Reflections of Cannon Valley DSA

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Part two, with part one published in our December 16, 2022 newsletter.

From the failure of our first attempt at getting Cannon Valley DSA off the ground, I concluded that, to be successful, we would need more support from members of Cooperation Northfield (now renamed Red Pine). In the summer of 2021, when the chapter stopped meeting, Red Pine was in a state of transition. The frontline direct action phase of the fight against Line 3 was nearing an end, and many Northfield Against Line 3 (NAL3) members were planning on moving to Northfield in the fall for a yearlong Movement School Red Pine was hosting.

Because of the new influx of members and the imminent end of our main multiyear organizing project, Red Pine planned a series of retreats for the fall and winter to discuss our situation and what was next for our collective. I saw this as a perfect opportunity to make a pitch for the importance of DSA and making building a strong local chapter a priority for Red Pine, as well as to get a group of new members with spare capacity who were eager for a new project to work on involved in the chapter. With this horizon in mind, I began putting energy into the chapter again as fall approached by planning with other chapter members who I knew from outside the context of DSA.

In the lead up to the retreats, we sought to get started on reactivating the chapter through hosting events to which we could invite people who had previously been involved, as well as Red Pine members and potential new members. We recognized that we did not have enough capacity to take on organizing projects and needed to focus on increasing our capacity through outreach and recruitment first.

I started by hosting a report back on the national convention to illustrate the importance of DSA in setting a nationwide socialist strategy, which was attended by a few Red Pine members. After the summer hiatus, we were also able to get general meetings started back up again, although we switched to meeting monthly instead of every other week. At the first of these new meetings, in August, I put forward a proposal to establish two committees. These were an Outreach & Recruitment Committee (ORC) tasked with reaching out to chapter members about how to get involved, planning public events, recruiting and onboarding new members, and building relations with other local organizations, and a Cross-Chapter Coordination Committee (CCCC) tasked with keeping in touch with national DSA bodies and staff, communicating to the chapter about national priority campaigns and updates, and maintaining connections with other DSA chapters.

My primary motivation for this proposal was that because our Steering Committee did not actively meet, I either had to perform the key functions of the chapter myself or they did not happen. I hoped to establish volunteer committees to share the most important tasks.

The CCCC never came together, and I remained the only chapter member in regular communication with the rest of DSA. However, we eventually succeeded in establishing the ORC, which initially consisted of four members and met every week that we did not have a general meeting. Because the members of the ORC all lived on the same street in Northfield, we were able to meet in person. In order to be able to pay for expenses related to hosting events, such as snacks, the Steering Committee appointed one of the members of the ORC, Cate, to the position of treasurer. Zaki stepped down as honorary treasurer to facilitate this. We then signed up to get the portion of dues from our members that were allocated to our chapter by national.

In the ORC, one of our top priorities was to begin hosting in-person events outdoors, taking advantage of the fall weather, in order to allow chapter members and new members to meet face to face and build stronger connections. Our first event was an internally focused social in the backyard of Acorn, which was the first time most members who attended meetings met in person.

After that, we decided to host a public event focused on outreach in the same location, titling it “How Northfield Workers Fired Their Boss” and telling the story of the labor organizing campaign Cate had been involved in. It had included significant wins such as getting the widely hated general manager to quit, although it had been unable to get to the point of winning a union. The event was of mixed success. No chapter members outside of the ORC attended, nor did any of Cate’s coworkers whom we invited, but a group of NAL3 members who had recently moved to Northfield came, and someone from a nearby town called in over zoom and later began regularly attending chapter meetings and events.

Our next opportunity for an event came when the new regional field organizer for Minnesota came to visit the chapters here in October. We arranged for her to give a training on Building a Mass Working Class Organization, in order to discuss the goals and strategy of DSA and why it is important to be part of a strong national organization. We had good turnout both from members of the chapter and members of Red Pine. After this event, Isaac, a Red Pine member who had been involved in NAL3, joined the chapter and the ORC. We continued hosting events throughout the winter, such as an intro to socialism presentation and mobilizing to the 2022 Minneapolis Teachers Strike picket lines. The ORC also took on the work of planning regular chapter meetings and doing listwork and outreach to them.

