Slow-Blooming Roses in the Rust Belt
Our story began in July of 2017. Members in Detroit DSA started a large email chain with every DSA member in Southwest Michigan. “We’re trying to connect you, good luck!” After that email, we met up several times, and people came and went, but eventually we had a base of people that became familiar faces. Over the next year, we worked to gain chapter recognition from National, build our movement locally, and work in solidarity with our community. Getting Southwest Michigan DSA to this point hasn’t been easy, but we’re glad to be where we are.
Southwest Michigan DSA covers the 6th Congressional district, which spans from Kalamazoo to the shores of Lake Michigan. In other words, a very large area! We chose to represent the entire region, rather than just Kalamazoo, for a couple reasons. First, our core membership includes people from both rural and urban areas, and we love organizing together. Second, although we share some differences in urban/rural concerns, we also share connections to the area: a diverse, urban sprawl that developed as a collection of paper mills and pharmaceutical plants. Because of those industries, we have acute air and water concerns (like much of the Rust Belt), as well as a strong distrust of the wealthy and powerful. We also share the feeling that when given the chance, Michigan’s politicians prioritize the interests of those in the state’s eastern and bigger metro areas.
Our chapter’s spread-out nature isn’t the easiest landscape for organizing, and we’re still working to meet a lot of comrades who we know are out there. We’re also exploring the possibility of creating branches to cover our furthest members. Our membership represents a wide variety of backgrounds, including retired union and veterans groups organizers, people working in education, food service, science and technology, and students starting a YDS chapter. This wide range of ages, experience levels with organizing, methods and approaches, and general ideas about what is needed, has been tremendously beneficial for our ability to develop new programs.
Our push for chapter status started immediately. We heard about organizing committee calls, and jumped in on those to learn what to do. We filled out the forms and submitted them (sometimes multiple times), and spoke with our assigned contacts from National, who changed three times over the course of the journey. Finally, we were recognized as an Organizing Committee in July of 2018.
Over the summer in 2018, several of us attended the Rust Belt convention in Pittsburgh, where we learned that our frustrations weren’t just our own. Other groups similarly felt dismissed by the focus on the coastal chapters and large projects, and it was good to feel solidarity with other chapters in a similar boat. Despite the obvious frustration, we knew we couldn’t wait around for National to tell us what we needed to do. Without even having officers, we published a cookbook to raise some funds, and organized several door-to-door canvassing sessions to discuss healthcare in our communities. We also began building coalitions with other radical groups through supporting their projects, such as ending our city/county’s collaboration with I.C.E. and housing justice issues.
Finally, in January of 2019, we were recognized as a chapter by National. Throughout the process, there were times we felt neglected, especially as we watched bigger chapters bounce to recognition and apparent success right away. We could have used more support, guidance, and direction at times. At one point, not knowing who we were even supposed to contact anymore, we sent cold emails to Maria Svart asking for guidance about the application process.
It seemed too difficult. Some members got impatient waiting for recognition, and left to organize elsewhere, which was hard. We also debated just not becoming a chapter at all and instead forming our own socialist collective, but we knew we would be better off if we could get the support and resources from the national organization.
We’ve been busy and working hard. We really tried our hand at pure, bottom-up organizing, which built tons of comradery among us and kept people interested, but having more structure and guidance probably would have helped us. Unfortunately we’ve faced significant burnout from members, including leaders who took on too much because of a lack of proper delegation and support within the chapter.
To improve how DSA functions across chapters, we recommend that bigger neighboring chapters (along with National) provide continued support and resources to smaller chapters. With our small number of members (and smaller amount of volunteer time), no matter how dedicated we are, it is difficult to administer our chapter while continuously reaching out to members and printing materials. Borrowing experience and resources from larger chapters would definitely benefit us and probably other small chapters as well.
Going forward, we’re excited to have our official bylaws, officially delegate roles to newly-elected officers, and continue building our working groups centered around healthcare, environmental justice, and the solidarity economy/mutual aid. We plan to not only continue growing our membership, but also develop our organizing capacity and skill level. SW Michigan DSA has a lot of skills and talents already, coupled with a lot of heart.
To learn more about Southwest Michigan DSA’s work, contact the chapter at DSAsouthwestMI@gmail.com.