“USSA is dead,” my friend told me over the phone. I felt like I had been punched in the gut, even though for years I had known that I would eventually hear these words.
After 70 years as the nation’s largest student association, the United States Student Association (USSA) failed to elect new leadership in 2017. Years of membership decline, restructuring of grantmaking portfolios in large private foundations, and toxic infighting fueled by shallow but maximalist expressions of identity politics had led to the collapse of USSA, an organization with a membership (on paper) of 1 million students at the very end.
USSA’s collapse was the third time I had experienced organizational death before turning 26. Each one hit hard, but we can learn from each. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is a vibrant member organization and far from the death spiral of the end years of USSA, but because I see shadows of the dynamics in USSA, I want to share my lessons from the student movement with DSA leaders today.
First, for some context, I was a student leader within USSA from 2010 to 2013 and then staff from 2014 to 2016. As a student, I was an active leader in the United Council of University of Wisconsin Students, a statewide student association affiliated with USSA, from 2010 to 2013. I was staff coordinator of the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP), a joint project between USSA and Jobs With Justice from 2014 to 2016.
USSA’s membership was institutional. Both student governments and statewide student associations could join by paying dues. USSA then represented the total number of students covered by member campuses and within statewide student associations.
Looking back, USSA’s biggest contribution to the Left was developing extremely responsive movement leaders, especially among people of color, across the progressive movement. In my cohort of USSA student leaders and staff, our alumni have gone on to elect governors in battleground states, organize every type of worker, run the Iowa caucuses for Bernie Sanders in 2020, ban corporate spending in Minnesota state elections, lay the groundwork for federal student debt cancelation, and build movement organizations across the Left.
United Council represented 140,000 students on 23 of the 26 public university campuses in Wisconsin and was a member organization within USSA. A University of Wisconsin Board of Regents governing policy enabled United Council to run referendums that determined affiliation during student government elections every two years. After winning a referendum, students at that campus paid $3 per semester, leaving us with a dues base of about $850,000 and a budget that was 95% dues funded, an anomaly that seems impossible in the student and youth movement today.
United Council provided my understanding for what multi-racial working-class mass membership organizations look like. We held four membership conventions and one diversity summit (mostly focusing on students of color and queer students) every year. About 200 students from every corner of the state came to each convention to learn from each other, vote on leadership, and make decisions about the direction of the organization. Hmong students from rural northwestern Wisconsin, Black student organizers from UW-Milwaukee and UW-Parkside (the only Minority Serving Institution in the state), cheesehead donning working-class white students from small college towns, and a few stuck up activists and even more arrogant suit-wearing student government representatives from UW-Madison would hang out in a cheap hotel close to a UW campus, drink until 4am, go to workshops all day, and do it all over again four times per year.
During my senior year of college, from 2012 to 2013, I was the Vice President and Chair of the Board of Directors of United Council. After five years of constant 5.5% tuition hikes, we were campaigning for a tuition freeze, or at least a lower cap on tuition. United Council bought the email lists of all 26 University of Wisconsin campuses and used the email software Salsa to get thousands of students to contact their legislators about freezing tuition.
Right wing targets student organizing
This made United Council very visible during a politically dangerous time, just two years after Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislatures gutted public sector labor unions. Despite only winning 46% of the vote in the 2012 election, the Republicans expanded their majority in the legislature in 2013 because of extreme partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin in 2011. They used this strategy to turn the state into an illiberal democracy––most recently threatening to impeach a Democratic-aligned judge whose 10-point election victory swung the state’s highest court away from the GOP. In the 2013 budget, we won the tuition freeze, but in the omnibus amendment that gave us our greatest victory in several years, the GOP eliminated the Board of Regents policy that contained the membership dues structure of United Council. We were easy pickings for the movement conservatives who had hated United Council for the 25 years since their days as students.
We were not alone in facing reactionary attacks. The Goldwater Institute had lobbied state legislatures to decimate the Arizona Student Association’s dues structure just months earlier. In one year, the right wing destroyed the only two statewide student associations in battleground states in USSA’s membership, but at the time we couldn’t quite grasp these attacks as the death knell that we understand them to be today.
These attacks fit into a larger strategy, dating back to a memo by Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell in 1971 which called for purges of left-wing elements from college campuses and outlined a blueprint for the rise of the conservative movement. Long before the legislative attacks on United Council and the Arizona Student Association, right-wing student government leaders often disaffiliated with USSA in their budget cycles. It often took years to bring back USSA membership, which was only $0.25 per student per academic year. Several cohorts of progressive student government leaders at UW-Madison had tried to revive USSA membership from 2009 to 2014, when we were finally successful in spring 2014.
By the time I joined staff in January 2014, USSA only had member campuses in California, Oregon, Washington, and Massachusetts. With each passing year, leaders of student governments made up a smaller share of students involved in USSA, and more identified as activists, many of whom were students of color who had lost their student government elections at predominantly white campuses and had beef with the student government. The shrinking of student governments affiliated with USSA led to an organizational identity crisis. Was USSA a mass organization that served a membership through affiliated student governments and statewide student associations, or was USSA an affinity group for student activists, particularly students of color, to find political home?
