Here's What Happens at a Local DSA Chapter Meeting, or: Despite National Stereotypes, Cleveland's Democratic Socialists are Organized and Mobilized

Here's What Happens at a Local DSA Chapter Meeting, or: Despite National Stereotypes, Cleveland's Democratic Socialists are Organized and Mobilized
Cleveland DSA logo, via Twitter

It’s 6:30 on a Thursday evening and I’m wandering through a library in Cleveland Heights, following the young man with the rose pin on his shirt. I know that if I follow him — follow the rose — I’ll likely end up in the right place. Sure enough, he’s not only attending the same meeting I am, he’s the meeting chair. Tonight, he has volunteered to ensure that the agenda items are covered in a timely fashion. Other volunteers cover other roles — some have chosen to take on a position while others have been nominated and elected by their peers. Two people kindly greet me at a welcoming table laden with snacks. They ask if I wouldn’t mind filling out a name tag, and I note that their name tags include not only their first names but their preferred pronouns. This isn't a requirement — some people have pronouns on their name tags and others do not — but it strikes me as kind and thoughtful gesture. I ask them if it’s alright if I record the meeting. “We’ll have to ask and get back to you.”

National stories about the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have been dominated by a narrative that portrays the group as a misguided, simplistic, or even as a laughable conglomeration of misfits. Headlines and in-depth coverage of members across the country intentionally juxtaposes a seemingly radical ideology with the average life of a young person, DSA’s largest growing demographic. However, the Cleveland chapter of the national organization is engaging in grassroots social equity work that outpaces even some of the established progressive agencies in town.

When charter school teachers in Parma went on strike, Cleveland DSA members brought refreshments for the labor union, joined them on the picket line and raised funds for the effort. In response to the Cuyahoga County jail failures, the organization worked with other local groups to build a bail bond fund. Even more recently, the group joined a coalition of individuals and organizations to collect signatures for petition effort to force a lead-safe ordinance, ultimately playing an important role in the collection of more than ten thousand signatures.

It’s the dissonance between the national headlines and the local work that brings me to the Cleveland Heights library. I want to witness a meeting, but not to report on the odd professions or social ambition of the members. Instead, to get a feel for the environment, the procedures and the ways the members interact with each other.

Cleveland’s DSA chapter meets monthly, in accordance with their by-laws (yes, individual chapters have by-laws; they need them in order to become an official chapter of the national organization). Without their own building, DSA members often gather in public spaces across the county. This month the meeting is at the Lee Road Library in Cleveland Heights. There are about 35 people in the room, with young, white males representing the largest single demographic. The room is set up in a Socratic way, with three tables at the head where leading members are seated, a semi-circle of chairs connecting the tables and two additional layers of chairs facing the table. Almost every seat is filled.

Before they are ready to begin, the chair tells the room that a reporter is here. I wave and instantly sense more interest and curiosity than distrust. The chair tells the room that I wish to record the meeting. Ah, so this is what the volunteers meant when they told me they had to ask. However, rather than make the decision himself, the chair requests that they take a vote on whether everyone feels comfortable. Before they vote, a few members ask clarifying questions about what might be on or off the record. Another member notes that she feels slightly uncomfortable and wants to be sure that anyone else who may feel this was has the space to say this openly. Again, the environment in the room remains kind and warm. The motion to allow me to record the meeting is made, seconded and passes almost unanimously.

The meeting is run in accordance with Robert’s Rules of Order. Items are discussed in an orderly fashion, motions are made, seconded and voted on via hand-raising. The agenda itself includes an outline of how the meeting is run and how discussions work. The chair explains these practices to the attendees, in case anyone in the audience isn’t yet a member or isn’t familiar with the practices.

The largest single portion of the meeting is a discussion about DSA and electoral politics, led by the chair of the education committee. For the first few minutes, attendees fill out a questionnaire asking for their opinions about democratic socialism and their views about Bernie Sanders and other politicians that have aligned with DSA. I look around. No one is on their phone. They’re engaged in conversation with the people around them. They’re leaning in, listening to each other and ensuring that no single person dominates the discussion. When this portion ends, the group collectively discusses the ideas, with some facilitation by the co-chair of the subcommittee. There does not seem to be a consensus about the role of electoral politics in, what members believe to be, a broader social movement effort. Several members believe that it institutionalizes and legitimizes the movement while others appear concerned that politicians will do harm to the movement by politicizing a social organization.