Although the ORC succeeded in reactivating the chapter, we still needed significantly more capacity if we wanted to take on anything more than hosting occasional events. The long term viability of the chapter remained in question. I had hoped that the Red Pine retreats would provide clarity, as I would make a pitch for more Red Pine members to support us in building the chapter. If it went well, we would get the influx of capacity we needed to take on projects and continue growing. If no one was interested, we could definitively conclude that the chapter was not viable. Unfortunately, we received no such clear answers. 

We had initially planned for one of the Red Pine retreats to include space for members to bring project proposals, at which I intended to present about Cannon Valley DSA. However, we ended up changing the format so that instead of presenting pre-written proposals, members would get into breakout groups to brainstorm potential projects. With groups forming to talk about projects like local labor organizing and tenant organizing, it simply did not make sense to ask people to join a separate breakout group to talk about DSA. I instead joined the tenant organizing breakout group, as did most of the other Red Pine members involved in the chapter, and we considered ways that we could tie our chapter in with the potential tenant organizing project.

Many of the NAL3 members who had moved to Northfield for Red Pine’s Movement School, including Isaac, were renting a house owned by one of Northfield’s biggest landlords, a former professor at St. Olaf. He also turned out to be a significant donor to a local anti-abortion Crisis Pregnancy Center. The members had already had conversations with some of their neighbors about issues they had with the landlord, and it seemed like there was significant potential to form a tenant union. 

This felt like an ideal project for our chapter to get involved in to start base building locally, especially since we could connect with national bodies like the Housing Justice Commission and other chapters engaging in tenant organizing for resources and advice. Housing, and especially lack of affordable housing, is also an important political issue in Northfield. It is a major focus of other local progressive groups like Isaiah, a statewide faith-based nonprofit, and Neighbors United/Vecinos Unidos, a Northfield-based Latino advocacy group. Tenant organizing seemed like a great opportunity to build connections with those groups and position ourselves as a relevant political player. 

There was a lot of excitement about it at the Red Pine retreat. Ten Red Pine members, three of whom were also DSA members in the ORC, ended up regularly meeting and putting together the organizing efforts. We built a map of properties owned by the landlord, prepared to start canvassing, and arranged a meeting with some members of Central Connecticut DSA who had been doing tenant organizing to hear how they did it and seek out advice. Shortly after we started working on this project, however, the landlord, who was very old, died. This actually ended up providing a significant opportunity for us. We were able to focus our canvassing conversations on the uncertainty of what would happen to the properties after his death, and the necessity of getting organized to prepare whatever came next. Ultimately, though, the campaign ended up fizzling out.

 Although many tenants were receptive to our canvassing, we proved unable to move them into action. The main action steps we put forward were creating a Northfield Tenants United Facebook group to stay in touch, and inviting people to a meeting at the public library. We planned for our members who spoke Spanish to lead this meeting to provide translation. When no one showed up to the meeting despite significant outreach effort through door-knocking and follow up texts, organizers grew demoralized. We had a step back meeting to talk about how to move forward. So few of us showed up that it was clear that there was no energy to continue. 

Most of the organizers, including everyone who was a tenant of the landlord we were organizing against, had no intention of living in Northfield long-term. When the realization hit that it would not be a quick campaign, they felt reluctant to commit more energy to it. Two of the organizers had taken on positions supporting a hotel contract campaign in Rochester that took up much of their energy, while another had already resolved their main issue with the landlord. Given these circumstances, we decided to end the project.

Although the issue was rendered moot by the short lifespan of the tenant organizing campaign, Cannon Valley DSA’s relationship to the campaign was murky throughout its existence. Three active members of our chapter were involved, but all of us were also members of Red Pine, as were all the other organizers. We reported on it at DSA meetings, but never actively tried to get other chapter members involved, as the number of non-tenant organizers was already too high, and we never voted on making it a chapter priority. Although it was primarily a Red Pine project, I made efforts to try to make it more of a joint project through bringing in connections with DSA tenant organizers and sharing about it at chapter meetings.

A proposal for our 2022 annual meeting in February about our goals for and relationship to tenant organizing was scrapped as the project had fallen apart by the time of the meeting. Our relationship to the tenant organizing campaign demonstrated a core weakness of our chapter: all of our most active members with organizing experience and capacity to take on organizing projects were also in Red Pine, and with the exception of myself considered Red Pine their primary political home. Rather than starting DSA projects or getting involved in projects as DSA members, we took on Red Pine projects, and were involved as Red Pine members.

