A vibe shift has come for NYC-DSA, and for the better – initiated by a convention where most people got something they wanted and a growing commitment to building a better chapter culture. Several years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a collective reflection on what was lost and the beginning of a return to the mean. The last few months have seen a soccer league, reinvigorated branch socials, a cheugy Mardi Gras party, sold-out events and a viral tweet about the chapter’s beloved Magic: The Gathering nerds. The rate at which everyone has Gotten With The Program has been impressive, but our approach is still underdeveloped – more work needs to be done to realize its potential.
The Socializer Approach
Some of the benefits of hosting chapter social events are widely understood: they can improve relationships between organizers and are great avenues for fundraising. However, their function as recruitment and development tools remain underappreciated. For the sake of convenience, I will label this category of membership “Socializers.” These are DSA members or prospective members who engage with the organization in a primarily social context rather than through organizing work. Socializers may occasionally show up to “work” such as canvassing but are most frequently seen participating through group chats, clubs, branch socials and sometimes major mobilizations. In this way, Socializers are distinct from “Full-Timers,” who I define as DSA members who are consistently active in planning and executing work which supports campaigns or other projects.
Many Full-Timers undervalue Socializers, feeling that their lack of participation in “work” makes them a distraction or that members not being developed into ‘“cadre” is a failure. These apprehensions are valid— the left has a tendency to conflate the development of isolated social cliques with building power—but they miss the mark. The elephant in the room is that we are past the peak of the Bernie days. Recruitment is down and new Full-Timers are harder to come by. Our choice is not between Full-Timers and Socializers, but between growing our Socializer numbers or shrinking.
As a mass-membership organization DSA has a low barrier to entry, but this is offset by the fact that there is a very high barrier to participation. Getting involved in organizing projects beyond superficial engagement requires dozens of hours of work, and between working groups, branches, and caucuses NYC-DSA can appear impenetrable to new members. These obstacles explain why DSA’s base remains over-educated, childless young people – they are the only ones who have the time to navigate the organization. Taking it a step further, NYC-DSA’s lack of penetration of its own base demographics in a city where hundreds of thousands of people identify as socialist or are otherwise sympathetic is a testament to the fact that we can do better.
Beyond recruiting new members, this creates obstacles to retaining Full-Timers. “Full-Timer” is not an immutable property, and members lapse out of it for any number of reasons, including burnout and changes to their life situation. In particular, its often unsustainable to remain a Full-Timer after having children, a fact that an NYC-DSA Comrades With Kids caucus has recently formed in order to address. Their platform, a “Minifesto” if you will, speaks to the need to build greater inclusivity and accessibility in the chapter to accommodate our growing demographic of parents. Comrades who lapse out of Full-Timer status will often express dismay at the fact that they no longer feel connected to the organization, a phenomenon that risks permanently condemning DSA to the status of a movement without elders.
The conditions that allow a tier of Socializers to thrive are the same conditions that lower the barrier to participation. Social events as a point of engagement seem like they are lowering member expectations, but they create an on-ramp to deeper engagement by introducing Socializers to Full-Timers. One of the major determinants of development into a Full-Timer is a sense that the organization represents one’s community. By increasing opportunities for Socializers and Full-Timers to meet, it increases the possibility that Full-Timers will become part of the Socializers’ communities. In turn this increases the odds Socializers evolve into Full-Timers – if everyone you know jumps off a bridge, you probably will too. If we can take advantage of this dynamic, more Socializers will necessarily translate to more Full-Timers through having a larger pool of members to filter through.
In addition to social culture, the key to retaining Socializers is to keep the means of participating in the organization as coherent as possible. Because information is costly in terms of effort to convey, this necessitates simplifying communication as much as possible. By taking this into account and utilizing the Socializer framework, we can begin to build our base with some relatively simple steps. NYC-DSA is in need of internal reforms at several levels, but rather than delve into them here I will focus on streamlining the member experience, which can be agnostic of structural complications. The short term work required to realize growth would be primarily administrative and communicative, and can be summed up in a few points.
- Curated Organizational Materials
While a lot of information about NYC-DSA is available through the chapter’s many newsletters, the sheer volume of options defeats the point. A consistently maintained and updated set of materials should be developed with the goal of providing an accessible look inside the organization. These materials should include:
- An org structure document including basic information on active priority campaigns, working groups and branches. This should also include clear instructions on how to get involved in each, provided by the entities in question.
- A “what’s happening” document updated weekly containing a curated list of upcoming events that would be beneficial for non-Full-Timers to attend
- A weekly newsletter explaining what is happening in the organization and promoting a similar if not identical set of events to the “what’s happening” document.
