Five Take-Aways from August NPC Meeting
On October 9 and 10, 2021, the new National Political Committee (NPC) came together for their first meeting since they were elected during the Convention. On the agenda was the setting of initial priorities, assignments for the NPC Steering Committee and major national formations, internal NPC accountability, and plans of work. As in every NPC meeting, they also took reports from staff.
The meetings were open to DSA members to view, but with more than ten hours of deliberation, it’s likely that few made it all the way through. Here are five big take-aways we think are important.
On day one, the NPC took a look at the resolutions passed during the convention. There was general consensus that the Convention body bit off more than the NPC can chew. The question of how many priorities can be supported at one time was raised a few times during the meeting—there was consensus that current national infrastructure cannot reasonably handle more than one external-facing national priority at a time (the figure three internal and three external in total was also cited on day two). Internal priorities were also considered, with the consensus being that only a few of these could be undertaken at any given time.
The NPC discussed the requirements for a priority—does a priority campaign require a corpus of chapters to be already engaging in the work, or is it up to the National Organization to bring chapters in? There was agreement that the NPC needs to better monitor and assess chapter engagement in campaigns and to help them build their capacity to take on more work. An interesting question came up on the role of the NPC with regards to priorities and strategy. Sydney stressed the difference between issues and strategy, which will be up to the NPC and campaign leaders to fill in. There was discussion on whether there should be a mass of chapters already engaged in a campaign before it should be lifted to the status of “priority” (and, conversely if a campaign loses chapters, should it be de-designated as a priority?), and how that engagement would be tracked. This discussion was simply a forum for the NPC to begin fleshing out questions for the November NPC meeting, where priorities will be finalized and voted on.
The set of criteria used to determine preliminary priorities were:
Capacity. Skills, knowledge and NPC time.
Resources. Do we have staff time and money to do it?
Chapter buy in. Will chapters be able to engage and move people into the work?
Infrastructure. Do we already have a Working Group? Relevant tech tools?
Political Will. Are there already leaders who can bottom line or does this need to be built up?
Political relevance. Is this what we should be working on, considering the political terrain and strategic opportunities?
Building DSA. Will it build our membership and advance the socialist movement?
NPC members filled out a spreadsheet during a 30 minute break, checking a box for each of the seven criteria for each of the resolutions passed at the National Convention. The resolutions which the NPC collectively rated as the highest priorities under the standards they developed were:
Resolution 31. Making DSA a Multiracial and Anti-Racist Organization
Resolution 12. 2021 Ecosocialist Green New Deal Priority
Resolution 8. Toward a Mass Party in the United States (Electoral Priority)
Resolution 5. Building Worker Power to Win Democratic Socialism: A Labor Strategy for DSA in 2021-2023
NPC Recommendation 2. Growing Staff Proposal
NPC Recommendation 3. Adopt Standardized Guidelines for National Committees and Working Groups
The NPC agreed to approach these six items as preliminary priorities, meaning they will be prioritized for the development of work plans regarding their implementation, though any final decisions on the priority status of these or any other resolutions will be made at an in-person NPC meeting in November.
While there was broad agreement regarding these resolutions there was also plenty of discussion regarding other resolutions. One point of discussion was that the criteria over emphasized capacity and infrastructure rather than political relevance and the growth of DSA. Chapter survey data was also discussed, in particular the fact that a high number of chapters are engaged in housing justice and tenant organizing, but the national infrastructure to coordinate and support this chapter level work was lacking—leading Resolution 21 to be scored lower than perhaps it would have under different criteria.
The initial priorities will be weighted towards work that are “easier lifts'' in terms of chapters and formations already being engaged in the work and the national organization having structures to support them. But, there was some pushback to this approach. As Kara argued, the priorities set at convention reflect the priorities of our current members (majority white male), but not necessarily the membership we want to build, and urged a focus on issues that affect our BIPOC comrades—Kristian would make a similar point later. José gave an impassioned appeal to the NPC to take on the role of political leaders within both DSA and the wider socialist movement, as opposed to our federal electeds, and to take on the hard work of transforming the structure and culture of the organization to be rooted in the multi-racial working class. It is up to the NPC to make the hard strategic choices and do the work to get buy-in from the chapters.
Additionally, reparations and abolition work was cited as highly popular areas of work that bring in new members of color, but may not have the chapter-level institutional knowledge or national structures to quickly ramp up priority work. The abolition resolution in particular was discussed as something that could possibly be combined with the Multiracial Organizing priority. It was underlined at the end of this section that these initial priorities are only a starting point, to be finalized and fleshed out during the NPC November in-person retreat.
On day two, Committee and Working Group assignments were made, and the NPC Steering Committee was selected.
First, the Steering Committee Election. The Steering Committee is a five member body, elected from the NPC itself, which enacts much of the day to day of the NPC’s responsibilities. According to Art. VI, Sec. 3 of the DSA Constitution, it is “responsible for decision-making between meetings of the NPC and for the supervision of all offices and staff of the organization,” as well as, “planning meetings and agendas for the NPC and for coordinating the work of the committees of the NPC.” The Steering Committee has a massive amount of responsibility, and is tasked with most of the day to day decisions of the NPC and National Organization. And, to note, under Resolution 29 passed during the 2021 Convention, the Steering Committee is now eligible for a $2,000 per month stipend to compensate them for this week.
