Op Ed: Reorganization is Necessary for Sac DSA
By certain measures, DSA Sacramento isn’t on the right path. Despite swells of new members, membership renewal is minimal. Committee participation is at a constant ebb and flow. White men are increasingly overrepresented. Despite being severely underrepresented, people of color and women are doing a disproportionate amount of supportive and/or auxiliary work. Little serious business is conducted at our general membership meetings. At our worst, programmatic decisions are made by a disproportionately small number of people.
From my interpretation of Sac DSA’s structure, the primary way to have significant political influence in the organization is to be on a committee. Projects, events, political priorities, resource distribution, literature- almost every form of material product generated by DSA Sac- is driven by committees.
However, once a committee is ratified by the General Membership, there are no mechanisms to review committee work ever again. Most committees do not track their membership, and no committee quorum has ever been determined. Committees have struggled to regularly publicize their meetings, agendas, or meeting notes. When they do, it’s a courtesy since it’s not currently required by bylaws. Historically, committee participation has been highly irregular and concentrated among a small group of regular attendees. This means that much of DSA Sac’s material production is influenced by a small number of voices and perspectives, and remains unaccountable to any broad political strategy determined by the general membership.
In addition, our committees have become balkanized. Committees rarely coordinate with each other on programming. When they do, there’s confusion and conflict around which body holds decision-making power and executive responsibilities. There’s enormous risk of conflicting, duplicate, or suboptimal work due to this lack of coordination. Some committees hold their own stores of money separate from the main DSA Sac treasury. On paper, the Executive Board has the authority to take a bird’s eye view of committee business and provide suggestions. But the Executive Board has no means to enforce them, and the Board has struggled to provide effective committee direction.
As a result of this committee structure, the General Membership has been largely disempowered. Our General Membership meetings have become increasingly meaningless, with very little business being conducted at them since most chapter business is referred to committees. DSA Sacramento members, therefore, have no real reason to learn chapter bylaws, or learn parliamentary procedure since they’re never given a chance to use it anyway. This perpetuates members’ confusion as to the functioning of their own chapter and sets the ground for a gradual disengagement and divestment from chapter business overall.
At present, there isn’t much way to participate in Sac DSA if you can’t regularly attend committee meetings. What does this mean for our member recruitment and representation, especially considering that our committees are not held to any kind of operational standards? Our member mobilizing is primarily reliant on an organizational structure with no obligation to respond to the desires of the general membership.
To be clear, at the time that the bylaws were written, it was assumed that committees would develop their own procedures for internal democracy and transparent reportage to the General Membership. Contributors to the bylaws assumed that committees would come up with internal timelines for elections, voting quorums, and member mobilization strategies. It was expected that committee members would regularly report to their assigned Organizer and request support when needed. However, this simply hasn’t turned out to be the case, and the general membership should come together to find out why.
It’s my feeling that the general membership of DSA Sacramento needs to step back and answer the following questions:
How should committees relate to the general membership?
What influence should the general membership have on chapter politics?
What role should the E-Board have with regard to committees?
What form of decision making strikes a balance between chapter democracy and pluralistic representation?
Who has a voice in chapter politics now?
But most importantly, members should answer these questions not simply in a factual way but in an evaluative way that’s dually grounded by our political values and our capacity for volunteering. Transparency, coordination, democratic decision making, and power-building don’t happen naturally. DSA Sacramento needs thoughtful, intentional reorganization and collective priority setting.
Some members may be concerned that rule by the General Membership is potentially threatening to our organization. They’re not convinced that the general membership will be able to set the terms of our organizing in an ideologically-sound way. There’s also concern that direct democratic procedures could become overly cumbersome and demobilizing. I understand the fear, and the concern that too much influence from an unmanaged, leaderless body could be detrimental.
As challenging as it is, we have to figure out a balanced organizational structure and not resign ourselves to the dictates of a small in-group. Our lack of structure has at times led to crises, with Executive Board members suggesting emergency trusteeship to address committee problems. Sac DSA leaders have deferred to backchannel political discussions in the absence of the general membership OR committee members. As an organization that holds radical democracy at its heart, we must resolve to develop procedures that sensibly delegate authority while still ensuring transparent operations, accessibility of information, accountability, and democratic priority setting. If we can fix our procedures now, we can maintain a level of representation that keeps members interested and motivated to volunteer, attracts new members from a variety of backgrounds, and gives current members a greater sense of ownership in their chapter.
Despite our best intentions, we haven’t yet created the organization we want. We are unable to maintain an invested membership, and we still do not represent the community we serve. The work we conduct is not delegated equitably. Our material output is not informed by any coherent strategy for power. Most regrettably, we have no regular forum for political debate or discussion at which we can address these issues.
Every meeting we hold is an opportunity to correct our course, and I urge Sac DSA members to evaluate our current structure and find the motivation to change our organization for the better.