All of these documents should be made accessible via QR code and it should be made clear to everyone that these are the best documents to consult for generic purposes. A few materials already exist in the org serving a similar purpose, such as the member bulletin, but are not all widely known. With these materials created, the chapter website should be updated to either host them directly or link to them. No Google document can compete with the accessibility or visibility of the website.
- Monthly Chapter-Wide Priority Events
In order to keep NYC-DSA accessible to membership, its major points of participation should be streamlined. Creating a system of priority events which are regularly scheduled and clearly emphasized would be one of the clearest ways to communicate priorities to membership. To accommodate different kinds of membership and to maximize participation, three major events should be identified per month – a social event, a mobilization or other political action, and a chapter-wide general meeting.
Each of these provides distinct benefits:
- Social events provide an emphasized way for Core and Socializers to interact, and could reinforce the culture of the chapter.
- Monthly emphasized mobilizations could improve our chapter turnout when it matters
- General meetings are an effective way for people to plug in offline and could provide a basis for building a more democratic chapter culture.
Branch meetings could be substituted for chapterwide meetings and may be preferable, but it would require a greater degree of coordination in setting how these meetings are run. These events should also be prioritized on the chapter calendar, or better yet a second “accessible” calendar should be created listing only these and potentially a few other key access points such as branch socials.
- Widespread Tabling and Leafleting
Tabling is an area where NYC-DSA has improved recently, and is much more widely utilized by branches and campaigns than it was a few years ago, but there remains work to be done. Paired with streamlined chapter wide priorities and accessible events, tablers would have a sense of where to direct people to maximize engagement. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of visibility – people are naturally inclined to be interested when it seems like something big is going on.
NYC-DSA has been extremely poor at leafleting, which makes us unique among left organizations in the city, many of which leaflet constantly. At our size we should be able to plaster our name across the city and create a far greater degree of visibility to permeate the public consciousness. Historically, organizations like ACT-UP gained tremendous visibility through wheatpasting visually distinct materials.
- Invest in Chapter Communications
It has been repeatedly proven that high quality communications drive engagement, and in addition to the website social media is the most obvious place for members to plug into chapter events. The importance of communications is well understood by the chapter, as seen by the creation of a Communications Coordinator on the Steering Committee at the 2022 convention, but more needs to be done. As it currently stands the Communications Coordinator has been doing wonderful work but risks hitting capacity due to the burden of the role.
In addition to publicity, communications should be understood as a potentially very effective form of political education, especially for Socializers. Working groups, branches and other configurations should be more aggressive about recruiting for a citywide communications team which could realize this potential. In addition – a functional citywide Tiktok and punchy social media presence could add to the sense of permeation provided by widespread tabling and leafleting.
After the new hires currently in the pipeline, NYC-DSA also needs to invest in a full-time communications staffer. This would free up the Communications Co-Chair to build up the volunteer communications team and set the direction of chapter communications while the staffer addresses routine work.
These recommendations are the beginning, not the end of what needs to be done to build the chapter. There are several additional things we need to do in the long run such as diffusing high-quality, skills-heavy political education. The chapter is also severely lacking in spaces for democratic deliberation and member participation, especially ones which would be accessible for Socializers. Lastly – going beyond social media and our current communications work we should consider investing in additional messaging organs, possibly even a magazine or a tabloid. The more effectively we can convey our viewpoint and actions to Socializers and others, the more effectively we can propagandize ourselves.
Beyond vibes and fundraising, there are significant reasons why expanding Socializer membership should be viewed as a priority for the chapter. As long as Socializers remain in our orbit and don’t fall out of engagement, they represent a viable socialist constituency. Socializers also represent connections – they may be union members, community leaders, teachers or other important demographics. NYC-DSA could utilize this base to design better campaigns or expand its presence in local communities – among other preconditions to building real socialist power in NYC. Growing our Socializer membership should be seen as a way to organize people directly through their interaction with the organization.
By taking the logic of building Socializer membership in the chapter through coordination and social culture and turning it outward, we may hold the key to substantial growth. Visible social activity doesn’t just help retain members, it can be used as a means to recruit for the organization in and of itself. Americans are often isolated, especially in a post-COVID world, and young people in New York City, who often lean socialist or otherwise sympathetic, are looking for groups which share their values. An organization which improves their lives, equivalent to the now defunct cultural organizations from prior generations, is an attractive offer. Activities based clubs in particular offer people something to do and provide a way for nonmembers to meet DSA members in real conditions outside of miserable online left discourse. While the season was too short to organize properly, the DSA soccer league in particular saw a marked increase in interest in joining DSA among the leagues nonmembers.
