During the November meeting of the Electoral Working Group (EWG), a proposal was adopted for the EWG to mobilize for upcoming Local School Council (LSC) elections. The proposal was then brought to the December General Chapter Meeting, where many Chicago DSA (CDSA) members heard about it for the first time. Since the November EWG meeting, the project moved forward with periodic criticisms and concerns, though most CDSA members went along for the ride. It wasn’t until the February 2022 executive committee (EC) meeting that things abruptly shifted when the EC deadlocked in a 14-14 vote on an EWG proposal to approve an endorsement process for LSC candidates. In effect, this paused the LSC campaign.
Since the 14-14 vote, there has been furious debate and the release of two “open letters”. One from Sarah-Ji, well known Chicago abolitionist and fixture in education-related struggles since 2010, and the other in response from the steering committee of the EWG. Let’s explore the politics of this debate. Too often, political disagreement is framed as simply being about personalities. But the specific question of this LSC proposal, as it is currently written, raises bigger questions about theories of change and how they impact concrete work.
Dissecting the LSC Proposal
If we review the original proposal itself, and the discussion at the November 2021 EWG meeting, we can identify that the primary concern of the proposal is the growth and development of CDSA, with secondary consideration for the effects of the CDSA entering school communities.
At the top of the list in the proposal is “1. Develop Chicago DSA as an Org,” followed by a six-point list detailing what this could look like. Second in the proposal is “2. Build working class power,” which is broken down into:
- “target winnable races” (to be won by CDSA)
- “shape school policy” (by CDSA holding seats)
- “increase CTU and SEIU 73 power” (presumably by CDSA holding seats?)
- “build CDSA’s base” (presumably by demonstrating our effectiveness in office?)
- “lay groundwork for future CPS-YDSA organizing” (to funnel the youth into CDSA)
Since these goals are not looking to organize and mobilize community members, and instead they all have to do with getting CDSA members into office or building our base, it can be assumed that the proposal’s authors see “working class power” as “CDSA power.” The rest of the proposal goes on with similar language. Remarkably absent is any language about racism, apartheid, or segregation even though the site of struggle will include the nearly 90% BIPOC student population in one of the most segregated cities in the US. Also notable is that almost all of the goals in the proposal could just as easily be achieved by organizing CDSA members to regularly attend LSC meetings, get to know regular attendees, organize community turnout to meetings, etc.
It should also be noted that many proponents of the LSC proposal have cited a recent Chalkbeat article as a reason for why DSA-specifically should engage in LSC elections. However, this raises a different set of questions for me. As a socialist, I think a primary question when we choose our sites of struggle should be “will it put us in contact with more people?” For example, the Bernie campaign was exciting and connected us with more folks that actively mobilized for him. Similarly, the Uprising was the largest movement in US history. But it seems like LSCs are actually seeing people desert them rather than flock to them.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t engage LSCs, but it does mean we need to consider that engaging LSCs will also require getting community members organized to care about them in the first place. In other words, this cannot be a project that lasts a few weeks or months. It necessarily has to be a commitment for 4, 8, 12 years if we intend to take it seriously and not simply use LSC’s as stepping stones. This is in contrast to the opportunist reading of the Chalkbeat article that has people treating LSCs like a socialist version of Teach for America, with white saviors swooping in to save the day. We have to ask ourselves, are we here for the long term fight or are we just here to pad our resumes and then move on?
Growth for the Sake of Growth
What theory of change does this proposal represent? The focus of the proposal is to help get DSA as many elected seats as possible while growing DSA membership. I would identify this as “growth for the sake of growth”, and argue that this is the dominant theory of change within DSA at both national and local levels. This theory of change has been applied to DSA recruitment and to elected offices. This approach emerged from the period of explosive growth that began with Bernie’s 2016 campaign and the desire to continue reproducing this growth and excitement.
This has manifested in a variety of ways. One example was the “DSA 100K Drive” where members were mobilized, “to commit to talking with three people in their network about joining DSA during this period.” This goal was set devoid of grounding in concrete struggle and followed the same format as Amway in having comrades recruit their family and friends. We were recruiting anyone, regardless of how involved or interested they were in concrete struggle. This approach resembled corporations trying to show off impressive quarterly reports without thinking about the long term.
