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If You Build It, They Will Come

20-Nov-2019Bryan Watson

Like other chapters of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the Seattle chapter has grown by leaps and bounds since 2016 and now numbers approximately 1,000 members. These members have thrown themselves into a range of activities—from Democratic Socialists for Bernie and the election campaign of Shaun Scott (a DSA member running for city council), to Medicare for All and a unionization drive at a local museum.

Yet this exciting growth creates challenges as well, including how to politically engage new members and activate current members. To help create a space for political discussion, a small group began meeting in Seattle’s District 3, based in Seattle’s urban core. These meetings have seen a steady growth in attendance, going from a handful of participants to 15-30 members actively participating in bi-weekly political discussions.

The growth reflects a new approach that could become a potential model of how to recruit new members, create a space for democratic discussion, activate and politically educate current members, and turn people out for campaigns in the community.

According to Stuart Strader, one of the organizers of District 3:

The success has been based on centering politics, by politically discussing the key political questions on the minds of all DSA members. We have begun to fill a need in DSA—organized political discussion coupled with political activism. Too often, political discussions can be sacrificed for action or for discussions on organizational questions. Don’t get me wrong. While we take political debate very seriously, we aren’t a talk shop.

We use our political discussions to inform our political activity. We’ve found this approach to be effective in motivating members to be more active, where they are beginning to actively build DSA, many for the first time! In our experience, there’s a hunger for more political discussion and debate. What we’re doing is providing an organized and dynamic format for that.

Centering Politics

The key to the success of this model, so far, lies in the way political topics are discussed by the District 3 group. Too often, study groups approach political questions or Marxist concepts in an abstract fashion. However, discussing these same concepts through the medium of concrete current events and living mass struggles brings those same concepts to life. Some of the topics have included “Trump's Racist Attacks and How to Fight Them—Should DSA Organize Protests?” and The Power of Protest: Lessons from Hong Kong & Puerto Rico.”

Each meeting begins with an hour-long political discussion, with a member giving a 10-20 minute introduction to provide a socialist framework that people can agree with, disagree with, or add to. We’ve found that the larger group discussions allow for an enriched conversation because the whole group grapple with more aspects of the topic by tapping into the range of experiences of the larger group.

Carolyn Brotherton, a DSA activist and District 3 member, explained “one thing that makes the discussions good is that in addition to having a diversity of experiences and political education, we have people whose political thinking aligns with different political tendencies within the socialist movement. So we aren’t an echo chamber, and I think the disagreements make the discussions worthwhile. When people’s ideas are constructively challenged that makes everyone’s thinking more clear.”

This larger group approach differs from the way political discussions are often held in the Seattle chapter with some exceptions. During general membership meetings there are typically reports from working groups and sometimes a political presentation followed by small breakout discussion groups.

The format of small breakout groups has its advantages, but it also has limits. A discussion with the full group allows for a more democratic discussion where members can raise their views and hear a broader diversity of political opinions from the entire body compared to smaller breakout groups.

According to Sean, a Seattle District 3 DSA member, “The D3 meetings allow me the space to listen, to speak, and to evolve my politics through dynamic discussion with a wide range of perspectives. No one’s voice is drowned out. These kinds of discussions foster growth and challenge people to defend and refine their ideas. I invariably come away feeling humbled, energized, and with a clearer vision.”

Putting Ideas into Action

We’ve also encouraged people to be politically active by linking the political topics to concrete activity. For example, following Trump’s racist attacks on the Squad, we had a political discussion on How to fight Trump’s racist attacks on the Squad.” Flowing from that discussion the District 3 group suggested to the chapter leadership that DSA endorse a local anti-ICE rally, and we actively publicized it in the district. The rally was a big success—hundreds of protestors shut down an ICE office!

The District 3 group also hosted a public meeting, “Bernie Sanders: What’s Possible with a Socialist President?” attended by over 50 people. Many indicated they were new to DSA or had not been active before, and we raised $1,000 for DSA through a political financial appeal. We’ve also organized literature tables and postering in the district for Bernie debate watch parties and have gone as a district group to doorknock for Kshama Sawant and Shaun Scott, two socialists running for Seattle City Council.

Bryan Watson is a DSA activist in Seattle District 3. In 2015 he was the Finance Director for Kshama Sawant’s independent socialist re-election campaign to City Council.