2021 National Convention

Grievance Committee Roundtable

NYC-DSA Grievance Committee members, Martha, Yuri, Madi, and Alexandra discuss our relationship to conflict and conflict’s relationship to the state as they share lessons learned and discuss the future of DSA grievance committees at a national level.

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We support the 2021 National Convention Resolution #28: Building Transformative Justice through a National Committee of Grievance Officers because we see healthy conflict resolution as a marker of an organization’s well-being and longevity. We believe DSA members need tools to deal with conflict, harassment, and other interpersonal issues outside of the investigatory grievance process. Our comrades are likely already using creative solutions to address these issues but we need a space for information sharing and skill-building. Additionally, as we work toward the horizon of abolishing the police we need these skills to be able to resolve issues on our own in our communities and this resolution is an important step towards this crucial work. 

Martha: Let’s talk about what brought us all to the Grievance Committee in NYC-DSA and led to us facilitating mediations. I’ll start as the most senior grievance officer here—I’ve been doing it, I guess, for more than two years. I joined the organization in 2017 and there was just so much going on, so I got involved with a few different committees and helped start the Anti-War Working Group. Eventually, I heard about the Grievance Committee starting, and I thought, this is something I feel like I have some skills for and also seems sorely needed. Since then, I have investigated several grievances and facilitated multiple conversations among comrades. 

Yuri: I think I’ve been on the Grievance Committee for a little less time than Martha has been. I became a grievance officer the way a lot of people in the DSA get their jobs: someone else just told me to do it. Like, previously, I’d sort of felt almost guilty about how much I’d been getting out of the DSA without putting enough back into it. So, when a friend of mine told me that the chapter’s Grievance Committee needed people, I showed up to volunteer. And, actually, the first thing that I did as a prospective Grievance Committee member was take a day-long training on mediation. So I started out doing mediations before I investigated any grievances. At this point, I’ve gone through one big grievance, looked into other grievances which may eventually become mediations, and am doing continuing mediation work over Zoom.

Madi: I joined the Grievance Committee two summers ago, so almost two years. Martha, that means that you’ve definitely been doing it longer than two years. I started studying to become a teacher and two things kind of happened at once. I needed to assess how I could contribute to the organization in a sustainable and predictable way, while I was in grad school and doing a career change. So after attending the mediation training that the grievance officers put on at the time, I thought the Grievance Committee would be a good way to do that. And then I also was thinking about, you know, what we’d want to adjust within our [NYC public]school system. So senior teachers that I was talking to spoke pretty highly of restorative justice implementation and the public school system. Of course, that is, not considering how unevenly and inadequately applied these programs are depending on where you go. So I thought that it would really help me learn skills that I hope to bring to the classroom. So that’s why I joined. 

Alexandra: I am, I think considerably the more junior grievance officer here, although not the newest grievance officer in New York City now, which is wonderful. I came to the grievance team after spending a couple of years in local leadership on our Socialist Feminist Working Group’s, organizing committee. And in particular, I came to grievance work with a background in organizing against sexual violence, both within DSA and then before that in a college campus context. So one of the things that I did while I was in the Socialist Feminist Working Group was organize a study series on transformative justice with a specific focus on transformative justice for addressing sexual violence and domestic violence. And so I came into the Grievance Committee with that as a major motivator for me about the kind of work that I’m interested in, and a real abiding faith based on my own personal experience that transformative conversations are possible.

So one of the things that I was wondering about is how did the grievance team in New York city start doing mediation work anyway?

Martha: There’s a couple of different things that led us to getting trained in mediations, and one of them was that we were a new Grievance Committee. The initial Grievance Committee was maybe six or eight of us and we had this grievance policy passed at an NYC-DSA convention to address harassment and interpersonal harm and then we just started getting requests from members to help with all different kinds of issues. And pretty quickly, things were coming up that did not necessarily relate to the grievance policy but we recognized as real issues and real harm being caused. So then we thought, okay, how do we get the tools to address these situations? Everything is so unique and it may not necessarily benefit from, or really relate to the grievance policy.

So we always work in pairs, whether we are working on a grievance or a mediation. I can’t imagine trying to do this work alone, to be honest. For grievances, we investigate it by talking to both or multiple parties involved. And we conduct interviews, sometimes many, as we try to understand the situation. Then we write up a report to the steering committee with some recommendations about what to do, and then steering committee will make the final decision, often related to or the same thing that we recommended. 