Going into our 2022 annual meeting, we sought ways to solve this predicament and find a useful niche for our chapter to fill within the Northfield left. In our meetings that winter leading up to the annual meeting, we brainstormed goals for the upcoming year and the long term trajectory of our chapter, fleshing them out to be detailed and measurable, and asked members to bring proposals based on these goals to vote on at the annual meeting.

Members of the ORC took the lead on writing these proposals. We also ran together as the ORC Slate in the uncontested Steering Committee elections, since we had already been acting as the de facto leadership of the chapter due to the inactivity of the Steering Committee elected in 2021. I was re-elected as co-chair along with Isaac, Helen was elected as secretary, Cate as treasurer, and Sebastian, the only member of the ORC who was not in Red Pine, as social media coordinator. We sought to continue hosting regular events to recruit new members and engage existing members. Isaac wrote a proposal on systematizing onboarding and recruitment that set clear benchmarks on hosting two public events per month with different target audiences, and timelines for what level of recruitment we should expect to result. In addition, I presented two proposals for potential solutions to our dependence on Red Pine, reasoning that recruitment through outreach events alone was not enough to solve this.

One of these proposals, titled “Beyond Northfield: Southeast Minnesota and the Socialist Movement”, addressed our lack of success with organizing in Northfield by setting a goal of merging into a larger Southeast Minnesota DSA chapter. This would allow us to usefully contribute to the socialist movement by supporting organizing in Rochester, the largest city in southern Minnesota, even if we remained unable to run campaigns of our own in Northfield.

Through ongoing efforts to create a statewide Minnesota DSA, leaders from chapters across the state had recently formed a statewide New Chapter Organizing Working Group. As the largest city in the state without a DSA chapter and a key hub of the healthcare industry, Rochester was a top strategic priority. We had a few interested contacts there, but what made this seem like an especially promising opportunity, was that a group of Red Pine members, including Isaac, were organizing hotel workers in Rochester as part of a contract campaign for union hotels that had recently merged into UNITE HERE Local 17. Building community support for the workers seemed like an excellent way to build the foundations for a local chapter.

We passed the proposal, with the understanding that we would revisit the part about actually merging into the Rochester chapter once that chapter existed, but our ability to enact it proved limited. The hotel contract campaign ended up having far fewer public actions than we anticipated other than one public march on May Day, limiting our ability to mobilize people and build connections, and pre-existing efforts to start a Rochester chapter stalled. We had been hoping for support from a robust statewide New Chapter Organizing Working Group, but this group also grew inactive as efforts to form a statewide Minnesota DSA stalled. I am not sure if it would have significantly helped our chapter to merge into a Southeast Minnesota DSA even if we had been successful in starting one. Such a chapter could have easily faced some of the same problems we did.

The other proposal that I wrote with the aim of finding a niche independent of Red Pine I gave the straightforward title, “Three Socialist City Council Candidates by 2024.” I hoped that this proposal would allow us to take on a local project that we could lead on, instead of just tailing Red Pine projects as we had done with the tenant organizing campaign. Electoral work seemed like an ideal choice for such a project. Red Pine had never paid much attention to electoral politics. The main ideological and strategic leader of Red Pine saw it as something we could maybe take on in the distant future once we had established a local people’s assembly of organized workers and youth.

Still, most members were not dogmatic abstentionists and could potentially be engaged on electoral campaigns if we put in the work to bottom-line them. Our main tasks would be research on important political issues in the city and what powers the city council held, potentially through volunteering on local boards and commissions, in order to come up with a platform candidates could run on, and then candidate recruitment, either internally or through sympathetic connections. We chose the 2024 city council elections as our goal since this would give us time to prepare, and because three potential target seats were up for election in 2024. Ward 3, where Acorn was located and many of us lived, had a progressive incumbent who did not seem likely to seek re-election, but whom we had inroads to potentially build a relationship with if he did. An at-large seat was held by the most conservative member of the Northfield city council. If we were ambitious, the office of mayor would also be up for re-election.

