The Washington Socialist <> April 2019
The MDC DSA Steering Committee and the Washington Socialist jointly invited delegates to the Regional Conference held March 16-17 to contribute reportbacks from the conference for the wider membership that could not attend. These responses were received.
DSA Regional Conference in DC & How National Needs to Adapt
Report Back from Kaiser F – 2019-03-24
The greatest success of the DSA pre-convention in DC was connecting with people across DSA, with chapters doing great work and facing their own sets of problems, and people who recognized the work that we’re doing in the DC area. This, and the pre-convention itself, revealed both DSA’s best aspects and where we seriously need to do better.
Personally, it was great to talk at length with comrades from Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Charlottesville, and Richmond, learn what they’re facing, and talk about what we’re doing here. The social events and breaks helped build some connections, and many of the panels formalized some knowledge-sharing between chapters (particularly, corporate research and electoral organizing). I believe our decentralized structure is a strength, that each place has unique concerns and people join for different reasons, and conventions can help build on this strength.
But, I’m also convinced that DSA National is still stuck in a structure suited to a membership under 10,000, and not the 50,000-plus membership we have today. National still uses ZIP codes to determine chapters’ geography. It sets priorities without a clear connection to individual chapters’ concerns. It confuses explaining its intentions with real democratic input. This all became very clear with how the debates were planned. Specifically:
(1) There was no break after the debate on antifascist organizing. We had people at A12 and others in the room who have directly confronted fascist violence, and I don’t believe National truly considered how emotional and personal this subject is.
(2) The Sanders endorsement debate was heated, but the straw poll and NPC vote were scheduled before most of the pre-conventions have had these debates. This sends the message that National is looking to explain its decision, not that it’s using these debates to seriously understand members’ concerns.
(3) The climate justice debate was cut short, and it doesn’t escape my notice that ecosocialism is not one of the priorities National explicitly spent time discussing. Many in the room agreed that ecosocialism is inherent to so many issues — from migrant justice to labor rights — but I have little confidence that this will affect National’s direction.
Nevertheless, the debates did let me connect thereafter with comrades who shared my concerns, and start working on plans for the future. This brings me back to DSA’s strength: individual chapters’ ability to tailor our work to what we face on the ground. National needs to spend more time connecting chapters, spreading resources to those with greater needs, and learning from chapters’ experiences, and spend less time on pre-determining a national agenda for chapters to “opt in”.
I met many people at the pre-convention who, like me, found a good place within DSA and sincerely want to make the organization better. I’ll continue to advocate for cross-chapter work and democratic involvement, and hope we can push for National to do the same.
Regional Delegate to the DSA conference for the Northeast.
The regional convention left me both encouraged and concerned.
Encouraged in that I got a chance to see how so many great projects and experiments are being undertaken at different chapters in our region. Representatives from other chapters seemed passionate, capable, and driven.
Regional events like this are important because they give us opportunities to cross-pollinate ideas and establish personal contacts. Fresh ideas and approaches can more easily spread, hard lessons can be shared widely so that other chapters can be avoided, and personal interactions can lead to being more charitable to members from other chapters who you might only know from their online presence.
I think that this event confirmed that there is a great deal of talent and drive in the organization.
However, it also left me concerned. Some of that concern is rooted in the internal divisions that are inevitable in a big-tent organization. Most of it, however, is tied to national’s approach to chapter concerns.
First, the issue of internal divisions. The discussion over how delegates felt disposed towards a possible Sanders endorsement led to perhaps the most contentious discussions of the conference. Several members pushed hard for immediate endorsement, others opposed the idea completely, and some simply expressed concerns over endorsement without first some kind of correction or accountability from Sanders on decisions like his vote on FOSTA-SESTA, the controversial sex-trafficking bill. In addition to the fact that a lot of the discussion felt like members speaking past one another, much of the disagreement felt like it was rooted in fundamentally different visions of what DSA was, is, or can be, caused by mutually exclusive ideological positions. The concerns of those who were not opposed in principle, but had objections over some of Sanders’ track record, were not – as far as I could tell – addressed in any meaningful way. And as national has endorsed the Sanders campaign already, the time to try to wring concessions or corrections in Sanders’ policy in exchange for endorsement appears to have passed.
This, however, seems to me less urgent than the issue of national’s approach in general. Multiple delegates complained of “radio silence” on issues of urgent importance to DSA at large and their chapters in particular. A national bond fund is a good case in point. Their concerns were met with protestations that national was working towards those important goals.
While it is reasonable that – given limited resources – national can’t do everything at once, many grievances seemed a symptom of lack of communication on top of delays on urgent problems.
It concerns me that national does not appear to be clearly and adequately communicating the status of urgent projects, which require real explanations for delays and not simply a ‘we’re working on it!’
Internal divisions will happen in any organization, especially a ‘big tent’ one like DSA, but communication is something that national can and should be doing better.
I suspect that the next national convention may prove decisive in dealing with these urgent issues.
Regional Conference Report – Matt W
The best part of the regional conference was meeting and learning from members of different chapters and laying the groundwork for future collaboration. A lot of the weekend was spent talking with organizers about the differences in political terrain between chapters. The first day of trainings and meetings was more positive and instructive than the debates on the second day but harder to synthesize into words. Highlights included a breakout group on organizing with members from Philadelphia and Centre County, PA, a grassroots fundraising training, and an impromptu meeting with some ecosocialists.