To be clear, this isn’t to condemn the comrades that initiated and/or participated in this activity. It is always important for organizations to experiment with different strategies and tactics. But in hindsight, it is clear that the concept itself is about “growth for the sake of growth.”
Moreover, I highlight this example because it demonstrates the same random approach to recruitment that the LSC proposal also applies to identify potential LSC candidates. A “quarterly report” approach to organizing is to find anyone to run for an office and work hard to get them elected, showing off a victory. A long term approach would be to phone bank a member, get to know them, have them attend regular LSC meetings, build trust within DSA and their respective LSC community, connect them with any existing coalitions engaged with the work, then leverage all of those organic connections to win office and be held accountable while in office…or just continue being an active member in the LSC.
The fact that this explosive growth stemmed from an electoral campaign also meant that many people identified electoral politics as the primary tool to both continue growing DSA and to build socialism. It could be summed up as “keep winning seats to keep building DSA,” or an extension of “growth for the sake of growth.”
Just as membership ballooned, so did the push to endorse as many candidates as possible in various elections around the country, regardless of how long they had been a member of DSA, if they were a member at all, or if they were simply someone “in alignment” with our politics. It was exciting to see so many people that identified with the label of “socialist,” or at least publicly aligned with us, win elections in a country that hasn’t had socialists in office in nearly a century. However, helping someone win an office is separate from having leverage over that person in office.
The over-emphasis of having DSA members in office was recently highlighted by the conflict around Jamaal Bowman’s vote to arm the Israeli colonial government and then visit the settler state. While DSA’s BDS Working Group and other pro-Palestine organizers called for Bowman’s expulsion from DSA, there was also a major push to keep him. The flip side of “growth for the sake of growth” is “retention for the sake of retention.”
The issue of defending Bowman at all costs is connected to the issue of winning LSC seats at all costs. In the case of Bowman, a fault line emerged between people who wanted to make sure a politician stayed a DSA member versus the people that sided with Palestinians and pro-Palestine organizers.
In the LSC discussion, the fault line is between those who think that:
- CDSA needs to urgently run it’s own candidates for LSCs
- And those who think we need to listen to and reflect on the experiences of the teachers and parents asking us to slow down, and work as CDSA within existing coalitions and ward organizations to both build the long term relationships necessary to actually affect LSCs while also identifying organic candidates to run for them
To be clear, this is in contrast to how some have framed this debate as being pro/anti-LSC organizing. Everyone agrees that we should engage LSCs, but the question is “how”?
The approach of “growth for the sake of growth” has trampled Palestinians and pro-Palestine organizers. It will also trample over teachers, parents, and existing LSC communities. We’ll show up for the LSC fight now only to have the organization walk away after the elections are over, because let’s be clear: this is a siloed, short term electoral campaign trying to relate to a long term, slow, tedious site of struggle that requires 1-1s with parents, teachers, and mobilizations of the community well beyond the scale and capacity of one working group. This isn’t a matter of a moral failing but a matter of political and organizational limitations based on our current approach to siloed electoral and movement work, as well as our standing apart from the organic organizations already engaged in LSC organizing.
To engage LSCs in a meaningful way, that respects the communities and sites of struggle, would require much deeper coordination with the groups on the ground that have been actively engaging this work for years. There are no shortcuts to this kind of work that can be developed over a few months of siloed meetings by the EWG.
As a final comment, Bowman demonstrates that just because someone adopts the label of “socialist,” it doesn’t mean they will “do the right thing.” In the LSC debates, I’ve heard the argument that “better our people than no one.” There is a “common sense” to this, except that the entire approach to recruiting LSC candidates has been to call through lists of our members, most of whom have little/no regular connection to CDSA, and unknown connections to their LSC communities, if any.
