Issue 3

Taking It to the Neighborhoods

With the passing of a recent resolution, the Los Angeles chapter of DSA has begun to build formations within the realm of hyper-local organizing. How has this new addition to the typically committee-based chapter structure fared so far, what are the implications for socialist organizing in DSA-LA, and should this be taken up as a new model for other chapters around the country?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

At the 2020 DSA-LA convention, a resolution for hyper-local organizing was passed. In Response to Crisis: A Proposal For A Neighborhood Solidarity Program by DSA-LA was going to be quite the undertaking for a chapter that had most of its members engrossed in committee-led work. The resolution rationalized the strategy with the following statement: 

“As organized socialists, it’s our responsibility to work to build a powerful working class movement in the midst of crisis and loss of state legitimacy as the contradictions of capitalism are laid bare. We must acknowledge that as socialists we do, in fact, have a role to play in the current and upcoming waves of mass protest and rebellion. By organizing and building neighborhood-based solidarity, we can strengthen and grow our organization, wage a coherent, militant fight for economic relief — and through the struggle for necessities, undermine the conditions of capitalism’s possibility. Adopting this resolution will give DSA-LA a roadmap for rationalizing existing Chapter structures to strengthen our organization, organize the unorganized, and strategically engage (amidst the convergence of multiple crises) in what may be the most politically decisive moment of our time.”

The resolution came about with an earlier neighborhood-based structure in place, the Neighborhood Solidarity Network, which had shifted into high gear during the onset of the pandemic as a kind of phone tree that functioned as a mutual aid/wellness check in and orientation tool wherein individual members were contacted and comradely relationships fostered. The idea of In Response to Crisis was to expand on that work and solidify and integrate member and broader community participation in organizing projects at the neighborhood level. 

Taking some inspiration from the early 20th century CP USA “club” structure, each DSA-LA member would now be a member of their local Neighborhood Group by default and be approached to participate in Neighborhood Meetings. These Neighborhood Meetings would emphasize the demands of the Neighborhood Solidarity Campaign by DSA-LA with the ultimate goal of building up the skills and experience to autonomously organize militant actions and strategies  on the neighborhood level.

The NSP campaign was two-pronged, centering around contradictions in the areas of housing and unemployment, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Demands were for stable housing, including a call to cancel all rent payments, as well as for the government to increase and extend unemployment payments. The particular issues around housing highlighted  pushing for safe shelter for all Angelenos: fighting against evictions, foreclosures, sweeps,and the egregious excess of vacant units, in addition to protections from utility shut-offs. Around unemployment, demands included economic relief, regardless of employment or immigration status, access to hazard pay, a living wage, and protective equipment for essential workers. Ideally, organizing around these terrains of struggle would build the foundation for base-building at the neighborhood level.

As of May Day 2021, the five branches of DSA-LA were at different stages of implementation. Some branches had up to nine Neighborhood Groups (most on their first few meetings), others had less than a handful, and some had none. So far the process has been a mosaic of challenges. First and foremost, there was the adjustment of existing data structures and member mapping, which took a while to set up. Branches voted on their preference of how to denote neighborhoods, most landing on “historical” boundaries as opposed to those denoted by neighborhood council districts or zip codes. This distinction was important as members working to implement the resolution did not want it conflated with a local, electoral-focused resolution that encouraged members to run for their local neighborhood councils. The role of the Branch Coordinator, the primary leadership position within the chapter’s branches, was expanded, which took (and is still taking) some adjustment for the existing Neighborhood Captains and Organizers, as well as for those in the role themselves. The better a BC understands the NSP, the more progress they might make, but Branch Coordinators also have had to take into account participation in existing DSA-LA programs and events, asks from Committees, local organizations, and in some cases national DSA campaigns, all of which can (and have) stalled the progress of establishing Neighborhood Groups. Neighborhood Captains moved from a mostly informational/mentor role to orientation and maintaining logistics to support Organizers whose major task shifted to facilitating Neighborhood Meetings, rather than calling a list of members. All of this may sound pretty cut and dry, but the above was not understood from the onset and has been a work in progress. It’s one thing to implement a program and plug people into established roles, and a whole other to depend upon each individual to contribute to the development of a program day-by-day. Moving to a similar structure might be easier for a DSA chapter that does not have established branch-based roles to implement a hyper-local program, since the tension of existing roles and structures would not be there to complicate the process.

Upon observation we have noticed what we would frame as a co-opting of the project’s original intent. When writing the proposal for neighborhood organizing, the goal was to have unactivated members or unorganized neighbors get together and develop projects for their hyper-local area with an emphasis on the NSP, utilizing some auxiliary mutual aid as a jumping off point. This could function for new members as something for them to plug into immediately. Eventually neighborhoods –as they became more organized– would develop their own projects suited to their geographical area. But, and maybe this is a result of LA city politics and the way it’s structured, many have taken ‘neighborhood organizing’ to mean running for and supporting members’ efforts to get involved in neighborhood councils, which don’t have any power or influence in any kind of governance and can be a major time sink. Los Angeles NCs function, in large part, to simply offer the appearance of community civic power. There are a couple of ways we might read this. For example, the organizational restructure that neighborhood organizing calls for has been a long process and still is not yet set up. So, the most involved members’ efforts have been more focused on getting that work implemented rather than honing in on external issues like housing/eviction defense and mutual aid. The other, less apologetic critique is that from the outset the project was not adequately centered on a specific contradiction or issue that those involved face in their day-to-day lives and that has made it difficult to effectively implement the outward-facing, base-building aspect of the resolution; perhaps the issues of housing and economic relief were simply too broad. Base-building at the hyper-local level requires that we meet those we wish to bring into our organizing efforts where they are at. This means carefully striking a balance between providing a militant site of struggle and having an eye toward neighborhood autonomy, without losing that militancy. 