The broader goal of an outward-facing social strategy is the creation of a social base – a swath of civil society receptive to our organization. We don’t have the scale to accomplish this unilaterally, but may be able to build it by acting as a partner to local community organizations. Foundations for this approach were laid during the David Alexis for State Senate campaign, where organizers approached local churches and have continued to follow up with them after the campaign ended. It is important to not overestimate the receptiveness of communities to us and the scale of what exists that isn’t captured by nonprofits, but there is potential here. Strategically identifying partners could be an effective way to grow at the branch level, and paired with other changes necessary to build membership may contribute to making NYC-DSA, a relatively white organization, more representative of a highly diverse city.
Summer of Solidarity
The Socializers framework for growing NYC-DSA can be useful for identifying the next steps the organization should take. With the Tax The Rich campaign nearing its inevitable end in April, a major block of capacity will be freed up in the chapter – but an immediate commitment to a new major campaign is likely to result in heavy burnout. Following up on winter’s Membership Drive, which resulted in almost 500 renewals, it could be beneficial to direct Social and Full-Timers alike to focus on non-campaign, community-oriented efforts to build power.
The proposal I am making here will be called “Summer of Solidarity” and would amount to a dedicated effort to grow the Social Base of the chapter through community outreach while remaining faithful to organization-wide priorities. It is a combination of three mutually reinforcing points which could not only build the chapter now, but lay the foundations for a dominant 2024. They are as follows:
- Host a series of Summer Block Parties, sponsored by NYC-DSA
- Prioritize mobilization to Labor Solidarity and Trans Rights
- Utilize DSA electeds to attend and promote these events
Block parties remain a staple of NYC social life which many organizations already use to great effect. They would be a way to build ties with existing community organizations, which in some instances we could partner with rather than hosting events unilaterally. Block parties can also be utilized to reconnect with communities we worked with during recent campaigns – such as NYCHA housing canvassed in Assembly District 65 where Illapa Sairitupac’s 2022 race was run. They provide a way for new members to meet Full-Timers and expose working-class people directly to NYC-DSA and its organizers. They can also be a way to celebrate the causes we are mobilizing around – for example we could easily dedicate a block party to striking UPS workers as a show of solidarity.
Block parties can also have direct strategic considerations, especially in the lead up to the 2024 electoral season. We can plan where to host them and target districts where we are considering running candidates, providing a means to build ties with community groups that may be useful partners. Incumbents could also benefit from these block parties in their districts to cement them against challenges and lighten our overall organizational load. Additional factors such as canvassing for signatures to get city approval for the block parties and member turnout can be considered structure tests for electoral campaigns.
An advantage of high-visibility solidarity work is that it does not take as much investment as building full campaigns, but if done right can lay foundations to expand upon. Labor solidarity work and a Trans solidarity campaign would take different forms, but each should be understood as a strategic and moral priority for the chapter. Building mobilization for labor solidarity would be a key way we can prepare for August’s upcoming UPS strike while supporting the Union Power campaign. A Trans solidarity campaign has an easy target in the form of the New York Times and its unscientific and murderous coverage of Trans issues – and with contributors already speaking out DSA has an opportunity to play the outside game of an inside-outside strategy targeting an institution that has done real harm. Both Labor and Trans solidarity work prepare for mounting crises – the Federal Reserve attempting to force a recession to destroy the tight labor market and increasingly dire actions taken in conservative states against Trans people.
The solidarity work also serves as a source of accessible asks to deliver to new members brought in by the block parties. While some Socializers are unable to devote more time to the org, some wish to contribute more but don’t know how. Accessible asks are a great way to filter the latter category from the former, and serve to initiate the ladder of engagement required to develop people into Full-Timers. Solidarity work can be particularly effective entry points because they are emotive and exciting in a way canvassing is often not – they are a flashy way to show off the value of the organized left, which can be used to convince members about the importance of the boring stuff.
DSA elected presence at block parties and solidarity work would act as a force multiplier for the entire strategy. Their participation functions as both advertisement and legitimation – boosting turnout and demonstrating seriousness to the community. Attending these types of functions is a traditional way politicians have built and reinforced their base, and we should not overlook its potential. This would also keep our electeds directly connected and visible to membership in a way which is difficult to maintain during the legislative session. Lastly, as previously established, the publicity garnered for our electeds this way serves as ‘proof’ of their engagement with local communities and shores up their ability to run for reelection in 2024.
To achieve its goals of growing into a proper workers’ party, DSA needs to dramatically expand its base in a way that has not been realizable with its current approach. In order to evolve as an organization, NYC-DSA needs to make space for forms of participation for people who are not Full-Timers – a need which can be initially met by working through the Socializer framework. Expanding on this framework leads to concrete plans to build in the near term, realized by the Summer of Solidarity proposal. Taken together, this could holistically combine existing org priorities and moral prerogatives, grow our base and reinforce our mobilization capacity, all of which will be key to having a strong NYC-DSA in 2024.
This piece was originally published at Hot’s Substack and is republished here with permission.