Most YDSA chapters organize their committees and around specific issues. Members from Purdue YDSA argue that they should be based on function instead.
When we arrived at Purdue in 2019, there was already a large, healthy YDSA chapter at the university. The chapter ran regular, informative political education meetings, and achieved a small win in defense of student voting rights despite the county clerk trying to make it more difficult for students to vote. However, during the first year of the pandemic, the chapter was relatively inactive besides participating in a banner drop for the national Cancel Student Debt campaign, and we hemorrhaged active members. We think that these effects were partly due to the nature and structure of the chapter’s committees.
Many YDSA chapters choose to organize members into committees based on specific issues such as eco-socialism, feminism, anti-fascism, or labor. In this organizational structure, each committee will work independently on projects related to their main issue, with opportunities for cross-committee collaboration and the ability for the chapter to run multiple campaigns simultaneously. We have defined this as a system of issue-based committees. This was the structure at Purdue until 2021.
Structuring the chapter in this way has a few benefits. Committees centered around single issues are attractive to potential members that may be new to socialism, or unsure of their commitment to a comprehensive socialist agenda, but interested in organizing around a particular issue. Attempting to address multiple issues at once allows chapters to broaden their potential base of membership by engaging with different segments of the community, and accessible single-issue campaigns provide an entry point for those who are interested in activism, but hesitant or uninformed about socialism. There is often great potential to make effective socialist organizers out of “single-issue” political activists. The YDSA Organizing Manual even suggests such people as a population not to be ignored. This committee structure theoretically allows access to that potential.
The reality of their implementation at Purdue, however, did not meet this aspiration. YDSA Purdue had committees for eco-socialism, labor, feminism, electoralism, international/interclub solidarity, and political education. Of these committees, political education was the most active because it was responsible for running half of the chapter’s meetings with presentations and discussions. The other committees were mostly inactive throughout the year.
The feminism committee mostly kept in contact with a feminist club on campus and tabled at a Take Back the Night event against sexual violence that the feminist club hosts once a year.
The solidarity committee was there to support protestors after a CVS across the street from Purdue’s campus refused to sell cold medicine to a student when he presented his Puerto Rican ID, but the protests were unable to achieve their main demand: a statement from Purdue’s president condemning the act of discrimination.
The labor committee started a petition for hazard pay at Purdue, but the campaign stagnated after people left campus to take online classes.
The electoral committee was able to convince a progressive to run for city council in West Lafayette, but the chapter voted to not endorse him after he refused to campaign as a socialist. A more purposeful attempt at electing democratic socialists might have included such a requirement in the first rounds of vetting. The electoral committee was also able to elect only one member of the chapter to Purdue Student Government among a body of 36 senators. Not only was the electoral committee unable to put together a larger slate of candidates, but the YDSA member who was elected served a mostly uneventful term without a larger socialist caucus to back them up. They were only able to pass one resolution which condemned Purdue for signing a contract handing over management of some dining facilities to Aramark, a company notorious for their use of prison slave labor. The resolution was ignored by the administration.
While not comprehensive, this brief history attempts to demonstrate the relative inactivity and ineffectiveness of the issue-based committees. Overall, the issue-based committees lacked direction, membership, and a clear mandate to act on behalf of the chapter.
Given our limited capacity and desire to refocus as we made a full-force return to organizing in person, we decided at the end of summer 2021 to dissolve almost all of our existing committees – except for the political education committee, which had turned out consistent work – and focus all of our efforts on a single campaign.
The alternative structure of chapter organization we landed on, which is actually the method suggested in the YDSA Organizing Manual, is to organize committees based on the functions and roles members will be performing, rather than around specific issues. This is a system of function-based committees. In our chapter, the functions are: political education, communications, social events, new member onboarding, and reading group. The entire chapter focuses on the same campaign, with the committees simultaneously supporting the campaign through their areas of expertise and engaging in routine operations to keep the chapter running. There are a few ways in which this committee structure can improve a chapter:
- Working towards one or two campaigns with greater focus rather than floundering through several unsupported campaigns.
- Setting achievable, meaningful goals for committees, such as recruiting a certain number of members by advertising a political education meeting, growing certain members from supporters to active organizers, or educating and mobilizing members around the chapter’s campaign.
- Making clear asks of members that have immediate effects on the chapter, such as selecting a text for a reading group and formulating discussion questions, planning a social event that will bring members closer together, or writing a letter to the editor of the student paper about the chapter’s campaign.
- Building chapter capacity, camaraderie, and political analysis of members by structuring the chapter such that these become institutional priorities which committees constantly work to achieve.
The implementation of function-based committees at YDSA Purdue was not seamless. While the function-based committees have generally been more active than the issue-based committees, we have still seen committee chairs disengage at times from the work of their committees due to lack of guidance and drive. Most of the function-based committees have also merely included a committee chair who takes on almost all of the work, rather than working as a team of members. We believe that the problems described above are motivational and cultural in nature, and that the committees are still structurally more sound in their current form. With proper mentorship for committee chairs and a chapter culture wherein people identify strongly with a specific committee and its work, the function-based committees at Purdue will be prepared for success.
Of course, the functions we decided on may not be the functions that work best for every chapter. We see this structure as an opportunity for chapters to focus effectively on campaigns and build capacity to struggle and win. One YDSA chapter can’t solve all the problems in the world, let alone all the problems on a single campus, but with concerted, concentrated effort, a chapter can win material gains for workers in their city and put all of us, and the classes of students that follow, in a better position to achieve socialism.