Note: The resources and templates of the Rose Buddy program are freely available to any other DSA chapter interested – feel free to contact email@example.com.
Like the waves of membership growth between 2016 and 2018, DSA has benefitted from a new surge of members in the wake of Bernie Sanders 2020 primary campaign, the COVID-19 pandemic, and nation-wide protests against police brutality. The influx of new members presents both an opportunity and a challenge for local chapters. In particular, each new wave tests their ability to use their expanded capacity to scale up campaigns and projects and to effectively connect new members with their work. Introducing and engaging new members in the work of local chapters has only grown more challenging during the pandemic, which cuts off many informal opportunities for socializing and building relationships through in-person events.
Here in Chicago, our membership grew from under 2,300 in April 2020 to over 2,800 in October. We expanded existing campaigns on rent control and public control of electric utilities, launched new campaigns like #DefundCPD, and massively ramped up our political education programming. We also increased programming for new members.
At the center of our efforts is a new mentorship program, “Rose Buddies,” designed to improve engagement among our newest members. The program provides new members with a “buddy” in the chapter, helps new members get oriented to the structure and work of the chapter, and asks new members to commit to regular involvement with DSA. Since June, over 150 new members and 50 mentors have participated in the program, and based on feedback from new members and mentors, it has been a resounding success.
The basic structure of the Rose Buddy program is simple: a new member is paired with an experienced CDSA member who serves as their mentor. Although mentorship programs abound, this program drew inspiration from the Bernie Victory Coach program led by Sophie Lasoff and other Bernie Sanders campaign staff this past winter. Partnered buddies commit to a series of five calls over the course of three months, during which buddies discuss what it means to be a democratic socialist, the work of the chapter, and what the new member would like to get involved in. In between calls, the new member commits to attending a DSA event—a campaign event, a direct action, a political education meeting—which is then discussed and debriefed during the next call. New members and mentors are each given access to a “Toolbox” which includes a Rose Buddy program guide, a “CDSA Member Manual” with details about the structure and operation of the chapter, a contact sheet for each campaign/project, and introductory readings about democratic socialism. After completing five calls and attending at least one of several types of CDSA events, the new member “graduates” from the program. The goal, by the end of the program, is that each new member is an active and engaged member of the chapter.
To coordinate the logistics of a 200+ person program some basic mechanisms of accountability are required, and we tweaked the program over the last few months to address this. On the new member side of things, we encountered the problem (albeit a good one!) that new members were signing up faster than we could pair them with available mentors. We also learned that some new members signed up, but didn’t stick with the program (in spite of our mentors’ efforts at engagement, more on that below). So we raised the initial level of commitment for new members. Now, we “pitch” the Rose Buddy program during our monthly “What is CDSA?” orientations. These orientations are a long-standing component of our chapter’s new member programming, which we’ve started to host monthly to accommodate growing demand. This means that new members who sign up for the Rose Buddy program have at least attended an introductory orientation. Each month after these orientations, we coordinate a new round of pairing new members and mentors. Thus far with this change, the mentee:mentor ratio has been much more manageable.
We also increased support and accountability for mentors themselves. Mentors typically take on between two and five buddies each and commit to checking in with them five times. For each call, they are asked to submit an online report back form, which includes a suggested script for the call and basic check-in questions. In the last few months, we added an initial training call for mentors in order to ensure expectations are clear and mentors are aware of all the resources available to them. Every two weeks, a designated program coordinator checks in with each mentor to see how their calls are going. Making sure the mentors’ workload is manageable, and making adjustments when it’s not, has been a key part of the program. Given that all our mentors are among the most active members in CDSA and often have many commitments and obligations, sometimes our mentors need to step back. We built in some flexibility to accommodate that as well. We also discuss and troubleshoot if a mentor’s buddy has stopped responding or hasn’t been able to engage in the work of the chapter. To better equip mentors to hold their own buddies accountable, we put together a mentoring resource that offers basic organizing strategies for keeping new members engaged.
We’ve already seen the benefits of this program across the work of our chapter. As one new member put it in a follow-up survey about their experience: “The Rose Buddy program has been extremely helpful in helping me find my place within DSA and has helped me better form my political identity.” Another wrote: “Without the Rose Buddy program, I might have found it easy to become discouraged and disengaged.” In the span of a few months, we’ve seen many new members who took part in the program take on leadership roles in chapter campaigns and political education meetings, serve in elected chapter leadership roles, and develop and implement new ways to build and improve the work of our chapter. Many former buddies are now serving as mentors themselves, allowing us to expand the capacity of the program. In the process of mentoring, our mentors—some relatively new members themselves—gained a more comprehensive understanding of the chapter, gained experience discussing and explaining our work as democratic socialists, and developed key organizing skills that can be used in many other contexts across the chapter. Based on our follow-up survey, 85% of program participants were very or extremely satisfied with the program.
With the launch of our 100K DSA membership recruitment drive, we hope to witness a surge of membership growth. The question of how to engage and retain all these new members will only continue to grow in importance. As DSA expands, we want to make sure that all of our new members can contribute to building the capacity and power of our organization on a local and a national level. Effective mentorship programs can be one important step towards developing a committed base of organizers fighting for working-class power.