As we started investigating some of the grievances, we saw that the grievance policy definitely has its place, particularly when there’s serious harm that has been done, but we also learned that there’s just a lot of limitations to that process. We realized that it can actually cause further harm in many situations. 

Yuri: Yeah, that was also my experience. Like I think that the Grievance Committee had decided to diversify and start learning mediation skills just as I joined. So right away I was learning from a social worker who did restorative justice stuff in New York schools. We learned from her how to, like, talk to one party, talk to the other party, prepare them to talk to each other, sit down in a little round table summit, make sure people talk in turn—you know, just generally work, over one or multiple sessions, to resolve some kind of conflict. At least to the point that people are comfortable talking to each other, working with each other, being on the same project.

And I could see that it was really useful. The first actual thing I did as a grievance officer was a mediation which went really well, exactly along the lines you’d want. The second thing was a very long grievance investigation that I worked on with Martha. It actually really felt like doing detective work, which is probably not a good thing when you’re in a socialist organization. But it was, you know, questioning people, piecing together facts and building a theory of the case by doing interview after interview. And maybe it had to be done, but I think even having had mediation training—knowing that the mediation was one of the tools in our toolbox—really helped inform how we talked to people, how we interpreted conflicting stories, what kind of solutions we were willing to suggest. Just having training in restorative justice helped us carry on grievances, which are difficult and potentially harmful in and of themselves, in a non carceral way.

Madi: Yeah. And I’ll just say that I had some successful and unsuccessful mediations. And I can’t really say the same about grievances. And I think that the most successful elements of a grievance that I’ve worked on did lean on the tools that we’ve honed doing mediation, like accountability groups. And then our recommendations kind of end up being things that we might have tackled in a mediation itself. But the process just becomes so much more drawn out due to the strict formality of the grievance procedure, which does, you know, have its place. 

But something that I just wanted to advocate for is the idea that we have, in NYC-DSA, really, really honed these skills and emphasized them throughout the chapter. And that’s something that I hope to see proliferate and the rest of the organization, such that, you can respond appropriately when people come to you with a conflict and that instead of letting conflict fester until it rises to the level of, okay, this is a really serious grievance, you can address it proactively through creative solutions that you have in your toolbox. I think that this is essential for any grievance officer to receive this training and practice these skills.

Alexandra: One thing that I want to pick up on here, that I’ve observed in my admittedly shorter time as a grievance officer is the specific way in which grievances, can cause certain kinds of conflict, even as they attempt to solve them, which is that during a grievance, people often are not talking to each other either because they’ve been asked not to talk to each other,, to try to ratchet down tensions, or because there is this hope that if you turn something over to grievance officers, an objective party will make a decision. And so you get people talking about each other, to grievance officers and maybe to their friends and allies, but they’re not talking to each other. And when people are talking about each other, but not to each other, you’re going to see people getting more and more fixed in their mindset about what other people are thinking, what other people’s motivations are that are often not true, right?

If you’re a grievance officer and you’re speaking to 10 or 15 people over the course of a grievance investigation, you might hear the same set of facts told with totally different meanings, 10 or 15 times. And people often think they know what other parties are thinking or what other parties are feeling, but are completely inaccurate in what they think they know about what other people are thinking. And so if you can get people into the same room talking to each other, you can avoid some of that specific kind of harm where people are getting angrier and angrier, because they’re thinking about how mad they are, but they don’t have an opportunity to sit down with somebody and say, “Hey, this is what I’m upset about.”

Madi: So Alexandra, you mentioned objectivity, and I wanted to talk a little bit about that because it’s something that we have a lot of conversations about on the Grievance Committee, you know, the idea of objectivity and how that’s in tension with the importance of community ties and understanding the dynamics prior to, getting really intimately involved a conflict. So maybe we could start talking about bias.

Alexandra: Yeah. Thank you, Madi. It’s such an important question. One of the things that I always come back to when I come to this question of objectivity is, objectivity around conflict. It’s a value that I think we very much get from the criminal legal system and the way the state teaches us to handle conflict. I think all of us in this room I feel comfortable are saying are abolitionists and one of the texts that was most important for me when I was figuring out how to be an abolitionist, is an essay from the 1970s called Conflict as Property by Nils Christie. And basically what Christie talks about, is that what the state does is steal our conflicts away from one another and brings them out of the community, and turns them into state property that builds state power. So, instead of the victim in a crime, getting to speak for themselves and advocate for themselves, you have the prosecutor who speaks on behalf of the state and the victim becomes voiceless.