The candidates were Kristian, Matt, Gustavo, Jen, Justin, and Sydney. Kara and Gilman initially volunteered for consideration, but withdrew their candidacy before the vote. The election took place over a fifteen minute break in the meeting. There was a tie for last place between Justin and Sydney—who ultimately stepped down as a candidate to give way to Justin. The results for the NPC Steering Committee are:
The Steering Committee will decide who will take the roles of Chair and Secretary-Treasurer among themselves.
Additionally, NPC members were assigned committees. Previously, NPC members ranked their choices for committees, though only priority chairs were disclosed during this meeting.
GND Campaign Commission - Gustavo & Ashik (co-chairs)
DSLC - Laura & Jose (co-chairs)
National Electoral Committee - Sabrina (chair)
Multi-Racial Organizing - Tabled until their retreat so they can discuss the structure of this new body
There was a good amount of discussion around NPC Recommendation #3, and how to define the role of liaisons versus chairs. Historically, non-priority Working Groups have been assigned NPC liaisons instead of chairs. There was consensus that liaisons should have a sliding scale of involvement, as needed, so that the NPC can stay involved with work around the organization and provide input when required.
More Accountability for Working Groups
A recurring theme throughout the meeting was the need to have stronger structures within our formations. It was widely agreed that many national Working Groups are too small and unstructured to easily mobilize members into their work. There was a concern that certain national working groups do not have bylaws or set goals. Formations without bylaws will be required to submit them, and the NPC will be focusing on helping to build structures so that members can more easily be routed into National Campaigns. They also cited a need for clear campaign plans from the national formations, including timelines and resources to reach out to members, and build membership.
Working groups without bylaws will, in the short term, be asked to submit them, as well as documents regarding goals and strategies. Additionally, an accountability plan for Working Groups was discussed including: providing staff access to Working Group social media accounts, ensuring that WG meetings are publicly announced, requiring post-mortems on completed campaigns, and requiring written documentation on internal processes and rules. There was a shared agreement that Working Groups need explicit goals for DSA recruitment and provide clear pathways for chapters and members to plug into national work. Kara, Kristian and Ashik suggested that funding and other resources, including member lists or the ability to send all member emails, could be withheld from Working Groups who do not comply with accountability requirements.
José expressed concern that this level of accountability might be asking too much of our members, and it was agreed that these are milestone goals, not something that can happen across all Working Groups immediately. They will solidify and work towards these goals in future meetings, and meet with Working Group leaders to get their input.
Additionally, Sydney stressed that the NPC needs to take a more active role in guiding campaigns on overarching strategy and how it fits into the overall direction/goals of DSA. Several NPC members stressed that they need to have a stronger hand and be more active in Working Groups to help them succeed. José noted that the DSLC may need structural changes in order for it to be a mechanism for changing the composition of DSA membership.
An Intentional Approach to Financial Resources
Jen provided an update on DSA national finances. DSA is required to keep six months of operating expenses on hand at all given times, which is $2.6 million as of the meeting. DSA has $1.7 million in cash above that requirement, which is anticipated to be spent this year.
It was noncontroversial that the amount of money and staff time requested in the passed resolutions was beyond the current capacity of the organization. There was consensus that they need to come to an agreement on their current financial capacity and focus on building out a greater fundraising apparatus. Austin raised concern that DSA currently has a “culture to monopolize resources within the organization” and that it is critical to have greater open discussions and training around finances. Gilman pushed back on the proposition that we are as limited as has been discussed, arguing that if our Working Groups were larger and better structured, staff would be freed up to do more with our current resources.
The NPC discussed two financial-related requests that might be indicative of what may be to come. First, Laura presented a proposal for a timeline and plan to bring in a DSLC staffer, which was not done in the previous term, as required by Resolution at the 2019 Convention. It was agreed that the NPC was committed to not letting this fall to the wayside, but that this would have to be part of a greater hiring plan under the Personnel Committee. Gustavo cited concern with how low our ratio of organizing staff is, compared to similarly situated organizations (⅓ of staff), but also cited trepidation about bringing a staffer into a “dysfunctional” DSLC, where they might be doomed to fail.
It was concluded that the new Personnel Committee would meet with the DSLC to figure out next steps on implementing the previous Committee’s staffing recommendations, which included both an electoral and labor staffer.
YDSA also presented a proposal for the new Editor in Chief of The Activist (the YDSA publication) to receive a $4,000 per year stipend to compensate them for their work. The NPC was mixed in their response. Several members expressed concern with paying the Activist EIC a stipend while other editors within DSA are not similarly compensated. While Gilman pushed for the stipend to be approved, Jenbo, Jen, and Kristian expressed a need for YDSA to submit an annual budget to the NPC for approval, of which the stipend can be a part of.
A motion to approve the stipend failed with Gilman, Laura, Matt, Aaron, Sofia, Cyn and Sarandon voting in favor. The rest voted in opposition. A second motion for the YDSA NCC to submit a budget to the NPC passed. The NPC will also be voting via Loomio on YDSA’s proposal to have either an in-person conference or several regional in-person conferences later this winter.
