Leadership as a Collective Project: How Red Star Supports our NPC Members

At the February 2024 meeting of the National Political Committee, a borrowed union hall in Berkeley was packed with NPC members, staff directors, and a dozen members of Red Star attending as observers. Over the course of the weekend, Red Star members did everything from helping explain Red Star’s positions on the budget to other NPC members, to planning social events for our out-of-town guests, to filling coffee orders and providing rides to the airport. This is something new for the NPC: caucuses have not historically supported their NPC members in structured and sometimes banal ways like we’ve been experimenting with. But for Red Star, this level of support for our NPC members is par for the course. As we enter into the second quarter of our NPC term, I offer up these reflections on how Red Star has engaged our caucus to support our work on the NPC, and how this practice can enable and enhance the work of all NPC members.

How Did We Evolve the Cabinet?

Nearly a year ago, Red Star took a full caucus vote and decided to run members Sam, Megan, and John for DSA’s National Political Committee. This would be our caucus priority until the upcoming convention. Every caucus member was expected to contribute to the campaign. This was our collective project. And, as we all understood (if we won our NPC seats), the governance of DSA, too, would be our collective project.

On August 6th of 2023, Red Star found itself with three seats on the NPC and a brand new task in front of us: building an internal structure to support our newly elected NPC members. In the two prior terms, former NPC member and former Red Star member Jenbo had run and won an NPC seat while in the caucus. However, at the time, Red Star offered very little to Jenbo in the way of engagement or support on her NPC work. We did not treat Jenbo’s NPC seat as a Red Star project, and the caucus went through a deep self-criticism on why that happened and how we could do it better next time.

Our approach this time would be different. We were starting largely from scratch, with very little precedent of NPC support structures from our own caucus or others to build on. While there had been some loose support for past NPC members from caucus-mates or aligned members, what we wanted to do was qualitatively different: taking this kind of ad-hoc support and formalizing it.

We settled on the structure of a Cabinet: a committee of several caucus members whose role it would be to support our NPC members in everything they did. This includes writing resolutions and reports to be proposed to the NPC, whipping votes and coordinating with other NPC members, meeting with other caucuses, synthesizing positions and writing talking points, doing scheduling and administrivia, and handling part of the workload for everything that keeps NPC members so busy. Each NPCer is assigned a “personal assistant” from the Cabinet that keeps track of all of their affairs, in addition to the jack-of-all-trades Cabinet members that do a little bit of everything. (While Cabinet members cannot work on anything confidential to the NPC, they are able to help with just about everything else).

The Cabinet also serves the vital role of connecting our NPC work to our caucus democracy and membership. The Cabinet keeps the caucus informed about work at the national level. The caucus discusses and decides our orientation to what’s broadly facing DSA. In turn, the Cabinet, in collaboration with our NPC members and our Steering Committee, uses their in-depth knowledge of national work to synthesize formal caucus positions for the NPC that represent the democratic will of Red Star’s membership.

The Cabinet structure enables Red Star to develop new leadership within the caucus, as a broad swath of our membership becomes familiar with the intricacies of national DSA and develops the skills necessary to navigate it. This kind of development of organizers is a crucial function of caucuses; it’s no less true with internal organizing and leadership development. This will also help Red Star to have a continuity on our NPC work when a new term starts, so that the information and momentum of work doesn’t just live in the minds of a few members on NPC but within the structures of the caucus itself.

How the Cabinet Engages Red Star in Governance

A quintessential example of the utility of the Cabinet structure is with the recent process over DSA’s national budget. As anyone familiar with the national organization will know, DSA is in a budget crisis. As the organization’s treasurer, Red Star NPCer John has borne a huge part of the responsibility in figuring out how to dig us out of it. But John has not been working alone. As the process of submitting a drastically altered 2024 budget approached, our whole caucus knew that it would be a long and painful process, and that we both needed and wanted to contribute in whatever way we could.

Our Cabinet engaged our entire caucus in creating a position on the budget crisis, keeping us informed of the nuances of our national finances, and synthesizing hours of discussion of Red Star members sharing their thoughts and collectively developing our position. The Cabinet was also able to tap the caucus for expertise, soliciting help from members familiar with finance and budgeting to develop models and frameworks for thinking through how to create a budget in these new organizational conditions. Finally, the Cabinet worked with our NPCers to develop the resolutions Red Star put to the NPC.

This model has not been without its growing pains. We are still figuring out the best way to engage caucus members who are not deeply embroiled in national work daily like our Cabinet is, and how best to distill down the nuanced complexities the NPC faces to the average member. But as the NPC term wears on, it becomes ever clearer that a strong support system for each NPC member is crucial to how Red Star engages in DSA.

The job of an NPC member is too much for one person to take on alone. Throughout previous terms and on through this one, NPCers lament the overwhelming workload and lack of capacity. As Red Star, we understood as we made our decision to run candidates for the NPC that not only did we want to make our term a collective project – it needed to be one. There was simply no way to enact our vision of good governance of DSA with a mere three people. There was simply no way anyone could be expected to fill an NPC seat alone.

What Does This Mean for DSA?

At the 2023 convention, the idea of greatly expanding the size of the NPC was put forth as a way to address the body’s capacity issue. However, we see cabinet-like support structures as a much more effective way of expanding NPC capacity. The NPC is elected to serve as DSA’s political leadership; they need not also be responsible for all of the administrative tasks associated with the role. Red Star offloads this work to willing members so that our elected leadership can focus on the political aspects of their role.

As DSA continues to develop as an organization, the load on our leadership will grow in turn. Now is the time to build structures that can help distribute that load. We hope to see some of these functions be abstracted away from the caucus level, and seek to help DSA itself to build structures for members to support the NPC as it becomes ever more vital.

Which is why we’ve put so much time and effort into building out our internal structure for the NPC. It allows Red Star the capacity to engage fully, to stay abreast of what happens in all corners of DSA, to engage caucuses, national committees, chapters, and rank-and-file members directly as stakeholders in NPC decisions, and to write detailed and meticulously researched proposals for the NPC.

And opening up our NPC work to the larger caucus pays dividends. Our collective ownership of this caucus project means that not only are we all compelled to contribute our thoughts through our democratic process, we’re also all invested in the undertaking of national DSA governance. This is why a dozen Red Star members showed up to observe February’s NPC meeting: it is our collective project to support our NPC members and do our part to help run DSA.

Further Discussion

If you're interested in discussing this piece with other DSA members, head on over to the DSA Discussion forums at https://discussion.dsausa.org/t/behind-the-scenes-of-red-stars-npc-term/31528

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