The Story of a Successful Chapter

A YDS Chapter can quickly go from a small group of students with a common interest to a dynamic and successful chapter making real impacts on their community. Elliot Geary, Co-Chair of the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga YDS, highlights both the ups and downs of starting a chapter, detailing how they set goals, formed relationships with other activist groups, resolved conflicts, and eventually gained a core group of students dedicated to their chapter.

This article is part of a wider manual that YDS will be releasing in conjunction with the our Fall Campus Drive for DSA and YDS. This manual will include detailed information on starting and running a chapter, covering topics from tabling to holding elections to organizing rallies. This manual should serve as a touchstone to YDS members throughout the process of starting and maintaining a successful and effective chapter.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Young Democratic Socialists chapter began in Fall 2015. I, a college freshman at the time, had a very theoretical commitment to socialism but had zero real-world organizing experience. I began flyering academic halls, our University Center and library, and several hangout spots around campus. Eventually, I met two or three other students interested in starting a group with me.

We began as the UTC Socialist Union: a group committed to building socialist awareness and action on campus and in our city. How did we intend to build class consciousness from nothing? Well, we had no idea. As the year progressed, we achieved absolutely nothing. We affiliated with one national organization, which will remain unnamed, in hopes of finding a model to achieve progressive gains on our campus. As it turned out, we didn’t learn much from this organization except for how to defend the DPRK on the internet.

After one disappointing year, we affiliated with the Young Democratic Socialists. Conversations with national organizers pushed us in the right direction, and we concluded that we need to focus on one specific, measurable campaign, as opposed to achieving the lofty goal of “building left unity and socialism.” Just after the start of the school in Fall 2016, we met an organizer for United Campus Workers (UCW). The union had been working on a campaign called “TN is Not for Sale,” aimed at stopping a proposed plan to privatize about one-fifth of state jobs, including hundreds on our campus.

No other student group was organizing around the issue of privatization. In fact, no other organization was actively engaged in any student-labor solidarity campaign. We began to work closely with UCW, following their lead on the campaign for the rest of the year.

First, we spent weeks gathering signatures for a petition which opposed outsourcing our school’s jobs. Despite the “socialist” label frightening a few students on our conservative, southern campus, we found that engaging in a conversation with them about the potential ramifications of outsourcing led to overwhelming support for our cause. During our time tabling over several weeks in September and October, we never met a single student who didn’t agree that outsourcing would be bad for workers and bad for our campus. Of course, having a bucket of union-made Halloween candy at our table almost certainly made us more agreeable. Our petitioning culminated in a demonstration. In the middle of a school day, students, workers, and community activists joined us for a rally and short march to the administration building where we presented our petition to the Chancellor’s Office.

After tabling for several weeks, having conversations with students about issues, and holding a visible, public demonstration, our numbers grew. Through our tabling efforts, we collected a lengthy email list for our weekly newsletter. We sent out meeting locations and agendas every week, along with information about other events, and more students started to turn out. Many came and went, but we ended the semester with a group of about ten consistently dedicated members.

While ten may not sound like a lot, each of the ten students was the kind or organizer that would put down whatever they were doing to come to an event or meeting. Each person was willing to take on responsibility and could be trusted to carry out whatever tasks to which they agreed.  We also decided at the end of the first semester that we would focus on student-labor solidarity, specifically the TN is Not for Sale campaign. We found an issue not being organized around and made that issue a priority. By the end of our first semester, I feel it’s worth noting that we became very close as an organization. More than just comrades in the struggle for social justice, many of us were close friends, and I ended up dating another member. For many organizations, close social ties are a recipe for disaster. In our meetings, however, we emphasized the importance of the work we did. We could hang out and share memes any other time, but when we were in a meeting or at an event, we were focused completely on our cause.

Having a consistent, dedicated group of activists made our second semester much smoother. Sparing the specifics of our campaign, we worked effectively and efficiently to make our cause more visible and to demonstrate our power for several months. Toward the end of March, we had a brief disagreement over tactics with another organization who began organizing around labor issues, but through an open and honest dialogue, we got on the same page. What resolved our disagreement, ultimately, was remembering our place a solidarity-based organization. Our goal was to support the workers of our campus, and they had to be the ones to lead us, not the other way around.

During the last month and half of the school year, we worked closely with UCW and our new coalition partner, Student Activists for Equality (SAFE) to make tremendous progress. Their more radical approach to organizing made the campaign more visible to students and more frightening to those in power. Students confronted administrators and government officials in meetings, both public and private. By the end of the school year, we got students, workers, and administration in a room to openly give feedback and share our concerns with the outsourcing plan.

All in all, we don’t know yet whether our university will opt out of Governor Haslam’s plan to outsource campus jobs. What we do know is that we built a strong network of students and workers fighting for economic justice. Through cooperation and solidarity, we pushed administration from keeping us completely in the dark to having open dialogue. We and our partners have made the issue of outsourcing front-page material in the local newspaper. We proved that the people do have power if we come together and work toward a shared vision of collective liberation.


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