By Jhari Derr-Hill
Community, for many people, is real, lived. They can name it and identify countless others who belong to it. They can also name those they don’t belong to. Community, for me, has been abstract or, at best, ephemeral. At its center I have imagined it, ideally, providing stability within which joy is truly possible. That joy motivates most of my pursuits, and while it is an emotional expression for a degree of psychological soundness, it is best visualized by summer camp huddles, house parties, or those aspirational tableaux of spirited, beautiful, sun-lacquered people used to sell anything on Instagram. It’s telling that my previous sense of community didn’t include family, neighborhood elders, or any particular institutions. Culturally, I have lived relatively unmoored, as a cosmopolitan.
In the last few years, as I’ve become increasingly politically active, my understanding of community has augmented. It’s no longer so shallow and inconsequential. I now recognize my place in a community that I had consciously dismissed - it’s bound up with citizenship, sociopolitical engagement, family and personal history, and those things I am indelibly marked by, like race and gender. While accepting my natural community, or communities, was a challenge, DSA is my assumed community. The DSA did not happen to me, or any of us. I am an incisive and purposeful participant.
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 several acts of power-taking and -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.
Under such auspices, beneath the wings of such ancestors, this was an event I could not wait to be a part of, an experience I could not wait to share with other members of my ideological clan. I passed the weekend half clear-headed, half agog. New York, where I once lived and regularly visit, felt exciting the way it did the first time I saw it as a nine-year-old. I was impressed by everyone I met - union organizers, writers, journalists, historical interpreters, and people who, like I do, work unremarkable jobs, yet contribute to their chapters as much as anyone. I wanted to make friends and wanted to maintain the requisite degree of professionalism for anyone seeking to radically change the world.
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 there are several guys in DSA whom I loving think of as my brocialists.In Raleigh, my branch, I’m most 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. The same applies to race and class.
When we all signed up for the DSA, most of us contributing to an unprecedented swell in its membership in the past 9 months, which national was hardly prepared for, we were signing on to an organization dedicated to organizing and 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 responsibility, including developing the DSA into a viable 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 centrists, we have to agree on a few things at the outset and need to routinely revisit and reinforce them collectively and in the course of our interpersonal relationships. Equity for women, trans, and gender-nonconforming people is a part of that, which is why we take stack and state pronouns at the start of meetings. We also have to acknowledge the challenges of organizing when you are not a cis-man. 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 this multicultural base, we have to plan for it, speak to it, and make room for it. Through 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, to my work in or as a representative of the DSA. More hard work is sure to follow.
I and another attendee shared feeling well-adjusted to our positions as lonely-onlies. She as a transwoman and I as a black woman. And we agreed that it is difficult to develop that resolve in other people, to stand out or trail blaze. We left no more certain about how to bring diverse groups of people in than when we started, namely through coalition building. The point rings on, however, that the structures we build now, in these critical months and years as a political organization enjoying a newfound profile, as potentially the lodestar of the American left, will determine our success.
The two days of training were packed with thoughtfully crafted modules on several topics like socialism, the DSA, and effective organizing methods. We spent a lot of time in break-out sessions, role playing and discussing specific, real-world experiences around community building, gender, race, and communication, as well as the challenges and successes we’ve had. The co-chair of a chapter in Iowa has two members running for city council, an exciting example of DSA making a mark on the world. This same woman discussed the logistical challenge of access, when several members of the chapter live with extreme disabilities. Members from Boston relayed episodes of doxing at the hands of the alt-right and having to expel people in their branches for both 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, the weekend itself, this profound package of experiences, revealed itself as a stellar example of what it means to be organized. We signed on to 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 figuring out the process, designing the architecture of North Carolina Piedmont DSA-Raleigh with my comrades. 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 continue to taper.
Recruitment is one avenue to make up the difference, but those of us who continue to show up are already blissfully overtaxed. What we need to do is be a better organization, firm up our process and call people back. Not everyone who signed up was prepared for or wanted the responsibility of building an organization. If we work a little retroactive continuity - retcon - magic on this, we invited people to a party and were the lousiest hosts. We didn’t have chairs. We didn’t have music. We didn’t even have food.
During one of the modules, I was introduced to the bullseye of organizational structure. The concept is referenced in the 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 the DSA. The bullseye is a tool for assessing individual members so that when, at the chapter or branch level, we talk about participation rates and member retention, we can better strategize around motivating 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 people are, 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 or may not 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. Significantly, these are people who may or may not be full members and have come to one meeting and nothing since.
For our purposes as an organization with a lot to lose - how much faith do you have in our numbers for 2018? 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, regular enthusiasts for the democratic socialist cause.
Our trainers recommended those at the core organize around developing members for greater responsibility and migrate them nearer the center. I hear people talk about organizing themselves out of job. As a core member of the DSA in my part of the world, the day that happens will be the day I find some joy. Until then, there are several ways we can increase engagement, build community within our organization. One explicit strategy is to speak with members, one-on-one, learn about them and their interests and mutually discover ways they can become more involved. Present them with a short list of asks, not expecting a commitment to all of them, but to demonstrate the breadth of work there is to do, some of which they will be more suited to than others.
The harder strategy is broader. It requires a personal pledge that can only ever really be assessed privately and an institutional pledge for which there are no clear methods of oversight. In another module, I was introduced to the five Cs. The five Cs are character, courage, commitment, chemistry, and conviction. My notes on this module reflect what I described earlier, a mind both in fan-girl mode and that of a studious listener. 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, chose 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 in the imprecise language of “authenticity” though, thankfully, followed with two 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 will be 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. Though inchoate, we have much of the infrastructure to become that thing that excited and galvanized us and will carry us to a national convention. 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 the Democratic Party.
A few days after I returned home from New York, still 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. As far as community in-fighting goes, it felt worse to observe than being told by a Republican voter on the steps of his little manor that North Carolina’s gerrymandered districts were “just fine. I love ‘em.” 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 abstract and ephemeral. 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 brocialist at whatever call to action we have on the calendar that week, and it feels to be agitated by the gut-punching cultural and political analysis 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. Until we shore up our commitment to each other and put in the necessary time, however, I fear we will lose it all.