Creating Political Education Retreats

Introduction

The purpose of this article is twofold: First, to discuss the goals and strategies of the Rust Belt Political Education Retreat hosted by the DSA Steel Valley organizing committee. Second, to provide high-level guidance on how other regional chapters can design and implement similar curriculums for members and in community political education.

Political education is good praxis for all comrades: applying core Marxist concepts to a region’s historical and current events demonstrates the ongoing importance and relevance of socialist principles. Making educational resources available and accessible to all members (and non-members alike), and ensuring the resources are engaging and relevant, creates a shared knowledge base within the socialist community. 

Part 1: Retreat Goals / Resources

The Rust Belt Political Education Retreat was hosted by the Steel Valley DSA in Aliquippa, PA, a steel mill town approximately 19 miles from Pittsburgh. The weekend retreat was centered on a one-day intensive with two goals: to educate regional members about the history and political economy of the Rust Belt, and to use feedback to develop a curriculum for adopting at different chapters. Members from across the Rust Belt attended: Akron, Cleveland, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Centre County were represented.  

The retreat weekend was spearheaded by the Political Education Retreat Coordination Collective, a cross-chapter committee to organize the event. Rebecca Tarlau, co-chair of Centre County DSA, facilitated discussion and documented each session’s feedback. Rebecca’s expertise in critical pedagogy and teaching were foundational to building an educational curriculum accessible to all members. Each section’s contents were presented by Carl Davidson, DSA Steel Valley member and co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. Carl is well familiar with the unique history and industry of the Rust Belt and the contemporary issues faced by a post-industrial mill town.

Informing the curriculum was the book Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia by Steven Stoll. Attendees were encouraged to read Stoll’s book, and a small selection of articles, in anticipation of the weekend.

Retreat Contents / Schedule

For the one-day intensive, the History and Political Economy of the Rust Belt was split into three presentations, followed by a 45 minute small-group breakout and a 45 minute large-group feedback discussion. The three presentations comprising the curriculum were:

Part 1: Natives, Settlers, Slaves; Core Class Categories

Part 2: Modes of Production: From Householders to Proletarians

Part 3: Capitalism’s Creations and Destruction: From Coal and Steel to Rust and Precarity

Sections were arranged chronologically, from pre-settlement through the 21st century. Each slide (and section) used historical events and social history to frame concepts like systematic injustice, the social construction of race, and regionalism. Photographs, maps, paintings, and documents were added to each slide, and were contextualized against historic events.

The small-group breakout sessions teased out core concepts of the presentation section. For instance, from Part 1: Natives, Settlers, Slaves: Core Class Categories, the following theoretical concepts were identified as essential frameworks to the content:

Indigenous histories, private property, white supremacy, primitive accumulation, settler vs. extractive colonialism, conflicted consciousness, patriarchy, economic functions of slavery, household mode of production, exchange vs. use value. 

The large-group discussions provided direct feedback on content, length, layout, and the mechanics presentation process: in effect, a brainstorming session to improve and hone the curriculum.

Post-Retreat Follow-Ups

One of the immediate points of feedback was to split the final presentation section into two parts, subsequently creating four parts in the curriculum.

After the retreat, attendees continued collaborating on curriculum development: biweekly, one-hour meetings revisited each section slide-by-slide. Notes and slides were kept on Google Docs and Slides so participants could follow along and contribute.

Part 2: Creating a Learning Curriculum

Pedagogy

Information content alone isn’t enough to create a great curriculum: the curriculum has to be interesting, engaging, and relevant to participants to capture their attention. Different learning modalities encourage individual participation and understanding. Besides a lecture-style presentation, chapters can supplement learning with:

  • Primary sources: letters, articles, photographs, artwork, propaganda

  • Roleplay activities: boss vs. striking steelworkers, life in a company town

  • Rich media: music and videos, including strike songs (plus, singing together is good praxis!)

  • Small group breakouts to discuss and debate concepts: primitive accumulation, social reproduction theory, etc. 

Distribution & Presentation

After developing a relevant curriculum, chapters can segment and distribute its contents in a variety of ways. Potential audiences extend outside DSA membership and could include local colleges and university students and community members. Possibilities include:

  • Socialist Day School: full-day intensive

  • General meeting: multiple sessions

  • Socialist Night Club: 1-2 hour evening sessions (especially suitable for college and university settings. Maryland’s YDSA chapter regularly runs Socialist Night Club for current and interested members, and can be referenced for a successful model) 

When considering venues for presentations, attention should be paid to accessibility and accommodation. Consider co-hosting or collaboration at a local library, community center, leftist bookstore, or university.

Final Thoughts

All of the presented processes and ideas in this article should be considered a starting point. Take what’s useful, discard what’s useless, and appropriate the structure to the unique needs of each chapter.

Regional history and political economy are conceptually rich, relevant ways to speak to membership’s personal relationships with an area: education helps with chapter base-building, and creates solidarity between members.

To learn more about Steel Valley DSA’s work, check out their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/steelvalleydsa.

Allyson Holleyissue 7