Membership to the Democratic Socialists of America has exploded over the past four years, as volunteers and supporters of Bernie Sanders sought to continue the organizing work begun on his 2016 campaign. The Metro DC DSA is no exception. The group is the largest it’s been in its history, with active campaigns to Stomp Out Slumlords, Defund the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), and win a progressive Council. The Forge talked with two DSA organizers about the group’s electoral campaigning, the challenges of organizing during COVID, and their vision for a more just DC. This interview has been edited and condensed. 


What brought you into organizing work and to the DSA?

SK: I joined DSA in the wake of the 2016 election. The Bernie candidacy in 2016 exposed me to the concept of democratic socialism, and the goals of achieving a democracy and an economy for the many, and not the extremely wealthy few.

WG: I also joined DSA in the wake of 2016. I was pretty disappointed when Bernie didn't win, but I wanted to channel my energy into a project to help win policy goals for the left. Bernie was always saying, "I'm a democratic socialist," and the first Google search, when you look up, "What is a democratic socialist," is "Join DSA." 


What are the big campaigns you're working on right now?

SK:Right now we have a working group set up for the DC Council 2020 elections. The goal of that working group is to support our chapter’s endorsed candidates for the DC Council elections: Ed Lazere and Janeese Lewis George.


What does a DSA endorsement mean? 

WG: We have a very rigorous process for endorsement. The big thing is, we don't do paper endorsements. When the Metro D.C. DSA chapter endorses a candidate, we go all-in with resources. That could be volunteer power, that could be money. If you get a national endorsement, that could be a big email list to reach volunteers or financial supporters. 


What’s your relationship like with the campaign?

SK: We have some parallel structures that go alongside the campaign. When we first started out, we were just turning out volunteers and learning the ropes about what it means to campaign for democratic socialists. As we've developed, we have, as a chapter, become much better at working in parallel to the campaign rather than just taking direction from the campaign. So we will go to public campaign canvass launches or things like that, but then we might have an issue-specific script for DSA volunteers.

WG: We had our own phone banking program to aid [the Janeese Lewis George] campaign. For the most part, at least in the later part of the primary, it wasn't us sending volunteers to their campaign to volunteer. We had our own phone bank trainers, we had our own phone banking events, we had our own DSA structure in parallel with their campaign. What that lets us do is control the messaging from DSA volunteers. 


A lot has happened over the last six months, between Bernie's loss then COVID-19 and the uprising for Black lives. How have you experienced the spring and summer as organizers? How has your strategic thinking changed over the course of the spring and into the summer.

SK: It was difficult to pivot from in-person organizing and in-person campaigning to being exclusively remote. And DSA, especially our chapter, we like to knock doors. We like to talk to voters, we like to do in-person events. Switching over to phone banking and to online social events associated with our DSA chapter’s electoral working group was tough. 

WG: We made the switch to 100 percent phone banking. We set out a goal of calling 5,000 voters for the Janeese campaign. And we met that. We made 5,000 calls in five weeks, and Janeese ended up winning. We made more calls than any other organization, volunteer, or campaign staff. But we had to pivot real hard really quickly, and we had to build a phone banking structure out of scratch. 

SK: What was interesting is that we're still seeing the sort of progression of DSA members, or even non-members, who start volunteering with DSA on electoral campaigns. But then, as we enter a new campaign, or in this case a new phase of the campaign, there are folks who have stepped up and volunteered for leadership roles. And that's something we see a lot in our electoral campaign, is this pipeline that starts with new members, or previously inactive members, or non-members, who then knock doors a couple weekends or do a couple of phone banking shifts and then gradually get more and more involved, to the point that they're taking on defined leadership roles, like for internal organizing. That pipeline has continued despite COVID, which is really encouraging. I was worried that the pandemic would stifle that level of chapter development, but it did not.


How've you been thinking about community-building work in the organization during the pandemic? 

