Thoughts on the Issues of Staff, Political Expression, and Organizational Structure of DSA
By Bill Barclay and Peg Strobel
DSA Ventura County
Recently there have been discussions of the way in which DSA staff members should or should not express political opinions, either in personal contact with other DSA members, on DSA media, print and digital and to a larger public.
By way of introduction we should acknowledge our previous experience with these questions. Both of us were in one of the two predecessor organizations to DSA, the New American Movement (NAM). Bill served in the national office of NAM as one of the three elected leaders of the organization. NAM was, of course, much smaller than DSA is today. There were only three (very under-) paid staff and these were all elected at NAM’s national conventions. These elected leaders were expected, and did, both run the organization and also articulate political positions and perspectives between and at the national conventions. While we think this worked reasonably well for NAM, it is not a model that we think should be adapted by DSA. A second relevant background experience is that Peg served on DSA’s NPC for six years and acquired a close-up knowledge of how the national office functioned. The organization was much smaller then, although beginning to grow during her third term on the NPC.
DSA Staff and Expression of Political Positions
In thinking about the issue of staff and the expression of political positions, we have conceptually divided the DSA staff between political and technical functions. We recognize that there are times when this distinction may be a little fuzzy around the edges but we believe this distinction is useful in terms of thinking about the question of staff roles and political expression.
We believe that the staff we are labeling “political” include the National Director, the Assistant to the National Director, the Field Organizers and the Organizing Director, who oversees the work of the Field Organizers. As reported on the website today, these total eight individuals.
What should be the guidelines for the work of these people in terms of political expression?
First, we think that none of these individuals should be a member of any caucus within the organization. All of them are, to a greater of lesser extent, representing DSA as a whole. They are the full-time national leaders of the organization (NPC members are neither paid nor full-time). They should represent the whole organization in their internal organizational work and in their public appearances, etc. In an organization such as DSA, where the decision has been to allow caucuses but also seeking to be a pluralistic organization, the national leadership should not be seen as or act as the representatives of one or another faction of the organization.
Second, these individuals should be required to have or acquire the ability to describe the different positions and significant internal lines of difference in DSA in a manner that is clear, concise and fair to all positions. We think this requires developing an agreed-upon description of caucuses and what these major differences are.
Third, we think that it is impossible for people in these political positions to be neutral or without passions and beliefs that impact how they prioritize work and how they interact with other members of DSA and the public. To expect this is to seek the mythical value neutrality that some academic disciplines claim but which experience has taught us is not possible for living and breathing human beings. Thus, these political staff should be free to express their own positions on the major issues being discussed within the organization as well as the larger political environment in which they live and work. This includes the possibility of presenting these positions in DSA but not to external media, where their advocacy may easily be construed as presenting DSA’s position. Most importantly, these individuals should not advocate specific positions in their organizational work with chapters or potential chapters.
Finally, as is true for all DSA members, political staff must always make clear when a position they are advocating differs from the position adopted by the organization as whole.
There are members of what we are labeling technical staff in DSA. On the website, as of today these include: Operations Director, Financial Manager, Internal Communications and Digital Organizing Coordinator, Development Director, Conventions and Conferences Coordinator, Finance Coordinator, Database Coordinator, Data and Technology Manager, Full Stack Developer, Program Associate, Compliance Manager, Membership Services Coordinator, Office Coordinator, and National Grievance and Harassment Officer.
From our experience, some technical staff are relatively uninterested in the differing politics within the organization while others are more closely attuned to these differences and may identify with one or another caucus.
We think technical staff should be free to state their political position, in person or via media.
We do not think these staff members should be prohibited from caucus membership so long as, like the political staff, they do not advocate for or advance the agenda of a caucus in the course of their DSA work.
Because technical staff are not part of the political function of DSA, we do not think that they must also be able to articulate the difference positions in the same manner as political staff. It would, of course, be good if these staff members are aware of the differences.
Partly as a result of thinking about the issue of staff and the expression of political positions, we want to raise some organizational questions about how DSA functions.
For many years of its existence, DSA struggled to find any member willing and able to take on the role of National Director (ND). Times are different now (full disclosure, the two of us worked hard to recruit the current ND into that position). We believe it is time to consider some questions of tenure and selection.
First, we believe there should be an initial term of office for a ND. Our suggestion is five years, with the first year a probationary period in case the person and the position are a bad fit. We also believe -- and this is one of the reasons we suggest five years for the initial terms of office -- the term of office for the ND should not, in general, align with the national conventions.
We also suggest that the ND can be offered a second term of office, perhaps shorter, during which a search would be conducted for a new ND.
Annually a personnel committee should review the work of the |ND with an eye to improving performance and identifying potential problem areas.
We think it may also be advisable to have ND and Assistant ND terms of office that do not coincide. Obviously the ND reviews the work of the Assistant to the Director.
Currently Field Organizers are chosen at the level of the national office. There has been some interest in having the regions select their Field Organizers. We are not sure which is the best process. But we do think that the accountability of these positions would be enhanced by the following:
We don’t know the process by which editorial boards – DL and Socialist Forum – are selected. Thus we don’t have specific recommendations to make with regard to these bodies. We do believe that, like our proposed strictures on Field Organizers, members of the editorial boards should not use their position to advocate or organize for a specific caucus.
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