By Roxanne Palmer
I visited the NYC-DSA Media Working Group one slushy winter night, and left feeling a little bit jealous. The room was crowded with more than 50 socialists, which is easily more than five times the regular attendance of the monthly meetings in Central Florida DSA in Gainesville, FL.
When it comes to organizing, we have some conditions in Gainesville that are actually pretty favorable: the nexus of our chapter is a fairly dense liberal college town, and our public officials have even been known to talk about the influence of capital in county meetings. Hell, we even got rid of our Confederate soldier statue two whole years ago.
But even in Gainesville, organizing is difficult. There is no reliable public transit for long distances, let alone within the municipal area. Our union organizing network is much weaker than that in urban centers, and we have a state government that can exercise preemption to torpedo local legislative wins.
That said, I don’t think there is any substantial difference in the enthusiasm or thoughtfulness of comrades in cities or small towns; I think both our smallness and the smallness of many other chapters is a consequence of material conditions, and that a bold measure like Pass the Hat will give a very much needed hand up to all of us.
The experience of organizing a small chapter is difficult. Burnout and precarity are familiar problems for most active organizers, but when one person leaves in NYC-DSA, the organization can absorb the hit. If I quit, my chapter will probably die. I’ve seen it happen to other dedicated organizers in rural and suburban areas across the country: burnout happens or resources dwindle, and their fledgling efforts die quiet, unnoticed deaths.
It’s not that $100 a month will fix everything, but it would relieve many things that hamper us, for which we have a limited number of pockets to draw from and time to coordinate. Pass the Hat could pay for our gas to drive to nearby counties to table, run a brake light clinic, or canvass. It could pay for secure meeting spaces for chapters that have been threatened by right-wingers. It could even help us incorporate, which we have not done because the filing fees would empty our coffee can of cash, and seriously threaten our Meeting Pizza supply.
I know our comrades in Socialist Majority have another proposal for supporting us,
and while I think doubling the dues share and the other remedies outlined will certainly give some boost to chapters like mine, I don’t think it’s quite enough to make a meaningful difference. We have fewer members to pay dues, and our membership tends to be poorer and less able to contribute than might be expected.
Down here, it does not feel like the National DSA playbook is working. A couple more trainings, another campaign in a box, another brief visit from an overworked national organizer every year aren’t helping. We need to rewrite our strategy entirely, based on the successes and the failures (particularly the failures). We have already seen too many small chapters wither, and business as usual, even if it’s adjusted slightly in our favor, just won’t do.
Our NYC comrades have been extraordinarily generous to us in the past (sending thousands of dollars to the Florida chapters for hurricane relief, for example), but I’d prefer a more organized and reliable source of funds. We fundraise a lot in small chapters and will get better at it as we go, but it’s just plain harder to raise a decent amount of money, whether through GoFundMe, t-shirt sales and parties when you’ve got a baker’s dozen or fewer in membership, working with less to start.
None of this is to imply that I think my comrades organizing in the big cities have it easier than we do. Far from it. In many ways, I think your struggle is harder: you’ve started threatening the powers that be, and made the right kinds of enemies. But in smaller chapters, we’re still working on finding our feet. I hope that when Pass the Hat is adopted at our convention this August, we can find steady ground, and stand and fight alongside you..
Roxanne Palmer is on the steering committee of Central Florida DSA and a member of Build DSA. You can reach out to her about Pass the Hat, small chapters, or birdwatching at email@example.com.