On day two there were three debate sessions, the first being how we should combat the far right. This session was raw and difficult. We had comrades from chapters and communities that have experienced, and are especially vulnerable to, fascist threats and violence, and given recent events, confronting this topic was difficult. Thankfully, the majority of speakers agreed about the centrality of comprehensive anti-fascist organizing and that we need to ensure both that members who engage in anti-fascist organizing have the resources and skills to keep themselves safe and that chapters have the resources to protect their day-to-day operations. There were also concerns raised that national needs to take the issue more seriously and make it a priority.
The second debate was over whether DSA should endorse Sanders. Unfortunately, the discussion felt disconnected from the actual endorsement process that was taking place and didn’t help mend any divisions or clarify how the strategy is supposed to work.
Different speakers expressed concern about the endorsement process and campaign plan, enthusiasm about Sanders running, and opposition to DSA endorsing Sanders. Some speakers tried to explain the legal and political strategies behind DSA’s Sanders campaign plan, but we didn’t get far into it. Overall, legal and political questions were conflated and underdeveloped, expectations about the campaign’s outcome were not managed, and the debate felt both heated and largely irrelevant to the organization’s direction. I wish we spent more time discussing how the process of an endorsement could have been handled better and what an endorsement could mean for DSA during and after the campaign instead of being asked to debate a question that had at that point essentially already been decided elsewhere.
We also debated what DSA should do about climate change. There was general agreement that climate change needs to be a priority, and there was enthusiasm for integrating climate into DSA’s organizing. People spoke about different strategies, and members of the Ecosocialist Working Group highlighted the Green New Deal Guiding Principles document.
While the debates were not very successful, the conference was successful at bringing people from a lot of different chapters together and showing that cross-chapter collaboration can be really fruitful. I’m especially excited for more ecosocialist work on issues that are cropping up across the country, like demands for energy democracy, getting a Green New Deal, and working on DSA’s infrastructure at the national convention and beyond to support chapters organizing for the planet instead of profit!
Report by Drew-Marie L
While it was truly excellent to meet comrades from other DSA chapters and learn what they are doing and what the atmosphere of their individual chapters is like, the most significant aspect of the regional conference was being confronted by overwhelming evidence of the white, cis-heteronormativity of the majority of the DSA members present. A token amount of lip-service was paid to marginalized people, but no effort was made to understand or acknowledge the needs of us.
From the opening of the weekend, none of the speakers introduced themselves with their pronouns. That was not a good sign to me. There was no attention paid to Intersectionality that I could see throughout the weekend. That POC issues, women’s issues, and queer issues ARE working class issues.
It seemed to be at its worst during the debate sections. During the section on whether DSA should fight the far right, comments were made about stunt activism, as if counter-protesting and defending people from the Nazis were a stunt, not a matter of life or death.
During the debate on endorsing Senator Sanders, after a Trans member brought up Sanders’ support of SESTA-FOSTA and how that was hurting sex workers, a comment was made about ‘you don’t say you won’t take $100 because you want $101.’ Sex workers are dying because of the risks they’ve had to take since the bill became law. Hearing that the lives of sex workers is only worth a dollar is not something that reflects well on an organization.
Those were my most significant take-aways from the conference. And wondering if DSA is the right place to give my energy.
Drew-Marie L, Security+
ReportBack from Greg A. from the DC Regional Conference
First, I want to say that the organization of the conference was flawless. MDC and national comrades did a fantastic job pulling everything together and as a whole the conference program reflected the diversity of the organization. I also loved meeting comrades from other chapters, both from big cities like Philly and more rural outposts like Centre County, PA. It’s exciting to see how socialists have found ways to get around restrictive legislation of various kinds in their jurisdictions; in some places even our continued public visibility is an achievement.
Presentations on strategic campaign planning and various discussions of labor (both at the Sunday debate and what I heard from comrades who attended the labor training) left me with some misgivings, however. While very useful for introducing basic principles like power mapping, the campaign planning took an unhelpfully boosterist approach to “building power.” It was based around a case study from Austin DSA’s paid sick leave campaign, but instead of analyzing both its successes and failures of this campaign–which ultimately succeeded by flipping a councillor’s vote on the local level but was overturned by the state judiciary–it presented it as an unproblematic success. It would at least have been helpful to present the pros and cons of a notion of building power centered on getting residents’ names on a petition, without much evidence of involving them in a durable organization. Meanwhile, discussions of labor seemed to vastly exaggerate DSA’s influence in the labor movement and the immediate prospects of increasing it by encouraging members to salt as teachers. As one comrade active in the labor movement remarked to me, she heard far more at the conference about salting and “pushing labor to endorse” than about encouraging and equipping DSA members to organize their own current workplaces.
The debate format, while in my opinion fair and representative of a variety of viewpoints, was not a helpful means of building common ground within the organization. If anything, the nature of the debate helped to polarize discussion, as viewpoints that sought to identify areas of strategic agreement were either ignored or dismissed by comrades from various factions. This may reflect real and intractable divisions within the organization, but there was nothing about the process that encouraged compromise or negotiation. The perception among some comrades (justified or not) that the entire conference process had been staged to legitimize the predecided Bernie endorsement did not help in this regard. Ultimately, I must lay the responsibility for improving this structure at the feet of the (already overworked) national leadership. At a minimum, they should recognize that a significant diversity of viewpoints exists within the organization, that it is a positive good, and that it should be accommodated at all levels.
The standout session of the conference for me was Metro DC comrade Allison H.’s corporate research training. It developed real skills in a clear and hands-on way, while stressing the many different uses of these tactics on both local and national levels. At the risk of sounding like an MDC jingoist, I have never been happier to be part of our chapter!