SK: A lot of members of the chapter have joined these planning calls and said, "Yeah, we want to do things that build solidarity and that enable people to come together." To continue that camaraderie that you feel during a campaign. That has been difficult, but I think that just through online communications, and social media in particular, you can still retain that level of camaraderie. It's not the same as walking to and from canvassing turf with someone or hanging out at a park to debrief for an hour or two after a canvas.

WG: We haven't figured out the solution to it. With our DSA canvases, people really like this sense of community. It's a nice, tight-knit circle of people. And usually, after canvases, we get lunch at the end of a morning shift or go to a bar or restaurant for happy hour following an afternoon shift; that's when we really get to know each other. We've attempted to do all online happy hours, where we meet up in a Zoom fashion and just video chat. With the Janeese campaign we tried doing online games with our fellow DSA members during these video chats, to get something going. But it's really tough because when you don't have that in-person contact, it's hard to build community. But we've tried. I guess it’s a work in progress. 

SK: We do have a chapter Slack platform, and there are some email groups, and there's always Twitter and Facebook, which help, but, like Walker said, I don't think we fully recaptured the magic of in-person campaigning. 

Returning to your question about how we’ve navigated the uprisings against police brutality, there's certainly that aspect of camaraderie and coming together for those sorts of protest actions. Those were in person actions. We were all wearing masks, we were all social distancing to the best of our efforts. But I think with the Janeese Lewis George campaign, we were already navigating those questions prior to George Floyd's murder. Because an outside group called Democrats for Education Reform, was already sending out mailers referencing Janeese's answers on our questionnaire about police demilitarization. Some people were confused after the uprising started, because the mailers kept going out even after the uprising started. So yeah, some people --

WG: “So Janeese wants to defund the police? That's my candidate."

SK: Right. So we were navigating that prior to the protests really starting up in earnest, and I think the protests and the increased scrutiny on the role of policing showed folks that [Janeese was] on the right side of demilitarizing and divesting from police. As a chapter we sort of coalesced around [the uprisings] as well. It spurred a lot of new organizing from our DSA chapter in DC around the police budget and the role of policing in our communities. This has connected a lot of the electoral work in our chapter with more issue-based advocacy around policing. Because it's really shown folks how they are complementing campaigns. It’s got to be a two-pronged approach, where you're electing better Councilmembers, and you're electing Councilmembers who align with your values. But at the same time, you need the on-the-ground actions and protests and visibility to ensure that the Councilmembers continue to make divestment and defunding of the police a priority. I think that really helped merge those two approaches.


What's next for you? 

SK: Developing campaigns that have objectives, and that we can work toward through a variety of strategies and a diversity of tactics. One of those tactics is endorsing candidates, DSA candidates, who identify as democratic socialists, who are DSA members, to the DC Council and other elected bodies in the region. It goes back to what I was talking about in terms of linking and integrating campaigns for specific goals. We've learned over the budget fight, and as our chapter became more involved in the defund police campaign, that we needed legislative advocacy strategy, regardless of whether that's volunteer or in partnership with other organizations that have more experience with that. We need that kind of program to really see the changes that we want legislatively in DC.On top of that, there's always going to be on-the-ground organizing, and there always should be. So I laud the work that Stomp Out Slumlords is doing in organizing tenants because organized tenants, that's democracy in action. That's exactly what we want to see as a chapter, throughout not just DC, but the region in general.

WG: A big part of our DSA project here is to become an equal partner with these campaigns when it comes to not only winning elections, but winning policy goals. Because that's the whole point. A big part of having this robust electoral program in DSA is, if a candidate doesn't follow through on a promise, or turns out to not be the candidate we thought they were, that's a power that we can hold over them or withhold in future elections. So we called a lot of people, we knocked a lot of doors, we tend to be more effective than a lot of other local organizations in these races. Our goal is holding the candidates that we elect accountable to do what they say they are going to do. And using that to build more power, and winning more elections, and getting more candidates to fight for the things we want. And ousting elected officials who don't do what we want. 



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