Building a Firm Foundation for Growth: A Vision for Multi-Tendency Organizing

By: Nan K, North Texas

I’ve always kind of been the weird kid. I remember when I was in elementary school I spent all of recess walking alone in a circle around the perimeter of the blacktop. I’m totally an introvert. And a couple of years ago, I ran into the mother of someone I grew up with and she said, “I never thought you’d be an organizer.” 

I got what she was saying, but the thing is, I am an organizer. My organizing is a combination of training, knowledge, and experience I’ve gained over the years and a deep belief that it’s by being myself -- myself with the tools to organize -- that I can have the most impact on my community. In my experience, most of the work is about being in relationship with folks in my community and organizing in a way that fits the context that really makes the most sense. 

That’s why I’ve co-authored a resolution (Resolution #60: Reaffirm Our Commitment to Training and Leadership Development) with Ravi Ahmad and Erika Paschold to make sure everyone in DSA has the tools they need to learn to organize in a way that works for them. Our model for training in DSA is rooted in the “each one teach one” philosophy of Ella Baker, the principles of self-directed learning and an understanding that DSA is an expansive organization with a wide range of experiences, knowledge and local conditions.

The three of us are organizing in very different parts of the United States. Ravi is from New York, but now organizes in Long Beach; Erika is in Lincoln, Nebraska. I’m in Texas, a place that likes to think of itself as a whole ‘nother animal altogether. These different contexts informed our principles for what training should be in DSA:

  1. We believe that everyone has something to learn, and everyone has something to teach.

  2. We believe that people in DSA want to be part of a cohesive, collaborative body.

  3. And we believe that different chapters and individuals within DSA want access to tools for organizing with the flexibility and freedom to use those tools in a way that fits who they are and where they’re organizing. 

The great thing about our model is that it’s pretty close to what our kickass members are already practicing across the country. We counted 12+ DSA member-led training events and programs (but let us know if we missed any!), including the Rust Belt Conference; Southern Caucus Conference; Virginia, Florida and Iowa Statewide Conferences; Socialist Feminist Convergences in Philly and Iowa City; The Dubuque Free School; Red State Conference and Grow Big Red organizing tranings in Nebraska; BuildFest Philly and NYC; plus countless chapter-level training programs.

Everyone has something to learn and everyone has something to teach

The comrades we talked to underscored our belief that when you approach training as something that everyone can do and everyone can benefit from, you grow member capacity and develop new leaders.

“In my honest opinion the Rust Belt Convention represents the ideal of how  to plan a multiple chapter event for this organization… What was really cathartic was realizing personally how much my work planning the food and catering mattered. My involvement in the planning represents a turning point where I went from just going to meetings to actually doing work in meetings and committees. Doing that work gave me confidence to step up to become Ecosocialist Secretary. My biggest takeaway was how valuable it is to be the person to do the work that takes some of the burden off people who are already over capacity. I know without going to those planning meetings I wouldn’t have formed the friendships I have in this chapter, nor would I have the organizational skills that I have today.” - Zachary, Pittsburgh DSA

“A member-led model also allows everyone to be a teacher and a learner. When you teach something, you learn it in a totally different way. I know so much more about art because I became an art teacher. When you can move through those different roles with an understanding that all of us have something to teach and learn, you become better at both.” - Kelly, DSA Lincoln (Red State Conference organizer)

DSA’ers want to be part of a cohesive, collaborative body

When I was at the pre-convention gathering in Dallas this spring, something I heard over and over again was that members were hungering to connect with comrades from different chapters, to hear what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, and share their own successes and lessons. At the same time, in my time in DSA I’ve seen so many instances of members coordinating training and sharing information in a way that multiplies their efforts.  

“The 2019 Virginia Statewide Conference was my first major interaction with comrades outside my local chapter since I joined DSA. It was an incredible chance to learn what folks were dealing with on-the-ground in very different environments, and exchange ideas on what has worked and what hasn't.” - Kaiser, Metro DC DSA

And when we get together and talk about what we care about, what we see working and what we want to do better, we start to build connections across our differences.