And instead of the person who’s caused harm, the person who’s being charged with a crime, getting able to speak directly with the person they’ve hurt, they’re either pathologized or criminalized. and what Kristi really advocates for is this idea that if you return conflict to communities, to neighborhoods it can actually strengthen communities and strengthen neighborhoods as a form of communal property where people have to come together and figure out how to relate to one another in trying to solve a conflict. I think it has a lot to teach us about, the difference between like valuing what the state values, right? The idea that the people who are intimately involved in the conflict are too biased and too involved to understand what has happened so you need to take it away from them to come up with an “objective solution”. When actually what we want to do is give the people who are most involved in a conflict, as much agency and control as possible in solving problems, or at least that’s one of the ways that I think about it. What do you think?

Madi: Yeah, I think that’s really helpful. It reminds me of the slogan: “strong communities make policing obsolete.” And, I don’t think that mediation is the answer to police power, but it’s certainly a tool to help us get there. 

Something that I wanted to say about biases: the idea that bias won’t exist in an investigation I think is slightly misled. Our practice in the New York city Grievance Committee is to proactively address our relationships or our feelings or our history with a certain issue that we’re trying to help somebody navigate. Because I think in my experience, the trust that you have when you’re navigating with somebody that you know, and that you’ve established trust with is really an invaluable ingredient to a successful mediation process. Not that it can’t be done without that, but in order to really use that trust that you built, you have to be able to proactively acknowledge where you might have a bias where you might have an element of your thinking that’s not totally objective. Yuri, what do you think?

Yuri: I don’t think that the desire for objectivity is misplaced per se. I wouldn’t say objectivity is, you know, imaginary or impossible. But I think that a lot of what people sort of call objectivity is exactly what the Conflict as Property essay mentions, in that they just want to be exempt from dealing with the struggle in front of them. They want a third party to come in and take the work off their shoulders, because, you know, having these conflicts is difficult. Not everyone actually wants to do it. But I think that bias can be navigated around and that something like objectivity can be constructed communally as an entire social group works through a mediation.

When Mao said “to investigate a problem is to solve it,” he meant that if something looks confusing from the outside, you can’t just refer to some abstract rule book as a lens to interpret it. You have to roll up your sleeves and get involved and talk to people and figure out what’s happening. That’s how a community can, together, generate an understanding of what happened and what they’re going to do about it in the future. Understanding and security are built as a communal project. If you imagine that conflicts can only be navigated by a totally uninvolved third party—not just, like, a mutual friend or the parish priest or something but a totally disinterested agent of the state who’s legalistically executing on formal rules—then you end up ceding power that should belong to you and your people.

Martha: So just to build off of what Yuri was just talking about, I’m always really interested in the power dynamics when we get a request for assistance with addressing some type of harm. In the grievance procedure, there’s a very clear power differential since the grievance officers determine the process and offer recommendations for resolution. In these situations, I often feel like I am perceived as an authority figure or professional rather than a peer or comrade. In mediation, I find that the power dynamic is often much different as it is more driven by the participants.

I find that when a lot of people contact us, they’re not really sure what they want (which is totally fine!), just maybe that they want some assistance. And I think there’s this natural desire to find the right answer for the way to fix something. Some of that probably comes from the professionalization of help and also of policing in that we may be used to escalating things to somebody else to deal with. Many of us just have limited conflict resolution skills and are not sure how to work through complex or ongoing conflicts with our peers. This actually brings me to a question for the group.  I’m curious, how do we envision democratizing these skills in the organization? 

Madi: Yeah, that’s a great question, Martha. I think that mediation skills are organizing skills and they’re skills that every DSA member should have. The ability to de-escalate a conflict, the ability to see things from multiple perspectives, the ability to move conflict in a generative direction, towards an organizing goal. All of these are skills that every organizer should have, especially in a socialist organization. And that’s what I have to say about that.

