do.

There are trends to make me cautiously optimistic. Most importantly, beyond the impressive campaigns I mentioned above, we have signed up 1700 members to pay Solidarity Income-Based Dues of 1% or at least higher monthly membership rates. Staff Field Organizers are rolling out a toolkit on mass recruitment for chapters, and national committees are integrating recruitment into their work. With the continued rise of authoritarian forces and disgust with Wall Street Democrats, DSA is a way for working-class people to take action in collective self-defense. 

That said, we like all social movements go through a cycle and are not in a major upswing. Hundreds of  members join each month, but more members leave or let their dues lapse. In the wake of the pandemic and the election of Joe Biden, there was a worldwide slowdown in donation income and volunteer engagement at nonprofits and other civic organizations, and even public sector unionization rates went down. Many community organizers are confronting a retention crisis in base building organizations. While DSA has retained members and engagement at a far higher rate than most civic organizations, we’re still in a period of membership shrinkage and increasing financial stress. 

One duty I have always held sacred is the responsibility to share hard truths, not just what people want to hear. It has not always endeared me to everyone, but in this moment, I must remind you yet again that there are serious challenges not just on the horizon but here now. 

DSA convention delegates this past summer could not fully realize the realities of the budget or debate the real tradeoffs inherent in the resolutions considered. The organization structurally approaches these questions with a group diplomacy based process. Without a holistic, materialist assessment of our accomplishments, strengths, weaknesses, and especially resources, many individual resolutions were passed but not considered in relation to each other with an eye to explicit prioritization or effectiveness.

The national budget is our clearest example. On our present course, we will be unable to pay all our bills in a few months without a change in direction. Funding all 2023 convention decisions would add more than $2 million to the budget which we simply don’t have. As a nonprofit organization, we cannot print money like the government or take loans like a large corporation. Nor can we make unrealistic predictions about stronger fundraising or recruitment and then spend money we merely hope to raise. We are making strides in Solidarity Income-Based Dues and integrating member recruitment in everything we do at all levels, but a fundraising shortfall could create pressure to accept grants or outsized donations from single individuals, diluting a key source of our independence and power. And given our process, there will often be pressure to displace foundational functions to focus on new projects put forth by various groups. It is the donut hole problem we often discuss in our trainings with chapters – if all your time or resources go to work just outside the core, the core falls apart. With this in mind it is important to find the right balance between experimentation and stability, creativity and basic fundamentals, silos and integration. 

Right now, the NPC is working on finalizing the 2024 budget. It will require very hard choices, and longer term, a reckoning with our structure and our definition of democracy. I’ve said before that DSA is both an army and a town hall. We must act together but also question each other. We can never resolve this fundamental structural contradiction, and it is why my main advice to DSA members is to face this truth. Accept that mass work means competing ideas, so seek ways to compromise with each other. Act responsibly and expect the same of your leaders. Most importantly, learn to act holistically and based on a hard analysis of real conditions. This becomes increasingly important as we head into an election year with stakes higher than ever. 

We have everything to lose, but also everything to win. Let’s take ourselves as seriously as the moment requires.

Maria Svart
@MariaOrganizes