Much of the NPC meeting was substantive and positive, with the body coming together to develop clear criteria for what to prioritize and how to direct their efforts. However the reports the NPC received from events taking place on the ground within DSA chapters themselves painted a far less rosy picture.
Staff reported back on their areas of work near the close of the second day. They all touched on observing high levels of burnout among chapters. Glenn, the Organizing Director, described a level of burnout and fatigue, according to him, unlike anything he’d seen in his eighteen months in DSA. There is both a lack of direction and excitement among leaders, with leaders reporting that they sometimes have to “remind each other why they’re there.” Staff have had great difficulty in identifying chapter leaders that are able to take on a greater degree of national or regional work at all, stating that once they are identified they quickly get overtaken by work in their chapters. There is also a higher degree of strife and conflict in locals, and staff have had a lot of difficulty in working toward diversifying the leadership in chapters, asking the NPC for greater guidance on this.
Chris, the Communications Director, echoed this. Staff have had great difficulty keeping any volunteers within committees such as Comms, to the point where it is now almost exclusively staff driven. This volunteer shortage is being felt most keenly by smaller and medium size chapters. Whereas large chapters have the resources to be more or less self-sufficient, smaller locals which don’t have that infrastructure are finding more and more of their members burning out while National has less and less capacity to support them.
Membership growth is also in a marked decline. Fewer members are joining, and many of the members who joined during the DSA100K fall recruitment drive one year ago are now expiring. It will be seen how many of the members picked up during DSA 100K choose to renew their memberships. While DSA has made some progress in terms of developing recruitment efforts that are active rather than passive, many chapters still struggle to both engage these new members once they join and to retain them as their dues begin to expire.
There did not appear to be a clear consensus among the NPC on how to counter this trend. Jenbo and José both said that the NPC needed to be more assertive in setting the tone for the organization’s values and goals, rather than letting it be driven by public figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Kristian argued that more training was needed to overcome the diversity problem with more intentional recruitment and leadership development. Kara pointed to the organization's campaigns being out of step with the realities members are living in, citing National calling on members to phonebank for Green New Deal while their homes were without power due to Hurricane Ida. Sofia called for more internal political discussion on current events on the NPC, such as around the Infrastructure Bill.
Members received a public reminder this week of the challenges regarding diversity and internal conflict in locals with the release of a letter from two women of color and co-founders of Defund Atlanta Police Department, Refund Communities (DARC) which outline a host of grievances against the leadership of Atlanta DSA which ultimately caused them to leave the project entirely. Incidents like this suggest that the issue of identifying leaders, especially leaders of color, within DSA is larger than simply recruitment being poorly targeted.
How, and to what degree, National is willing to directly intervene to resolve these sorts of conflicts going forward is unknown. Historically within DSA, National has left chapters more or less to their own devices and only taken action when they are explicitly compelled to do so such as in the case of grievances. Discussion of Resolution 28 and the grievance process took place during a closed session, so we do not yet know what direction implementation of new Grievance processes will take. But if issues of chapter burnout and internal conflict are becoming more widespread, and if some locals are actively repelling communities of color while the National is attempting to invigorate those efforts, inaction may have long term costs that DSA may not be able to afford.
The contraction DSA is currently experiencing is in many respects both predictable and normal. Left organizations do not simply continue to grow exponentially at a steady rate; there are always periods of growth and contraction, which can be influenced by complicated factors. But while periods such as this are inevitable, whether or not that organization will emerge from such a period intact is not.
Ultimately the NPC will have to choose the path forward. Should they attempt to re-align the campaign priorities of the organization overall to better reflect the goals and living conditions of the members and leaders they hope to attract and engage, even if that means they have to go about building that infrastructure first? Or should they focus more on campaigns which already have the infrastructure in place to make the greatest impact, even if that means they might be replicating the same problems longer term? And while saying “we can do both” is an attractive option, with staff time already stretched, an uncertain financial forecast, and an active membership layer that is quickly burning out, the “let’s try everything” approach that has served DSA well in the past may no longer be an option.
There wasn’t a clear consensus around these questions, but there did appear to be agreement that the NPC needs to be a political leadership, and not simply an administrative one, and that DSA should seek to articulate it’s vision in its own voice, rather than letting it be decided for it. What that voice will say about the way forward, however, still remains to be seen.
The next NPC meeting will be in November and will be an in person retreat. If you are a DSA member and want to register to observe the NPC meetings and review the notes once they are published, you can find these links at discussion.dsausa.org. You will have to be a member in good standing in order to access these sites.
We encourage people to reach out if they have topics they want us to cover. We require primary sources and documentation in order to write on a topic. You can reach us through our contact form or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Suggestions and ideas for how the organization should operate should be directed towards the National Political Committee at email@example.com.
If you enjoyed this article, and want to support more reporting on socialist self-organization and strategy, please consider subscribing and supporting us on Patreon.
* Previously this article stated that the Atlanta Steering Committee was “majority white”. We have since confirmed that this is incorrect and removed that descriptor.