Yuri: “Mediation skills are organizing skills” is a really great line. It’s a really powerful statement of the fact that what we do is based on building and maintaining relationships. Social reproduction, in other words. And besides being generally important to organize around, it’s something that we have to do within our own organization. Not everyone necessarily needs to know how to plan and lead a canvas, but everyone should probably be able to knock on a door and make the case for a candidate or policy.. Similarly, even if not everyone is a dedicated, mediator or grievance officer or something, having some working understanding of how to handle internal conflict is crucial because internal conflict is inevitable. Internal contradictions determine development. They drive the growth or decay of, just, everything, a socialist organization certainly included. And I think being able to tell when something is an antagonistic versus a non-antagonistic contradiction, knowing how to use conflict to build something new rather than just to tear things down, is crucial for our survival as socialists.

Alexandra: Getting into the nuts and bolts since it is convention season, I’ve spent a big chunk of this winter and spring working with some other DSA members to put together a resolution about the grievance process in DSA that would do two really important things. The first is that it would form a national committee of grievance officers that could organize trainings and educational events as well as supportive meetings for grievance officers across the country. I’m a really firm believer that the pupils who have the most to teach us about how to do grievance at mediation, work in DSA are other people already doing this work in DSA. There’s incredible experimentation going on all over this country on how to deal with harm both through the Resolution 33 process and then parallel to it. But it also, this resolution, allocates funds for paid training, $20,000 over two years.

So $10,000 a year for trainings in transformative justice, restorative justice, and mediation. And so it’s my hope that we can build a train-the-trainer is model in DSA where grievance officers can get trained by people who have potentially decades of experience doing this kind of work. But then that we as grievance officers can be the nucleus of bringing this kind of knowledge out into DSA as a larger collective. 

And so it’s my hope that if you’re reading this and you’re going to convention, you will support this grievance resolution to form a national grievance officers committee, and to bring money for training around justice and mediation and to DSA. And speaking of convention, there’s also an abolition resolution this time around that I hope everybody will support, which brings me to, our last conversation topic, which is: since we are all abolitionists, I was hoping everybody could speak on the ties you see between abolition and mediation.

Yuri: So I guess there are two immediate ties for me. One is really straightforward and quickly explained: We need to be able to work well together. The more conflicts we give to the police to solve for us, the more power the police have over us, right? So both in terms of our interpersonal dealings, what we do if there’s an argument on the street outside our building, if there’s a fight in the subway—we have to learn to not rely on a state which is ultimately hostile to us because we’re socialists who want to dismantle that state.

Secondly, and a little bit more abstractly, the punitive model of resolving conflicts—like, if there’s interpersonal harm, we have to identify the perpetrator and punish them—that’s part of how the carceral state legitimizes itself. If the police and the courts make this big show of finding out who’s bad and then torturing the bad person, that creates the idea in people’s minds that, oh, police are for attacking bad people. So when the police shut down protestors, when police evict someone, you’ll be like, “Oh, those protestors were bad, that person was bad for not paying rent, so this is all fine, actually.” We need to resist and destroy that ongoing liberal propaganda, because it’s part of what reproduces the prison industrial complex and ultimately capitalism itself.

By practicing mediation internally we can build up the skills we need to think differently. As in, if interpersonal harm happens, instead of saying “Harm has been done, we have to figure out whose fault it is so that we can identify them as bad and punish them, we can say “Okay, harm happened, how can we move forward together? How can everyone involved rebuild themselves, rebuild their communities?” Mediation is a dialectical process that allows us to escape the idealist paradigm of dividing things in good and bad, and therefore allows us to transcend the social and political forms that the capitalist state uses to control us.

Madi: Talking about building and rebuilding kind of makes me think of organization building. The idea that we’re experiencing an incredible, and almost unprecedented time of movement building, organization building– it’s super important to be intentional about organizational form, right? In the literal sense, as in the structures of the organization. But it’s also incredibly important to think about our organizational form as in: what are the commitments that we’re going to make to each other? What are the spaces that we create, these organizational forms, what are they going to be like, what are they going to feel like, how is it going to be to participate in them? What does it mean to them to commit to each other as comrades? And I see this mediation work and relationship-building work as really integral to that effort.
Martha: You know when I think about abolition, I think about the need to be building strong communities. That’s something we talk about a lot, but it’s interesting to think about what exactly is that community, you know, like what are the communities that exist in NYC-DSA? We have working groups, branches, neighborhoods, and there are just all these different spaces that we organize in. We are in a large organization with many smaller communities. And I think we have to see conflict resolution and addressing harm as an integral part of building and maintaining all those communities because that’s the only way we’ll be able to organize for the long haul for the things that we really want.

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