In other words, we’re trying to get unknown actors to play a CDSA-endorsed role in a segregated school system. We are trusting that they’ll do the right thing if they win office simply because they’ve joined CDSA. We have zero mechanisms to hold them accountable as CDSA if they win. Even when we find outstanding candidates, we as an organization have parachuted in and lack grounding or accountability in the education justice movement. We need organic connections as the politics of any particular school community may skew one way or another, and we need some orientation to know how to navigate a given community.
If Bowman is any example, it’s that getting a self-proclaimed socialist into power doesn’t guarantee anything. Obviously, there are never guarantees in life. But one way to increase certainty is to have the people running for office build organic connections first within the communities they plan to represent and within DSA. An example of this approach would be from the 33rd ward and the way that four years of movement work in the community helped lay the groundwork for an electoral campaign. This dialectical relationship between the long term movement work and electoral work became the successful aldermanic campaign in 2019.
An alternative to strictly focusing on winning LSC seats would be to begin building relationships with and organize around LSCs, whether or not anyone wants to run since it is possible to affect LSCs without having someone in office. For example, the right-wing might be organizing for LSC seats, but they’ve definitely been all over the news for doing community turnout and polarizing around critical race theory.
The reality is that people win and lose elections all the time. But win or lose, what makes the real difference is whether or not the left is mobilizing the community into action. Having a left-wing LSC member won’t stop right-wing turnout against masking mandates (for example), and it also won’t stop them from getting outvoted. But having the left-wing doing the patient, thankless work of connecting with existing organizations and active community members to mobilize will help us, whether or not we’re on the LSC. As an example of what this could look like, we should analyze the patient and community-focused victories of the General Iron campaign.
These Discussions Can’t Wait
What I’ve tried to lay out here is that the period of explosive growth generated a political perspective of “growth for the sake of growth.” This is an orientation that manifested organically as a way to try to keep up the momentum after Bernie’s 2016 campaign. It has applied to how we build DSA, both in terms of our approach to recruitment and to electoral politics. This approach is not a product of malice nor of “wrong headedness,” but the product of a specific political period and an attempt to harness it. Undoubtedly, most people that initially read the original LSC proposal saw zero problems in it because it reflected the hegemonic approach that DSA takes to struggles. The truth is, I felt the same way when I first read the LSC proposal for that very reason! It wasn’t until I read Sarah-Ji’s letter that I saw all the problems.
This is why the conversation cannot wait. The frustration that people feel around this period of contraction, especially since so many were radicalized during the explosive growth, is causing tensions within our organizing spaces. The inability to acknowledge that we are in a new period is causing “growth for the sake of growth” to turn into the more toxic “growth at all costs,” where comrades will engage in all kinds of unethical behavior in order to have their way.
The fact is that we have entered a new period where the explosive growth is over and a right-wing reaction is on the rise. Repeating our tactics from 2016-2019 without critical assessment of what went right, what went wrong, and what needs updating for this new political period risks setting us on a path of sectarianism. To put it another way, we risk framing the legitimate desire to recruit and build class struggle as one of CDSA versus the left-wing ecosystem.
We need an approach that identifies sites of struggle, identifies which individuals and/or organizations are actively engaged in those sites of struggle. We should look to connect with them and learn from them, while also promoting our socialist politics, and building struggles shoulder-to-shoulder with them. In the process, recruiting from the very organizations we are struggling alongside connecting with wider communities together. In cultivating the left-wing ecosystem, we expand the field of struggle and develop relationships that can help navigate fluctuating periods of growth and contraction.
To be clear, this can be extremely difficult. Anyone involved in labor organizing will tell you that the conservatism of labor officials is often a major obstacle, for example. But just as it would be sectarian to try to leave the unions and form our own “socialist” unions, we should remember that wherever the masses are organically organizing is where we need to be, instead of putting ourselves in competition with them. There are no shortcuts to organic building.
The time to develop alternate theories of change is now. I’ve attempted to begin sketching out some ideas and hope to write more on this. But the task will go beyond any one individual or even one organization. The question we’re all facing is, which side are you on: uncritically accepting “growth for the sake of growth” as our theory of change, or working together to identify a new approach to match the changing circumstances we are organizing under? I think we need to pay attention to the shifting winds and respond accordingly.
Special thanks to Geoff Guy for their insights and contributions.