If our goal is to base-build and activate political subjects, it raises the question: what are the contradictions that exist at the neighborhood level? This question can, and should be, answered by doing an inquiry with our members and neighbors to identify potential sites of struggle. A lack of direction around inquiry within the campaign may be where this disconnect has occurred. But there is a third possibility: since Neighborhood Groups themselves would need to prioritize and work on this fundamental step, this could also be an issue of formations.

Up until now DSA-LA has primarily been structured around committees. There has been work done on the ground, though usually in the sphere of electoral campaigns, labor campaigns and mutual aid, and it has branched off into Street Watch,1 for example. These are projects and campaigns, not neighborhood-based formations. For the latter, we need inquiry, power mapping and evaluation. These are the steps we are finally trying to get to. We just did a DSA national power mapping and strategy training as Branch Coordinators and Neighborhood Captains.  

In this uncharted territory, the challenge is maintaining a commitment to socialist politics and organizing across Neighborhood Groups. Groups are already formed in some neighborhoods while many are still cutting maps and lists. We are trying to head off a bunch of soc-dem projects. One of our strategies for doing that is to require that the motivator for a project either bottom lines the project or finds a bottom liner. With that structure in place, the next step is to have a debate, from a socialist perspective, around why we should be doing the project. So far so good, but we are only one Neighborhood Group in LA, and each of the others is currently led by individuals. Depending upon their tendency, each group is going a different route. Some groups are doing projects that have been designated to them by committees, other groups have Captains who have already been involved in mutual aid, so that is their emphasis. It’s all over the place. 

Finally, there is also a Political Education aspect to neighborhood organizing that has had some success, but for which we have mixed feelings. The main issue falls to structuring. The timeline of the Resolution implementation was set up so that branches would vote on Pol-Ed subjects first, before we had formed Groups. Within the branches, once Neighborhood Groups started to evaluate what they should be working on, most fell into the areas of tenant organizing, labor/union/support actions, mutual aid and soc-dem projects, such as Neighborhood Councils and permit parking. That led to the educational topics previously decided upon by branches (that are supposed to be facilitated at the Neighborhood Group level) not necessarily being keyed into on-the-ground organizing. For example, one branch voted on six 30-45 minute long Pol-Ed modules on immigrant workers’ conditions in LA. This is obviously a useful, relevant and ambitious topic for socialist Angelenos, but not necessarily linked with the possible projects Groups had started to formulate. With a current lack of focus on inquiry and base-building, will this PolEd effectively inform Group organizing in a real way, or will it feel intimidating, or worse, disconnected from on-the-ground organizing? Another example of “Pol-Ed” presenting no challenge at all to any developing soc-dem or mutual aid based initiatives, was a series of modules on the, frankly, liberal topic: “Community and Trust Building.” This is rooted in the school of “we should get to know each other before organizing together”, as opposed to building solidarity through shared struggle, taking up DSA-LA members’ precious volunteer time to build individual affinity rather than political analysis. What Neighborhood Groups are now asking for is basic socialist Pol-Ed explainers, marshaling and eviction defense training, and the like. We believe that political education should put forth a socialist vision and analysis, but articulated within the sphere of a specific site of struggle. Part of the issue has been that the 100K Recruitment Drive brought in a lot of new DSA-LA members who are not totally clear on what socialism is and how to organize as socialists. The Neighborhood Council mindset is then a very logical leap for these members, who are now being asked to organize on their own, with so far spotty educational and training resources directly tied into that organizing.

Ultimately, despite these critiques, what the project has done so far is develop a sound structure for coordination and mobilization that may have a positive lasting impact. Neighborhood Group members can get to know their neighborhoods and local issues, and will be able to practice inquiry and make better strategic choices around long-term organizing goals. The undisciplined push for action, and feeling of being overwhelmed and pressured, can recede with time and familiarity. Immediate gratification of ‘doing something’ can be replaced by shared solidarity as Neighborhood Group members learn inquiry, Power Mapping and the skill sets they need to become effective organizers. Trust and comradely relationships can be built through shared study, discussion, disagreement and consensus as we work together toward explicitly socialist goals with Neighborhood Organizers and Captains to guide what that actually looks like. This in turn can facilitate durable power building, base-building and strategies that reflect these goals. 

The structure of Neighborhood Groups, where members can come and go but all are welcome, is hopefully a deterrent to siloing, which has been a real barrier to activating members within DSA-LA. These Groups can be hubs for onboarding, orienting and training members in organizing skills through modeling, rather than explaining organizing theoretically. 

Neighborhood organizing is promising for large areas like LA, even LA county, which is technically DSA-LA territory. Local conditions may vary widely over the county so focusing on neighborhood specific issues makes sense. Through proper inquiry and fostering these formations, local neighborhoods –once they identify a site of struggle– may have the ability to form and support any necessary autonomous formations which seem likely to build actual power locally. 

With patience, discipline and determination, we can make sense of it together and hopefully see real progress toward socialist goals within our own neighborhoods.

  1. Street Watch is a sub-committee of DSA-LA that was originally formed to record and publicize the abuse of unhoused Angelenos by the LAPD, with the goal of organizing that cohort. Since Covid-19, Street Watch has expanded non-DSA-LA membership and performs almost exclusively service-related functions, while publicly advocating for rights and improvements of conditions for the unhoused alongside unhoused Angelenos.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email