Recently in the DSA there has been a debate about the role of direct service in our work as an organization. “Direct service” means fulfilling a material need for people for free, such as giving them food, providing legal services, or housing them. This can take many forms, including the Brake Light Clinics put on by various DSA chapters, in which brake lights are fixed for free to help those who may be pulled over and harassed or brutalized by the police. As far as I can tell, almost no one in this debate has asserted that direct service has no role in the DSA. The disagreement is, instead, about how much of a priority it should be, and to what extent it should be considered a tool for organizing and for recruiting new members (which are two different things that I see conflated often).
I think it’s important here to note the difference between the term “direct service” and one like “mutual aid.” “Mutual aid” is used to imply reciprocity, and therefore, to some extent, a relationship between the parties involved. The relationship between the party providing a service, and the party receiving it, defines direct service relative to other ways we might give to others. Likewise, I wouldn’t provide services to people who aren’t in need. It would be beside the point. The way we frame what direct service is sets up a relationship in which a power dynamic is inherently present, good intentions or necessity of said service notwithstanding.
Those of us who have had to rely on charity know that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” and not just because we heard our grandpas say it. When we get food (or anything else) that doesn’t cost money, it usually means getting preached at in some way. If it’s not talk of God we must tolerate, it’s a political line, or simply having to play into a volunteer’s own sense of self worth and patronization. To be clear, many do not consider this unjust. Many people may be more than happy to praise God, condemn the mayor, or give a grateful hug to someone who helped them out. The transactional nature of our society makes this seem perfectly fair.
When we organize direct service programs, we don’t want to fall into the trap of being transactional ourselves. When direct service is used to spread our message, there’s a very real possibility that the recipients of our aid will listen to us simply out of obligation. It really doesn’t matter if our intentions are good. If we recruit people who feel obligated to join us because of a service we provided, we undermine both our direct-service work and our recruitment work by making them transactional.
Paulo Freire famously said in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:
True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the “rejects of life,” to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands—whether of individuals or of entire peoples—need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work, and, working, transform the world.
Direct service is paternalistic, but unfortunately, highly necessary in our unjust world. I know very well that the intention is to do service and work to change the system simultaneously. But I worked at a food pantry for two years, and I have firsthand experience in trying to do organizing work with our clients. The pressure of justifying it as a tool for recruitment or even organizing only emphasizes that dynamic. I do think it’s possible to build some relationships through direct service projects, but the need to justify its use for this purpose is not ideal for fostering meaningful relationships. I do want to note that this may be less true in very rural areas. In rural areas it is more feasible to build real relationships that take on the character of mutual aid, and there is a lack of outside organizations to lean on.
In regions where there are already organizations that have devoted themselves entirely to this kind of work, we should take advantage of the resources and labor they are already putting toward it and volunteer with them. Running even somewhat competent, ongoing direct services can take everything you have, and that’s when you have no other focus than the task at hand. Many such existing organizations are not entirely apolitical and still provide a venue for DSA members to be frank about our beliefs and political efforts. We should do direct service as an expression of our belief as socialists that all people deserve access to resources. This may build the DSA, but only through long-term, genuine relationships, and perhaps by making us visible to the public in general. This can only be done if we don’t frame it as a tool for recruiting, but as something to do for its own sake, and prioritize it accordingly.
After years of giving myself to direct service, I joined a political organization for a reason. I joined to work with others in the fight against capitalism itself. Organizing people who feel obligated to you makes a difficult job even harder. In my experience, these relationships are short-term and more shallow than they may first appear. They are always more significant in the eyes of the person in the position of power, because for us the obligation seems inconsequential, but for the other person, it looms front and center. We are talking about something that they are relying on, and that is no small thing to them. We have so many ways to grow as organizers: educating the members we already have, who are so very hungry to learn; learning to intentionally talk with and listen to the people we already come into contact with every day; and getting out of our homes and into the communities that are right outside of our doors. The underutilized venues for organizing are already under our noses.