What Do We Want The Future of DSA To Look Like?

By Claudia B. and Hannah K.

We’re writing this because of a recent incident in our local that has demoralized us as young organizers and made us question if there is even space for us in the broader culture of DSA.

According to our bylaws, YDSA chairs in the area are ex officio members of the Boston DSA Steering Committee. A similar measure is in the sample bylaws that national DSA gives local chapters (“Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) chapters within the geographic area defined by a DSA Chapter may affiliate as a Branch of that Chapter, in which case the local YDSA chapter may send a representative to the Chapter Steering Committee.”) But members of our local steering committee recently brought forth an amendment that seeks to remove our voting privileges as ex officio steering committee members––voting privileges that are inherent to ex officio status in Robert’s Rules of Order.

This amendment was brought forth as a surprise to us and to many on our local steering committee, who were not consulted on the amendment’s existence before it was sent out to our entire general membership. This suggests that this was done not out of a need to clarify the language of the bylaw, but out of another impulse entirely. And this impulse is not specific to this specific circumstance, but rather part of a larger attitude within DSA we’ve both noticed and been disturbed by.

Like most current DSA members, we joined in the wake of the 2016 election; the terrifying consequences of the Trump administration and the failure of our institutions to meaningfully respond to them convinced us to embrace a more radical politics. When we joined DSA, it seemed natural for us to start a YDSA chapter at our own college, Boston University. We believe in the importance of organizing our own communities, and decided to start with the most obvious one.

Starting a YDSA chapter is not an easy task. We had to build a base of members with no support from our school and only some support from national. We spent hours writing a constitution for our organization and hours on the phone with our local student activities office, which obstructed us at every turn in becoming an official student organization. In the face of this, and while managing our personal and academic lives, we earned national recognition and recognition from our school. We built a base of well-organized, educated campus activists who we collaborate with in pursuit of making BU a better university, and we’re proud of our chapter. We built a coalition with our local graduate student union (many of whom are DSA members), and we helped to organize a rally against sexual harassment, which one of our co-chairs spoke at. We started a one-of-a-kind labor campaign at BU to organize around the working conditions of our unpaid tour guides that received broad support across campus, with around a thousand people signing on to our demands. This is a campaign we hope can set a precedent for other YDSA chapters. And we did this through planning and facilitating meetings every single week without fail.

While we are very proud to have founded one of two active YDSA chapters in Boston, we are also proud to be committed members of our local. We’ve attended almost every monthly general meeting in the past year (which is more than some of our local steering committee members can say) and have consistently volunteered to help run our general meetings as well. One of us is the co-chair of our Socialist Feminist Working Group and is helping to put together a comprehensive child watch program in Boston DSA. We are dedicated members of multiple committees, teams, and working groups––including helping out with our Court Watch and Donate Your Vote coalition initiatives, which we believe to particularly important. We’ve helped to write and edit materials for our chapter, and we have even had our YDSA campaign featured as one of the inaugural posts of the Political Education Working Group blog. Our YDSA members have noticed this, and we’ve gone from having none of our YDSA chapter’s members consistently attend local events to seeing our members engage as the full DSA members they are.

But––particularly recently––we have often felt like the careful and deliberate nature of the organizing we’ve done both in our own YDSA chapter and in the local has been ignored and belittled.

In DSA as a whole, it is common to hear jokes about “dictatorship of the teens” and “the youth” and about how we want to “guillotine the olds”––and we won’t deny that they are sometimes funny! But we feel that these jokes go beyond tweets into a pervasive devaluation of the work younger organizers do. We have felt patronized and fetishized by many older members, who often treat us like children in need of protection—or, more commonly, unruly teenagers who need to develop further in order to be taken seriously. One recalls Joe Schwartz, former DSA NPC member, who when interviewed for The Nation described radicalism among those younger than him: “Now it’s hip to say you’re a Marxist-Leninist. People like the hammer and sickle; they like to wear a red star, have the posters in their bedroom.” As a result, we both have felt uncomfortable sharing our views in meetings or going to social events. We feel we have not been taken seriously, and as a result the perspective we bring to organizing has been frequently ignored.

When James Baldwin was once interviewed by the younger black radical activist Hakim Jamal, he was asked about his relationship to H. Rap Brown, a younger activist who was the fifth chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during a brief alliance with Black Panthers on their part. Baldwin responded, “Well, Rap and I are very different people. I’m much older than Rap, and Rap may know a lot that I don’t know.” So the question stands: what do we know that others might not? Our age is often seen as being a weakness, or at least a point of vulnerability. And it can be those things–there are a lot of things younger organizers haven’t learned or experienced. But there are also things we have learned or experienced that those older might not have––or if they have experienced them, their experience of them might be very different from ours.

And we can’t help but feel that in many cases the reason our voices have been devalued is not because of our age necessarily, but because of what comes with our age: our conception of politics. Radicalism coupled with youth is often confused for purity politics, or for a lack of seriousness. It is not seen as being the product of a world that often feels so painful and narrow to us, a world where the future has narrowed into a point so small that in order to inhabit it, one feels like they’re forced to pass through the eye of a needle. Neither are our politics seen as one of the few things that can, as we argue, break the despair of the moment we live in. Instead, what we believe in is often written off as naiveté. We would like to counter that perception as being instead our instinctive reaction to a world we are not yet desensitized to.

The fundamental instinct to shrink from radicalism and dismiss it as naiveté is based in the belief in a capitalist, fixed reality that many younger organizers have fought to overcome. We have both been extremely fortunate to meet and organize with some wonderful people in DSA––people who have become lifelong friends, and, yes, mentors in some cases. But what makes those relationships so valuable is not that we have learned so much from them, but that they are open to learning from us. We’ve had valuable discussions with them about the “teen” rhetoric that bothered us in the past, and they listened to what we had to say and changed the way they spoke about youth organizing, and we think that this is a model for how inter-generational issues should be handled in DSA as a whole.

YDSA seeks to connect younger organizers with the national infrastructure of DSA. As it stands, being a member of YDSA automatically makes one a member of DSA. (In fact, technically all DSA members up to the age 31 can be a member of YDSA!) This makes perfect sense as our goal is to build socialism and this goal persists regardless of enrollment status. Yet, we have found in our experience, people are eager to differentiate these two groups, and, as a result create two different classes of members in tension with each other. YDSA organizing is seen to be separate from DSA local organizing, and local organizing is seen to be separate from campus activism. But if we wish to build a collective society without hierarchies, we need to encourage participation of different voices in different projects while never forgetting how these seemingly disparate things intersect.

Organizing students is organizing future workers, future caretakers, and future DSA local members all over the country; organizing a campus is also fundamentally organizing within your local community.

If what we seek is to build a better world, we must recognize that cannot happen with the divisions currently present in DSA across the country. The bylaw amendment that seeks to disenfranchise us is emblematic of the attitudes that seek to diminish the reach of younger organizers. It is inherently neoliberal to value older organizers over new ones because that behavior is founded in the idea that experience accrued over time is a kind of capital with the power to disenfranchise and devalue those younger. Perhaps there is something youthful about an ideology that seeks to produce something new––and while that is frightening––it is what we have signed up for as members of a socialist organization, and the voices and ideas of young organizers are essential to building socialism. DSA is an organization that prides itself on believing “a better world is possible.” What is the realm of the possible if not the future, and what is the future without young organizers coming up in the ranks? DSA’s future is dependent on its ability to re-evaluate its relationship to those coming up in its ranks. If it does not, the better world we all seek by organizing in DSA, will, we fear, become impossible.

This essay originally appeared on Medium.

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