Every two years delegates meet for the DSA National Convention, our highest decision-making body. Most of the program is naturally dedicated to strategic discussion and voting on all manner of proposals. Inevitably, attempts are made to also use this large gathering for other sorts of programming, such as training in organizing — but there is just not enough time in one weekend for everything, and two years pass before a large organization-wide gathering comes again.
Fortunately, the DSA Constitution & Bylaws provide for another regularly scheduled gathering, to fill the gaps left by a jam-packed convention. The National Activist Conference (NAC) is meant to be held every other year between our biennial conventions and provide a much needed space for DSA members to come together and share information and lessons while developing our national infrastructure and interconnected chapter work as organizers. Unfortunately, it has been a very long time since DSA actually held an Activist Conference, with many considering the bylaws a dead letter.
I have authored a resolution supported by DSA’s Bread & Roses caucus, to be debated at the 2023 convention, that would bring back the NAC in 2024, and over 300 DSA members from chapters across the country co-sponsored it. While it may have been acceptable 10 years ago for a smaller DSA not to hold an activist conference, the transformed mass organization that DSA is today desperately needs this venue for the health and further development of our movement and its organizers. An NAC could serve several crucial functions that DSA is missing right now:
- Relieve pressure on convention. A lot of programming gets crammed into convention weekend that really is out of place. Workshops on organizing and skills-sharing sessions are good, but we should not sacrifice time for debating the bevy of proposals that come before delegates every two years. That not only undercuts our debate but also limits the quality of non-debate events; many necessary elements of member development simply do not happen.
- Consolidate small, already existing events. DSA did organize an event in early 2023 which could be seen as a forerunner for a revived NAC: the “Socialism is the Future” conference held in Chicago in April. Unfortunately, this was limited to two relatively siloed tracks (electoral and labor organizing) and happened just a few months before our convention. Many attendees appreciated the programming they got, but a more planned-out event would have been better. Currently there are smaller gatherings of working groups and committees at other points between conventions. The NAC could help consolidate those and reduce cost overruns. Holding them in the same place and time will help organizers who are involved or interested in more than one area of work to dedicate some time to the gatherings of each.
- Intentional member and leader development. We have few in-person venues for the development of DSA members into better organizers and leaders in our movement. What does exist largely happens at the chapter level. An activist conference could allow for the type of in-depth, focused learning necessary to “level up” a person and their chapter’s organizing.
- A venue for political discussion. We largely lack ways for rank-and-file DSA members to engage in serious political discussions about the political terrain we are trying to organize upon, nor do we have a way to hold serious political debates about internal DSA matters between conventions. Instead, we end up having messy public-facing arguments on Twitter. Because the Activist Conference will not hold contentious votes as at the convention, the tone will be more educational and likely less confrontational, which should elicit more productive discussion. The NAC resolution also provides a mechanism by which our elected political leaders (the National Political Committee) would conduct and lead serious political discussion at the NAC.
- Connective tissue between chapters and national bodies. The active membership of DSA’s national committees and working groups largely functions as an informal “middle layer” of members between the NPC and national staff on the one hand and chapter-level activists on the other. However, the realities of geography and the lack of online DSA spaces to bind people together in shared struggle mean that we barely know each other. This allows concerns about other chapters or “national” to fester because it is easier to develop negative feelings about comrades who are names listed on Twitter than about people you’ve met in person and shared a few meals with.
There is clearly a need for this type of activist conference in DSA, which is why the Socialism is the Future conference was able to materialize as a decent success on very short notice. This resolution would build off that momentum and mandate the NPC to use constitutionally designated structures to ensure we have an even bigger and better event in 2024. We can make sure DSA holds a convention or a conference each year and can build on developments in the world without too much time having passed.
There are legitimate concerns about the costs of various proposals for the 2023 Convention. The NAC resolution cost estimate of $158,000 would be a hefty price tag for an organization worried about finances. The benefits to DSA, though, would help us overcome financial difficulties by growing our membership. Further, the resolution includes a fundraising campaign to offset many of the costs. Some of the costs (such as staff time) would be minimized by using already existing staff capacity for large event planning and by consulting with an NPC-appointed conference committee.
Reducing the need for several smaller events may also help offset this expenditure. In-person meetings of leaders or activists from official DSA campaigns and committees already happen from time to time and it would make sense to schedule them during or around a NAC. There is also flexibility in the resolution for the NPC to adjust the size and conditions of the conference to ensure that it best meets the organization’s needs within the financial constraints at the time of planning. A NAC would also require less need for limiting the costs paid by individual members. At convention we have to worry about a democracy deficit if cost keeps some people from participating. The NAC would still have an extensive scholarship program for lower-income members, but more financially comfortable attendees could afford to share more of the costs, to reduce the burden on DSA.
The time has come to rejuvenate our bylaws’ say in the matter and bring back the NAC from our past. The benefits to DSA far outweigh the cost, and I urge a yes vote to “Renew the National Activist Conference.”