Onboarding and Mentorship Saved My Chapter

How onboarding and mentorship saved the University of San Francisco YDSA and can do the same for your chapter.

YDSA chapters face a unique obstacle in their organizing: rapid turnover. It takes undergraduate students quite some time to get involved in their campus communities, and before you know it, they’re graduating and leaving your YDSA chapter. In that short period, YDSA chapter leaders are tasked with hefty goals such as organizing for a socialist future and training bright-eyed leftist students to be a lifelong Marxist cadre. While many chapters today are slowly moving toward in-person activity after two years of Zoom calls and social media campaigns, the issues of member retention and burnout prevention remain. One-on-one onboarding and mentorship kept my chapter, University of San Francisco YDSA, alive through its online era and now in-person activity.

One-on-one onboarding is as simple as a 15 minute conversation with a student after their first YDSA meeting. Never hold a meeting without collecting every attendee’s name and contact information! We always text fresh faces from meetings and events and make plans to sit down with them to talk for 15 to 30 minutes so we can get to know what their interests are and why they joined YDSA. We remind them that these onboarding meetings are standard procedure for our chapter, we have them with all new members, and that they are especially helpful in surveying the student population to find out what issues are relevant to them. This meeting typically consists of us talking only 30 percent of the time, and the new student talking for 70 percent of the meeting. We ask them about where they are from, what they are studying, and what brought them to YDSA. How’d they hear about us? What skills are they interested in learning? What radicalized them? What issues matter to them and what issues actually impact them day-to-day as a student?

Not only do we get to find out how our administration is impacting students through these meetings, but we do these one-on-one onboarding meetings so we can create an opportunity to identify ourselves as their supporters, their friends in the chapter, or even the people they can send frantic texts to when they get lost on campus on the way to the phonebank. Now that we know each other, they know we will be expecting to see them at the next meeting. By having chapter leaders do this with every new face at our meetings, we successfully prevent students from falling away into the periphery of the chapter. I always make a point to tell them that my job is to help them in any way possible in becoming a successful organizer. I never leave an onboarding meeting without making a simple and appropriate ask of them, for example, “Can you make it to our next meeting?”

Onboarding built my chapter. By growing the active layer of my chapter’s membership, I helped to create a pool of potential leaders who can grow their skills, develop their politics, and soon also take on the task of onboarding new members. While time-consuming at the start, not prioritizing this can be fatal for what could’ve been a productive chapter. This initial one-on-one interaction can also be a student’s first impression of YDSA! Through onboarding, I connected with many curious students first encountering the Left. Some of these students demonstrated curiosity and commitment to my chapter, prompting me to offer one-on-one mentorship and support them in joining the leadership layer of my chapter. Others who did not join leadership still remain active members because we’ve successfully built a close and comradely relationship with each other through one-on-ones and they have become committed to our political vision.

Mentorship is the backbone of University of San Francisco YDSA. Over the last two years, students in my chapter attended YDSA conventions and conferences, gave solidarity speeches at our part-time faculty union’s rallies, trained students on bread-and-butter organizing skills, built coalitions and relationships with local student organizations and unions, organized panels and presentations on rank-and-file strategy and salting, and ran for leadership within our chapter. All of these students had been onboarded and mentored by me and other trusted comrades around the Bay Area who were invested in their development as organizers. The chapter wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the concerted mentorship that I, myself, benefited from by comrades in East Bay DSA. 

We can’t mentor every single student that joins YDSA. Mentorship is tedious, and there’s never a certain moment when mentorship is complete—I still regularly talk to my own mentors about organizing challenges I face today. My mentors taught me that each task we take on individually is a lost opportunity for another student to learn a new skill. We need to measure our success by how many new organizers we bring into activity and leadership, not by how many hours we’ve spent organizing or how much work we have accomplished alone. This is how we prevent burnout! Because we cannot mentor everyone, we need to identify students who seem curious and excited to learn and organize and who consistently commit to tasks we ask of them. We challenge their growth and leadership skills through the organizing cycle, where we make an appropriate ask of them, support them in carrying out this ask, debrief on how it went well and how we can improve, then repeat with increasingly more challenging asks. 

Every two weeks, I met with my mentors and we discussed exciting theories, articles, and political positions, and my mentors made asks of me that steadily increased in commitment and challenge. We never shied away from friendly debate and disagreement, and they always made sure I understood what I was organizing towards and knew I had their support. Not long after my chapter’s birth, I began mentoring other students, reading articles with them that my mentors read with me, and currently get to watch my mentees do the same with others. We do this over and over again so we can keep recruiting new leaders who want to commit themselves to rebuilding the labor movement long after they graduate. This new generation of socialists rising out of YDSA has proven to be disciplined and committed to our historic mission of winning socialism. Over 300 students attended YDSA’s annual Winter Conference, the first in-person conference since the pandemic started, sharpening their teeth on new tactics and knowledge. Invigorating this movement starts at home in our college and high school chapters when we invest our time and energy into onboarding and mentorship.