Reflections on Cannon Valley DSA




Part three. See Dec. 16, 2022 LRL for part 1, Jan. 13, 2023 LRL for part 2

Regardless of whether we merge into the Twin Cities chapter, dissolve, or continue on as an inactive ghost chapter, this experiment in building a Cannon Valley DSA chapter has failed. I started the chapter with two primary goals, building an explicitly socialist, democratic, public facing and open organization in Northfield, and getting my comrades in Red Pine involved in the most important nationwide socialist organization in the country. We accomplished neither. 

Although much of the trajectory of our chapter and the roadblocks we faced came from our unique circumstances and especially the context of our relationship with Red Pine, the story of a small chapter struggling to get off the ground and eventually falling to inactivity as its leaders burnout and move on is extremely common in DSA. We are one of three chapters in Minnesota alone that started in 2020, gained official chapter status in 2021, and were seriously struggling with inactivity and lack of capacity by 2022. Across the country, chapters outside of major metropolitan areas are struggling, and if we want to reverse this trend, we need to look at the stories of these chapters, identify patterns of what worked and what failed, what was due to particular context and what is generalizable, and develop new hypotheses on how small chapters can succeed.

Lessons on Chapter Building

My efforts were based on a particular hypothesis about how to build a DSA chapter: an “If we build it, they will come” approach. I wagered that if I put together the basic structure of the chapter and did some initial outreach, members would fill that structure, and we would have enough of a foundation to continue steady growth through our organizing work. I came to this hypothesis through witnessing the meteoric growth of DSA across the country and the progressive energy of the Trump era and the Bernie campaigns, but took on most of the work of starting the chapter after those conditions had already passed.

We founded Cannon Valley DSA just as DSA nationally had fallen from its period of rapid growth under the Trump presidency into a period of stagnation under Biden and the pandemic, and just as Red Pine was overcoming its own period of stagnation, which had motivated me to found a different group to begin with, and entering a period of rapid growth I call the Post-Line 3 Membership Bump. Whether because the conditions were wrong or because the hypothesis was flawed to begin with, we ended up facing an issue often termed the Donut Hole Problem. We ended up with a fair number of somewhat active members in the periphery of our chapter, but without a strong enough core to support them. We never managed to overcome this problem. 

The main overarching lesson from this experience is that chapters need a strong core leadership team in order to succeed. Simply filling Steering Committee positions is not enough. Chapters need cadres dedicated to running them with the experience, initiative, and political buy-in to develop a coherent vision and concrete steps to achieve it, troubleshoot issues that arise, and identify and fill gaps that appear in the functioning of the chapter. At least three such leaders is likely the minimum for an effective chapter, so it does not immediately collapse if one is unexpectedly unable to continue the work.

Since Amelia was not going to be in Northfield for very long and I would initially be the only Cannon Valley DSA cadre, it was premature to start the chapter when I did. While a better organizer who was more experienced, charismatic, well connected, and better at follow up might have been able to accomplish more in my place, overreliance on a single individual still runs a high risk of the chapter collapsing due to burnout, or developing an anti-democratic culture, regardless of the organizer’s intentions.

Of course, pulling together a team of three dedicated cadres is not an easy task, especially in rural and small town chapters. I mainly tried to build such a team through convincing the pre-existing Red Pine cadre of the usefulness of DSA, since they were the only active leftist organizers in the area I knew about. I had little success. Developing new and inexperienced activists into socialist cadres, while crucial to our long term success, takes a long time, and is especially difficult for a small chapter that does not have much capacity to start with.

Struggle is often the best teacher, but requires the ability to plug new activists into struggles in the first place. For individuals wanting to start chapters who lack a cadre of comrades to support them, mobilizing to support struggles elsewhere may be more effective than trying to start a local chapter from the ground up.

This is how YPAC, the predecessor to Cooperation Northfield and Red Pine, got started in the first place. YPAC leaders mobilized their fellow high school students to actions and events predominantly in the Twin Cities. In addition to gaining experience through attending these actions and events, conversations and debriefs in the car on the way there and back can be an important part of building political analysis and a theory of change. It was certainly a significant part in my own radicalization process.

Mobilizing to support more established DSA chapters could also build connections with those chapters and a mentorship relationship to support at-large members when they are ready to build a chapter of their own. 

All this is just speculation based on my own experiences. Each chapter is situated in a unique context and has a unique story, and a thorough strategy for helping small chapters succeed would require looking at many more of these stories, especially those of chapters that were actually successful. I feel confident, however, that an effective approach towards cadre development and building up a strong core leadership team is key. If we are to consolidate the gains DSA made during our period of growth and prevent our organization from contracting until it is only present in a few select cities, identifying a systematic approach to cadre development outside of areas where large chapters are already present will be crucial. 

By Revmira B.