Declining dues mean missed opportunities
The decline in dues and subsequent identity crisis locked USSA into a death spiral. Decline in membership dues from both student governments and statewide student associations made USSA more dependent on foundation grants. But in 2012, the Open Society Foundation restructured their grantmaking portfolios and did not renew a $250,000 grant to USSA. Weeks before I left staff in June 2016, conversations about cash flow and layoffs dominated our staff meeting agendas, and the USSA president was frantically reaching out to our program officer at the Ford Foundation about when a grant would be paid out.
Years of declines in membership dues and foundation grants continually shrank the USSA budget, and thus our staff, and we were then unable to take advantage of opportunities which could have helped us revive ourselves. For example, USSA had been forced to cut its communications staff in the early 2010s, which meant we had a weak digital infrastructure in 2015 when Sen. Bernie Sanders started mainstreaming our long-time demand of free public higher education. If we had had a digital organizing infrastructure, we could have recruited new student organizers and started the pipeline for more member campuses.
Instead, the disinvestment had taken its toll. USSA had active student organizers on many campuses, but years of organizing have taught me that no volunteer or committee could have realistically built out the digital infrastructure. Dedicated staff was needed to build complex systems, which weren’t ready when we needed them. Similarly, when USSA didn’t have the funds to rehire a training director, I took on the work to coordinate five to six weekend-long organizing trainings per fall semester in various regions, with shorter follow up trainings in the spring semesters. I secured host campuses, prepared student organizers to lead the trainings, and recruited new student activists to these trainings on top of my normal job responsibilities of seeding new SLAP chapters and developing leaders. I found a lot of purpose in this work, but I truly never could work those hours again.
Eventually, Jobs With Justice stopped funding the SLAP Coordinator position, and I became the last SLAP Coordinator, which ended in June 2016. No one gave me a real reason for ending the position, but I assume that Jobs With Justice didn’t want to fund a joint project with a version of USSA that was clearly on life support. I tried merging the 15 chapters first with United Students Against Sweatshops and then with Young Democratic Socialists of America after hearing that College Students for Bernie was merging into YDSA. Ultimately, the leadership of USSA and JWJ blocked the mergers from happening, and I had to move on from student organizing. After I left SLAP, though I had been “organizing to replace myself” all along, it was not enough, in part because high turnover makes the student movement uniquely vulnerable to loss in institutional memory. The chapters teetered for an academic year but then folded, and the trainings mostly ended. With no SLAP chapters and no training program, activity in issue campaigns and campus organizing trainings across USSA both steeply declined within a semester.
Nothing was left in USSA other than factional infighting, often along the lines of identity. When I was still on USSA staff, at the 2015 national convention, the tensions over the identity of USSA, whether we were a mass org or an affinity group, boiled over. Racial identity caucuses, which were always part of USSA’s organizational DNA, split out of the main convention and called for their own space outside of the convention itself. At this point, running a cohesive national campaign rooted in multi-racial class solidarity seemed impossible, even when the demand for free public education was gaining momentum. The infighting created easy opportunities for bad-faith actors. These bad-faith actors took over a sparsely attended convention in 2017 and stopped the election of a new president and vice president.
That’s when my friend called me to share the news that USSA was dead.
Each one of the organizational deaths, United Council in 2013, SLAP in 2016, and USSA in 2017, has left me with an indelible lesson about the fragility of organizations. And I’m familiar with a lot of organizations. Since my six years in the student movement, in addition to being a DSA rank-and-file member, chapter co-chair, treasurer of a nationally endorsed DSA city councilor’s campaign, and national leader on the Growth and Development Committee, I’ve worked with hundreds of 501(c)(3), 501(c)(4), and 501(c)(5) organizations in coalitions, as staff, on nonprofit boards, as the executive director of a nonprofit for five years, and now as a funder. (As a side note, a 501(c)(5) is a labor union.) An organization’s tax status or structure does not alone determine its virtues or vices. Some 501(c)(3)s lead politically visionary work, and some labor unions condone sexual harassment.
DSA can build on its strengths
In large part because of my familiarity with these other organizations, I believe in DSA. DSA is the most unique organization that I’ve encountered in my 14 years in the progressive movement. DSA has a set of strengths that most organizational leaders would salivate over: active members who devote thousands of volunteer hours every week, a base of tens of thousands of small donors who are decades younger than the donor base of most organizations, volunteer-initiated chapters in every state in the country, hundreds of elected officials, and genuine bonds of camaraderie and solidarity across the organization.