There is an excitement in the room when subcommittee reports begin. I know, instantly, what the first announcement will be and I’m excited for them as well, regardless of my affiliation. The report-outs begin with an announcement from the subcommittee dedicated to advocating for a ballot measure to tackle lead-poisoning in the city of Cleveland. The member announces their recent submission of over 10,000 signatures for the ballot initiative, many of which were collected by DSA members. Several of the people who collected signatures are in the room. Everyone claps and snaps for these members, cheering for their accomplishment. The subcommittee member takes a moment to clarify why organizing around legislative efforts is so important for their work.

“We talk about electoral politics a lot and it can be damaging for your movement if you mobilize around a politician…” they say. “But this is a law that once it passes, it’s just the law now…there is a fundamental difference, I think, between that and a politician who you hope will support you.”

After the subcommittee reports and a few other agenda items, the attendees turn their attention to the 2019 National DSA Convention. Only a few delegates will be attending, to be determined via vote, but a regional convention is also coming up, and a member who will be attending that meeting asks whether the chapter can get a sense of members’ opinions on a number of topics. Among these is the Bernie Sanders campaign.

The member notes, “We’re not a party so Bernie is not a democratic socialist no matter what he says.” But they agree that there should be space for a more nuanced view of the issue beyond an up-down vote and asks that any discussion be open-ended. The group agrees that an open-ended survey would be helpful. A motion to send out a survey and have a discussion on the topic is made. It is seconded, voted on and approved.

Additional agenda items include announcements about a concert to raise money for the bail fund and an organizing event. There is also a discussion about privacy and security. Members have experienced harassment at events and the chapter wants to ensure the safety of its members. I feel uniquely uncomfortable at this moment. Even as an “outsider,” I was met with kindness and trust when I walked in the room. Its disconcerting to hear that someone received threatening phone calls after putting their phone number down when they reserved a space for a previous meeting.

The meeting moves on. A member notes that the group typically goes to a bar after the meeting and proposes that tonight they go to a local bar that is currently hosting a fundraiser for Pre-Term Access. Following a few more announcements, the meeting is officially adjourned with members joking that this meeting was only three minutes over the allotted time.

After the meeting, the member who asked about what might be on or off the record comes over to clarify that they did not mean to come off as pointed or rude. Rather, they wanted to be sure that everyone understood that their words, their opinions, might become public. It’s no problem, I tell them. It didn’t feel it rude in the slightest and I appreciated the clarifying questions and the attempt to ensure that the room felt completely comfortable with my presence. The member invites me to join them at the bar, a regular post-meeting activity, but I tell them I have to get back home. Other members are similarly warm and inviting. No one asks me about joining DSA or being involved with the organization in any significant fashion. They recognize my role in the room and appear comfortable enough with their work that they do not need to attempt to “sell” the organization to someone who is only there to capture a single meeting.

There’s a social aptitude apparent in this gesture and a calmness that might not be captured in national stories on the radical intensity of DSA. Indeed, there was no pushing in any direction at this meeting, even among the members themselves. The format was highly structured, even down to the adherence to the time slots on the agenda, and yet entirely non-hierarchical. Those seated at the head tables lead the meeting because it was their turn to do so. Some will likely be audience members at the next meeting.

Several agenda items were tabled because the room seemed to feel that they needed to collectively discuss the issue further. The written responses to the questions posed by the education subcommittee were collected by the co-chair to better inform future discussions. There was no visible hostility at the meeting. Members remained attentive and engaged. Most didn’t even glance at their phones for the first hour and a half. Some of the agenda items were fascinating and engaging and others were procedural in nature.

In short, it was exactly what an organized, agenda-driven meeting of like-minded individuals would be expected to look like. Whether DSA is an organization worthy of supporting on a substantive level, I’m not here to say, but I can assure you that its meetings are structured and engaging and its members, despite the national headlines and the local safety concerns, are warm and kind.
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