We grow from the ground we walk on: A rigorous approach to growth and development

Christina W. describes Red Star's proposed additions to the GDC consensus resolution that would commission an introspective analysis of chapter conditions.

We grow from the ground we walk on: A rigorous approach to growth and development
Zenith Volume 3 - DSA Convention 2023

Red Star rejects the idea that the organizational is not political. As we’ve discussed at length in our writing on the importance of Good Governance (and DSA’s recent lack thereof), the question of how we govern our organization is often overlooked as an expression of politics and a site of struggle.

In the lead up to DSA’s 2023 Convention, Red Star has focused our interventions on correcting this crisis of governance, and on improving the functioning of our national leadership. In our NPC Candidate Leadership Pledge, point four vows to support DSA’s Growth and Development Committee, a body that has the potential to play a major role in bringing DSA toward this goal.

The Growth and Development Committee (or GDC), by its own definition, is responsible for building up DSA’s capacity for recruitment, retention, training, mentorship, chapter development, infrastructure, and socialist analysis. The GDC is behind our membership drives, new member orientation programs, and matching funds for chapter offices.

Like many other national bodies, the GDC has put forward a consensus resolution for the 2023 convention, outlining its plan of work for the upcoming two years. There’s a lot to love about the current resolution. Some highlights include:

Creating and distributing resources to chapters

The GDC’s intention to continue to ground national organizing in its capacity to support chapters in their on-the-ground work is a good impulse. It commits here to focus on delivering tools and resources to chapters to support their own growth and development efforts. The resolution also touches on the importance of encouraging cross-chapter resource sharing and collaboration.

Publicizing growth metrics

As a rank-and-file DSA member, it’s difficult to remarkably difficult to find information on our organization’s membership statistics. Publicizing this information, as well as doing the important work of centralizing and disseminating it across chapters, is a meaningful step toward getting a more complete and useful picture of the state of DSA. 

Encouraging active membership

The GDC here intends to develop an onboarding and engagement pipeline for new members and develop and active membership that is engaged with DSA. Studying the conditions and constraints of DSA members and working toward creating and building a more active membership is critically important for the development of DSA into a more mature political organization.

Membership drives and dues drives

While previous membership and dues drives have had varying levels of success, it’s important to continue to be intentional and think critically about our recruitment and retention. At a time where we’re teetering on the edge of a budget crisis, a focus on dues will also be important  in making sure DSA stays fiscally secure and solidly member-funded.

Integrating YDSA

Actively supporting YDSA in its development efforts and working more closely with the NCC is an important step in both helping YDSA to develop and bringing DSA and YDSA closer together. 

Matching funds

The GDC is committing to continuing their program of matching funds for chapters to rent office space, as well as implementing a similar program for funding chapter staffers. Both these programs provide chapters with important resources to develop their capacity. Having office space provides chapters with stability, a place to build cohesion and comradeship among members, and a physical presence in their community. Hiring a staff member gives chapters a consistent source of labor that can lessen the administrative overhead and make time for leadership to engage in organizing.

Red Star supports all of these principles; however,  the resolution as written falls short of utilizing the GDC to its fullest potential. One of DSA’s greatest strengths is the diverse local contexts its organizers hail from. The GDC is the national body best positioned to make use of it.

Commissioning a State of DSA Chapters Report

We have proposed producing a State of DSA Chapters Report, analyzing the conditions in local chapters to figure out what’s working well and how to replicate it, as well as what isn’t working and how to improve it. It’s often difficult to know what’s going on in DSA outside of your local chapter, and nearly impossible to have a truly cross-sectional view of the organization. There isn’t much institutional effort put into critically evaluating our successes and failures, making it impossible to take a strategic and scientific approach to structuring our organization, deciding our priorities, and executing on them. Though local chapters sometimes do these sorts of retrospective evaluations, without an effort to aggregate the information and fight against siloing, we’re crippling our ability to learn from other parts of the organization and synthesize a full understanding of the conditions we are organizing in. We need to take fuller advantage of our national scope.

Evaluating external-facing organizing

The report will look at evaluating all of DSA’s areas of external organizing – electoral campaigns, labor organizing, mutual aid, tenant work, and more. By understanding the strategies and tactics that are successful, and how they vary across varying conditions, we can begin to develop an understanding and theory of how and when we can best employ them.

Evaluating internal structures

While many in DSA do make an effort to evaluate our external organizing, we don’t spend much time looking critically at internal structures. We’ve seen an increasing focus on organizational structure at the national level as our dysfunction and governance crisis have become increasingly clear, and as we approach convention and decide if and how to restructure DSA. But there has been precious little discussion on understanding and evaluating how local structures impact a chapter’s functioning. DSA’s local chapters can serve as both a microcosm of our national structure and provide places for experimentation. 

Focus on small and rural chapters

DSA as an organization is based disproportionately in large cities, where our current approach to organizing has seen the most success and grown chapters there. But to develop DSA and spread socialist organization outside of cities like New York and DC, we need to understand the often vastly different conditions that exist in other parts of the country and tailor strategies to organizing there. To this end, the report would spend time specifically on learning from the experiences of small and rural chapters, as well as empowering their members to develop as leaders and share their experiences about their particular circumstances with other similar developing chapters.

Action plan

To assure this report doesn’t end up sitting unread in a Google drive somewhere, we propose actively creating an action plan based on the report’s findings to apply what we learn from organizers across DSA.

Actively Engaging At-Large Members 

Many of the GDC’s interventions happen at the chapter level, as the bulk of DSA’s organizing happens within chapters. However, this means that at-large members can easily be alienated from the organization. The GDC should intervene to make sure these members have a way to productively get involved with DSA and engage in political organizing. 

Channels of communication

Many DSA communications come through chapters, but we need to replicate that engagement for at-large members. Giving the GDC access to formal channels of communications will allow them to target at-large members so they know what’s going on in the organization and can engage.

Connecting members

By utilizing the GDC’s reach, it can also help nearby members find each other and connect about local organizing, facilitating a space to form structures and connections that could eventually turn into OCs and then chapters. 

Provide opportunities for engagement

The GDC can also create opportunities to directly engage at-large members by providing them an easy way to plug in to its activities. This is a way to both develop members as well as increase capacity on the GDC. 

GDC Leadership Composition

The GDC is less open and transparent than many national bodies. This leads its membership to be ideologically homogeneous, skewing toward those already steeped in DSA’s national politics. But the GDC’s purpose is to lead the charge on how to grow our organization, and how to grow and develop the members in it. It’s crucial that the experience of a full cross section of organizing experiences, political viewpoints, and local contexts is represented on the body - decisions made about the GDC’s composition and strategic direction will have a direct effect on whether and how DSA grows and becomes an effective organization. We also want to explicitly develop leadership by providing local leaders with the opportunity to engage nationally, a place where they have access to more resources and other leaders from throughout the organization.

Where We Go from Here

DSA deserves a strong GDC that will live up to its full potential in the crucial task of supporting our membership. The consensus resolution is a great start; we want to make it better, by tapping into DSA’s wealth of information contained within our chapters’ organizing history, and putting attention toward the often overlooked areas of the organization - small chapters and at-large members.