Report Back from WSCO’s Annual Meeting and Reflections on Community Organizing and Direct Democracy
West Side Community Organization (WSCO), the neighborhood organization of St. Paul’s West Side and the Planning Council for St. Paul’s 3rd planning district, is unique among district councils in St. Paul. WSCO actually represents and organizes its community. At the annual meeting on November 14th, 2022 the author saw over 200 West Siders come together at the Harriet Island Pavilion to face history and envision a brighter future. As socialists, we can learn from WSCO and get a strong model for multiracial working class organizing at a neighborhood level.
The annual meeting showed how a grounded organization working on systems change can begin to change the narrative for a whole neighborhood and even a whole city. “St. Paul DSA-ers” (members of Democratic Socialists of America) may be familiar with WSCO as a coalition partner in the Keep St. Paul Home campaign and fight for rent control in St. Paul. They also can be a model for us to learn from when pushing our own neighborhood organizations towards a more just future. For WSCO, this starts with highlighting and acknowledging the unjust history that created today’s conditions.
The theme of the WSCO annual meeting was “Stories of Our Past, Visions of Our Future” and featured a large photo gallery and exhibit (accessible online) of residents of the old West Side Flats and their stories. The residents of the multicultural flats had their community destroyed in the early 1960s when the city declared it a slum and a flood risk and bulldozed the entire neighborhood. Shortly after displacing a vibrant community, the City of St. Paul, St. Paul Port Authority, and Army Corps of Engineers built a levee to protect the area from floods (now free of pesky residents) and allow for industrial development. Industrial uses dominate the flats today.
Through this theme, WSCO and West Siders set a tone of righting wrongs and seriously acknowledging the experiences of displaced residents. The powerful stories of former West Side Flats residents were juxtaposed with a speech by Mayor Melvin Carter, who encouraged the new awareness of our city’s dark past while touting pilot programs like the city’s basic income pilot and reparations exploratory commission. Carter agreed that a new mode of city building was needed – one that worked for all of us. By collecting and leveraging true stories of gentrification and displacement, WSCO showed that the right narratives and stories can shift the conversation for our whole metro area.
The highlight of the Annual Meeting came when keynote speaker, Minneapolis artist and activist Ricardo Levins Morales gave a powerful speech reflecting on the connections between the colonial history of the area and the displacement of native Dakota people, his family’s experience of colonial displacement in Puerto Rico, and the displacement of the West Side Flats. Levins Morales tied it all back to gentrification today, and explained his “Sun Space, Moon Space” organizing theory. The concept, in brief, is that institutions like courts, city council, and union negotiations where we see decisions made are moon spaces, reflecting external light and power like the moon. Real power shines in from monied classes, shareholders, boardrooms, and landlords–but we can create our own sun spaces and generate our own power by organizing and bringing people together.
After the keynote, staff and volunteers unveiled the new West Side Tenants Union, a culmination of exceptional organizing and an organization pulling in solidarity. Tenant and housing justice organizers Joshua Toor and Mayra Avila have already made big wins with the organized Stryker’s Unidos, a collective of renters facing down unfair and illegal housing practices. Now they’re leading the west side towards a true tenant’s union to wield power by and for renters. Organized Renters is a bold and needed step in a city that just threw out rent control. First the west side, tomorrow the whole Twin Cities, the author hopes.
This dream of direct democracy, an organized working class, and our institutions truly reflecting the power and values of our whole community, is where WSCO and Levins Morales inspired the author as a socialist. Imperialism, capitalism, patriarchy, and colonialism all rely on hierarchy and desperation. If we are to challenge the power structure with a broad working class base, we must encourage direct democracy, a culture of self-governance, and provide for people’s basic needs so we all have the energy and capacity to govern. The WSCO annual meeting gave the impression that as hard as it is, we really can create Sun Spaces to challenge the power of corporations and the anti-democratic nature of metro politics.
Not to be forgotten, the WSCO staff and board made sure we were well fed and full-hearted and ready to envision and fight for a better future. WSCO’s annual meeting was catered by local eateries like Burrito Mercado who provided plenty of the food the west side is best known for. Entertainers performing Mexican indigenous dance and a mariachi trio providing music made attendees proud of their roots or of the diversity of their neighborhood.
So how is WSCO so far ahead of most of the other District Councils? While other district councils and St. Paul neighborhood organizations struggle to move past the historic model of engaging only the white, owner class, WSCO prides itself on deeply connecting with west siders of color and the large West Side Latinx population. Furthermore, and critically, in a city of more than 50% renters, WSCO is the only district council with a well-staffed renter organizing and housing justice wing. Most district councils have only one full time staff member–WSCO has two full time organizers for renter justice alone, and another for economic justice and shared ownership.
The District Council System was created in the 70s when red-lining, racial covenants, and “urban renewal” projects had devastated communities of color and helped create the massive racial wealth gap the Twin Cities has today. This means the system has a distinct history of entrenching white supremacy, a history that must be challenged today by residents, board, and staff as we attempt to turn every level of governance towards a better future.
DSA-ers across St. Paul have joined and become active in their neighborhood organizations (which in St. Paul is often synonymous with city-contracted district councils) to advance racial equity, direct democracy and power for renters and workers at the most local level of politics. However, when we do we often run into barriers. City funding formulas give district councils enough money to stay afloat with one staff person, but require lengthy grant reimbursement processes and critically fail to fund food for community events or stipends for community member participation.
WSCO funds renter leader stipends (and most of its organizing) through extensive grant funding. With the City not willing to pony up, finding funds for effective community engagement is a major barrier for other district councils seeking to engage lower-wealth St. Paulites. Furthermore, district councils that rely primarily on city contract funding don’t offer healthcare, which effectively prevents low income neighborhood residents from becoming staff members. District Councils staff are likely to be white homeowners with professional spouses or partners because generational wealth is virtually a prerequisite for such a low paying career in community engagement.
But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Renter organizing programs are currently active at Frogtown Neighborhood Association, Union Park District Council, and the Greater East Side Community Council (GESCC). Renter organizing programs are nascent and in development at the Hamline-Midway Coalition, North End Neighborhood Association, and Southeast Community Organization. Does your district council have programs to engage lower-income or lower-wealth neighbors? Does it have a board that represents your neighborhood? The author encourages every DSAer to learn from WSCO, and any other cutting edge local organizing that you find going on near you, and take it to your neighborhood organizations, your district councils, and your local electeds. With a few exceptions (like DSA endorsed councilmembers Nelsie Yang and Mitra Jalali), City Council and city government don’t represent us. Yet. It’s time that changed.
by David Ackos, DSA Member, West Side resident, and community organizer at GESCC