“Electoral organizing is essential to a multi-faceted socialist praxis. Teaching our members how to use electoral work to not only build their organizational capacity but also build a socialist constituency is essential for DSA. At Philly Buildfest I had the opportunity to work with many people from across the left spectrum and teach them the first steps of building electoral power. I also learned how to plan direct actions which is critical in holding our own electeds accountable and challenging capitalist politicians.” - Austin, Philadelphia DSA

DSA’ers want the tools to organize and freedom to use those tools based on their context

With member-led training, unlike standardized or top-down training, the format and content can be based on what’s most relevant to the people teaching and learning

“Really powerful learning happens when an individual is engaged with something meaningful to them. When members organize trainings, they’re taking what they care about and creating curriculum or an experience to both share that knowledge and receive knowledge from others. On the other hand, when you have a standardized model like what we experienced [at the Regional Leadership Training] in Wichita, we were treated like we were all beginners. There was no room to recognize unique experience or context. Any time you’re standardizing something like that, it’s for the benefit of the person giving the information, not the person learning. It comes from a desire for efficiency. “ - Kelly, DSA Lincoln (Red State Conference organizer)

Comrades in Virginia came up with programming for their member-led statewide conference in a truly bottom-up way.

“We were able to discuss anti-fascist resistance with Charlottesville comrades, how housing crises and a legacy of discrimination intersect in Richmond, the challenge of organizing across a spread-out geography in Tidewater and the rural Augusta chapters, pressuring school administrations by the GMU, W&M, and VCU YDSA chapters, and coalition-based work in migrant justice by the Northern Virginia branch of Metro DC… Above all, getting to connect with people doing work all across the state, from urban to rural, towns to college campuses, friendly to hostile environments, was by far the best experience. ” - Kaiser, Metro DC DSA

Our Member-Led Training Resolution

So if these things are already happening in the DSA, where does the national apparatus figure in? 

Infrastructure is essential for making sure that a continual flow of people coming into DSA are gaining the skills and connections they need to step into their power. Resolution #60 calls on the national organization to create this infrastructure and provide direct support and resources. While we don’t believe that National should have a single vision for what organizing looks like in DSA, we do believe that National can act as an accessible and centralized hub for connecting chapters and sharing knowledge. By having National provide a library of trainings sourced from members across the country, as well as provide financial resources for member-led training and skill-sharing, we’re ensuring that people are connecting while still having flexibility and making space for a variety of tactics and strategies. It’s this flexibility that encourages ground-up leadership. It’s self-directed learning combined with a mechanism to gather up the knowledge being generated so it can be used elsewhere.

"A chapter-led model aligns perfectly with the idea of self-directed learning, because it supports people’s intrinsic motivation instead of external motivation. In a self-directed context, learning happens on a much deeper level because people are making decisions and creating knowledge as opposed to passively receiving it. Applied to DSA, this model can not only build trust between chapters and national, but build people’s capacity to grow knowledge and share it. You think about friendship as a two-way street -- this is a two-way street. National has something to provide, whether that’s money or infrastructure, and what’s generated at the local level flows back to National so it can benefit others. It’s a process of giving, creating and receiving.” - Kelly, DSA Lincoln (Red State Conference organizer)

Part of what makes organizing beautiful and also effective is that it’s done in community, with trust and accountability, and it acknowledges that every person has value and something to contribute. Our resolution is about positioning national not to be the teacher, but to facilitate the creation of the relationships and bring forth the knowledge that exists in every corner of our organization. With a member-led training model, socialists who are in community with each other are the ones teaching each other and learning what our future will look like together. A good organizer is someone who is working to build the leadership and power of others -- providing people with the resources to do that is in and of itself making them into organizers. 

We think there’s always a time and a space for win/lose campaigns, but we don’t think this is the only style of organizing that members might want to deploy. We also think that while there is a lot of agreement across DSA on what priorities might be, models that try to provide top-down guidance on not only priority campaigns but strict tactics across contexts fail to recognize that these priorities and tactics might not make sense for everyone. It’s actually not strategic to try to create a nationalized plan for a single vision of organizing around a limited set of priorities. When every chapter is putting their spin on local work, a member-led training model allows this experimentation to come into contact with different and sometimes conflicting perspectives. That friction is what helps us synthesize and combine our efforts so we come out with powerful new ways of doing the work to win socialism.

Why did I share about being the weird kid? Because what I’ve learned is that there isn’t one single person who can be an organizer, just as there isn’t one single way to organize. And teaching each other is one of the best ways for us to learn -- sharing knowledge, sharing experience, and sharing difference allows each of us to gain insight and recognize the power that’s already here. 

Thanks to Erika P., Ravi A., Austin B., Kelly S., Zachary T., and Kaiser F. for their help on this piece.