Although we passed this proposal, there was not enough buy-in to implement it. The proposal laid out a first step of establishing an electoral working group to take on the work of research, power-mapping, and candidate recruitment. I took on the task of leading this working group, and sought to launch it by hosting a meeting on socialist electoral strategy in Northfield to lay out context, start initial brainstorming, and pitch the working group. Our outreach focused on DSA members, Red Pine members, and students from the local colleges. In the lead up to the meeting, Isaac and I arranged for one of the leaders of the St. Olaf Democrats, who was involved in Red Pine, to give a presentation to their group about socialism and DSA and invite them to the electoral strategy meeting. Although our presentation was well received, and despite our other outreach efforts, only Isaac, our St. Olaf Dems contact, and I ended up attending our event. From this, we soon realized that the project was untenable, as there was not enough interest in it, and we would need to build more connections and continue growing our chapter if we wanted to be able to take it on.

Students seemed like the most promising base to grow our chapter. Carleton already had a YDSA chapter, and we knew most of its leaders through Red Pine, although they were not active in Cannon Valley DSA. Meanwhile, after our presentation to the St. Olaf Democrats, our contact started having conversations with us about potentially turning that group into a YDSA chapter. Her main goal for it was to radicalize liberal students, and the rest of the leadership was also sympathetic to socialism.

None of our conversations ended up amounting to anything, however. By the time students came back after summer break the possibility of a YDSA chapter at either school was off the table. The St. Olaf Democrats decided to rebrand to St. Olaf Leftists instead of YDSA, apparently in order to appease some communist members. In practice they still acted as college Democrats, campaigning for neoliberals like Governor Tim Walz and Representative Angie Craig. Carleton YDSA, meanwhile, decided not to continue the next school year. They had not been an officially recognized chapter since the last founding member graduated in 2021, and had mostly acted as a small study group, with members more focused on other campus organizations they ran such as Divest Carleton, focused on divesting from fossil fuels, and Sunrise Carleton. Nor was there an incentive for student activists to get involved in DSA outside of college, as student radicals regularly attended Red Pine meetings, which were far larger and more effective for connecting with other organizers in town.

Unable to take on any of the projects we had approved at our annual meeting, hosting events continued to be the main activity of our chapter. We connected with a member who lived in the Twin Cities but worked as union staff in our area to host a labor organizing training series, which many Red Pine members involved in local labor campaigns attended. We also hosted an outdoor showing of You Got to Move, a documentary about the Highlander Folk School. Most of these events went smoothly and were well attended, but none brought new members into the chapter.

In fact, no member outside the newly elected Steering Committee attended a meeting after our annual meeting, and soon chapter meetings became just another Steering Committee meeting focused on event planning. The issue we faced was that almost everyone who attended our events was in Red Pine. They had little reason to get involved in another organization that seemed to just consist of a few other Red Pine members hosting events that they could attend anyway.

That summer, Isaac and I started talking with other Red Pine members about hosting a political education series that our chapter could participate in planning, and I wrote an article in Red Pine’s new internal newsletter about the importance of DSA for the contemporary left with the goal of convincing more Red Pine members to get involved for strategic reasons. However, these ideas did not amount to anything. Many political education events and strategic conversations were already happening through Red Pine’s second summer Movement School, which I was not a participant in. Later on, we did try to expand our audience for our events, partnering with a local queer youth group for a showing of Pride and with a group called Northfielders for Justice in Palestine for a showing of Naila and the Uprising, but by this point it was too late. We had largely given up on the chapter.

By the end of summer 2022, a critical mass of the Steering Committee, the only remaining active members of the chapter, was ready to move on from our futile efforts to keep the chapter going. Isaac had been clear since he agreed to run for co-chair that he would be moving to the Twin Cities and leaving the chapter starting in the fall, and we had been unable to find anyone else prepared to step into the co-chair position. With new opportunities for strategic labor organizing rapidly emerging in the Twin Cities that did not exist in Northfield, and many other Red Pine members moving, soon Cate and I decided to move too. Helen and Sebastian were not interested in trying to continue the chapter on their own.

The reality was that Cannon Valley DSA had accomplished very little in its two years of existence and did not seem to be in a position to do more anytime soon, so as socialists dedicated to winning working class power, we decided it made more sense for us to refocus our efforts on the labor upsurge that formed the cutting edge of the class struggle. The Twin Cities also already had an active DSA chapter we could plug into that had an active labor branch. Discussing this as a Steering Committee, we agreed that this was the end of our chapter, and agreed to pursue a merger into Twin Cities DSA to avoid having to fully dissolve and so we could keep in contact with Cannon Valley DSA members and connect them to work happening in the Cities.

-Revmira B

COMING NEXT MONTH: Cannon Valley DSA Part 3