But I keep the lessons from the student movement in mind every day as a leader in DSA, knowing that our beautiful, unique organization needs continual reinforcements to be more resilient. That’s why I’m sharing my main lessons for DSA from these three organizational deaths. They include:
- Campaigns with material demands create leadership ladders while dampening infighting. I saw this all the time during the tuition freeze campaign with United Council. These campaigns were the backbone of SLAP chapters, which eventually became the most actively organizing base within USSA. However, it was rare that I saw a compelling national campaign in USSA, other than a few reactions to federal legislation, whereas the state-level and campus organizing was often inspiring to outsiders and compelling to new activists and seasoned organizers alike. Compared with USSA, DSA has had a much better track record of running national campaigns, such as when we were running the DSA for Bernie campaign and during the PRO Act campaign. Campaigns create a leadership ladder within the organization and allow people to define their politics in relation to each other, rather than in opposition to each other. In USSA, without active campaigns, organizing turned inward and infighting became toxic.
- Members are the organizational lifeblood, but staff are the arteries. Some tasks require thousands of people to participate while others need a few people to create and then steward a system so it’s not chaotic and has longevity. As a staff member at a union and then at several nonprofits, I have always seen myself as a facilitator and steward of the communications systems between members, allies, funders, and other stakeholders of the organization. When I was the SLAP Coordinator, my job was to train students to analyze power on their campuses and run campaigns based on this power analysis, but not to run the campaign myself. DSA has a talented staff that creates the infrastructure for thousands of members to participate, from coordinating event space for virtual and in-person gatherings to processing reimbursements and dues share payments to on-boarding new leaders after a chapter has gone in and out of hiatus. DSA is not simply a place where people are employed. The staff of DSA, both those in the union and the middle management and directors outside of the union, provide a cohesive structure that thousands of members use and DSA leaders should not take for granted.
- We need to make the case to inactive members about the organization’s impact. While United Council activated thousands of students to email and call their legislators about a tuition freeze, we never were able to get more than 200 students (out of 140,000 students on member campuses) to our conventions on a regular basis. When the Republicans attacked the dues structure, we only had those 200 students (if that) to stand up for United Council. USSA’s leadership to membership ratio was far worse. By the end, only dozens of students were truly involved in USSA, and the organization had no connection to the supposed 1 million members, not even an email list. While DSA has a very different membership model from United Council and USSA, the paper membership of both organizations reminds me every day that we need more than email actions. We need real relationships, including with people who do not currently have the time or resources to be active in DSA. This can be as simple as regular phone banks to check in with at-large members or special programming for parents.
DSA membership is currently in decline from 95,000 in 2021 to 78,000 today, which is still 16 times larger than when I joined in 2016. Many chapters have become defunct and eventually have been de-chartered in the past two years. In some ways, the decline in chapters makes sense. In tandem with the membership boom, members outside of metro areas formed chapters in large but fairly sparse geographic areas. The leadership in most of these chapters turned over three or more times by 2020. While going from in-person to remote was easy for these chapters at the onset of the pandemic, these sprawling but sparse chapters struggled to return to in-person activity, and many leaders gave up. Without hard, maybe even heroic, efforts, reviving these chapters that have limited numbers of members but large geographic areas will be difficult. Organizing statewide formations likely will be key to involving members who were organized into chapters but now are at-large even if it cannot be a substitute for organizing a real base.
But I don’t believe DSA is in crisis. DSA is not locked in the death spirals of USSA, not vulnerable to right-wing attacks on our dues structure like United Council, and is not a project floating away from its anchoring organizations like SLAP. I see the vibrancy of DSA every day. I’m constantly inspired by the vision of our Socialists in Office on the migrant crisis, the solidarity with striking workers on every picket line from Los Angeles to Detroit and beyond, and the victories on public power that chart the path for a Green New Deal. Every campus that had a SLAP chapter now has a YDSA chapter, and I’m constantly blown away that YDSA has over 150 chapters. At the 2023 DSA convention, I told a University of Oregon YDSAer that they were living out SLAP’s wildest dreams in their campaign to unionize undergraduate student workers. My heart swelled when queer comrades at the national convention shared that DSA was the largest membership organization in the US fighting for trans liberation.
Although DSA is not in imminent crisis, we need leaders who will set a positive vision to raise the funds to meet our budget. DSA is not immune from the hard reality of staff layoffs happening across the broader progressive ecosystem. In just six weeks, the Solidarity Dues drive has raised nearly $400,000 from 600 of the most dedicated members increasing their dues to 1% of our incomes (average $47 per month, substantially higher than the average $12 monthly contribution), and the Recommitment Drive in 2022 raised nearly $200,000 by renewing 6,000 members. While I don’t know if the Solidarity Dues drive will be sufficient in solving the problems that we face and it certainly hasn’t yet even met our 2023 income goal, connecting our membership to our fundraising is our pathway forward.
The biggest challenge facing any dues drive but also DSA itself is making the case for the impact of the national organization. It’s time for us to weave together a cohesive positive vision for how labor solidarity, down-ballot electoral success, queer liberatory organizing, and material victories for a Green New Deal impact our members’ everyday lives and chart a path for building working-class power. We need to define this vision through action, so that we define our politics in relation to each other, instead of only against each other. It’s time that we truly act like we have a world to win.
Convergence is pleased to co-publish this article with The Forge.