Reflections on the First National Gathering of DSA Elected Officials

– Ben Ewen-Campen, Somerville City Councilor

According to DSA, there are now nearly 100 members holding elected office across the country. Over the weekend of August 3rd and 4th, 28 of us gathered in Atlanta as part of DSA’s National Convention. I was elected to the Somerville City Council in 2017 (with the support and endorsement of Boston DSA), and since then, I have mostly had to laser-focus on specific issues that directly affect people in Somerville. The DSA National Convention was a unique and inspiring opportunity to zoom out, and to meet with fellow DSA elected officials from across the country, to build solidarity around the deeply interconnected struggles we all face, and to strategize on how we can use electoral politics not only to improve people’s lives, but to continue growing the movement. 

There were elected DSA members at many levels of state and local government. Ruth Buffalo, the first Native American woman elected to the North Dakota legislature, who defeated the author of a restrictive voter ID law, was there. Two elected judges (!) were there, from Pittsburgh, PA and Austin, TX, both doing vital work in the struggle for criminal justice reform. Several of the newly-elected DSA Aldermen from Chicago were there, fresh off their recent upset victories against established machine Democrats. khalid kamau (aka “America’s first #BlackLivesMatter organizer elected to public office”) was there, as were City Councilors from Knoxville, TN, Olympia WA, and more. Brandy Fortson was there, who told us that their recent election to the School Board in Corvallis, OR, represented the first time in our country’s history that an openly non-binary person has won elected office. State Legislators from Maine, Maryland, Rhode Island, and elsewhere were there too. (I did note that nearly all of us were in legislative bodies – no Chief Executives yet.) 

Over the course of two days, we worked together in a series of workshops, teach-ins, trainings, conversation, and meetings with other DSA members at the National Convention. Chicago Aldermen Carlos Ramirez-Rosa and Rosanna Rodriguez shared their strategies of using mutual-aid networks in immigrant communities to simultaneously resist ICE, and build grassroots power. Maine Representative Mike Sylvester, a lifelong labor activist, led a training on using the legislative process itself as a community organizing tool. Palestine/Brooklyn activist Linda Sarsour shared the story of how Khader El-Yateem’s unsuccessful 2017 campaign for New York City Council, which had enormous grassroots support from NYC DSA, was the vehicle that helped her community of Muslim residents in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn get organized and understand their own power. DSA organizers from Detroit and from NYC led a conversation on their vision and experience of collaborating with community organizers and elected officials to build grassroots power (e.g. the enormous tenant protection wins in NYC this year). We met with DSA staff on effective ways to interact with the media, followed by a press conference covered by the Washington Post, the New York Times, Current Affairs, and others.  Throughout these events, we focused on how to use elected office not only to improve the material reality of peoples’ lives in our districts, but also to expand the movement and support the organizing happening in our communities. 

Between these events, it was enormously inspiring to meet with DSA members from around the country. I sat at one lunch table with members from a DSA chapter in Cleveland, who told me about their recent work on the movement to force landlords to remove lead from their buildings, and with two people from the relatively small DSA chapter in Cheyenne, WY, organizing to pressure their City Council around housing affordability. I attended a panel of international organizers, which included a socialist organizer from Brazil who compared learning about DSA in America as “learning that the stormtroopers on the Death Star are organizing themselves.” 

There is no other movement like DSA right now. DSA is entirely self-funded (no wealthy donors capable of cutting our funding), it is democratically organized, and it has become a unique vehicle for bringing the ideas of democratic socialism to a mass audience. For me, the refrain of this convention was a line from the incredible keynote speech by Sara Nelson, President of Association the Flight Attendants, who helped lead the movement to end the Federal Government shutdown of 2019: “People think power is a limited resource, but using power builds power. Once workers get a taste of our power, we will not settle for a bad deal.” I believe, because I have experienced firsthand, that electoral campaigns and the legislative process can be a powerful means to bring ordinary people into political struggle for the first time. Grassroots campaigns – both electoral campaigns and campaigns to pass good laws or block bad ones – help ordinary people get a taste of their own power, and it is critical that those of us in elected office remember this goal. 

The weekend of August 3rd and 4th, 2019 was a profoundly dark time for our nation. Two mass shootings, in El Paso and Dayton, separated by only hours, shook us to our core with grief and horror. In those tragic circumstances, it was a true ray of light and inspiration to be able to come together with grassroots organizers from across the country, who are doing the work to build a better world, from the ground up. I left the convention with profound inspiration to get back to work in Somerville, and to redouble the fight. 

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