YDSA Needs to Prioritize our Grievance Process
Niko Johnson-Fuller argues in favor of establishing a National Committee of Grievance Officers for YDSA leaders.
At this year’s convention delegates will have the chance to pass Resolution 6, which establishes an advisory council of grievance officers for YDSA leaders. As socialists, we need to prioritize building healthy and safe organizing spaces. It can be easy for us to assume that interpersonal problems and political conflict may be limited because of our shared progressive values. While reactionary spaces are certainly more likely to be toxic and harmful, we are not immune to the social forces that can lead to harassment, conflict, and grievances between members. Interpersonal issues, from small to large, can and will arise in each chapter. This is not something we can ignore or excuse away, but rather that we must prepare for and do our best to mitigate.
DSA has established a grievance process through Resolution 33, passed at the 2017 Convention. It provides a basic framework for grievance reporting which Harassment and Grievance Officers (HGOs) and chapter leaders must follow. However, this process has not been widely implemented throughout YDSA — understandably, as there are many ambiguities. R33 does not mention YDSA, and neither does any other resources on DSA grievance policy. Another issue is the 100-member threshold for a chapter to be required to have an HGO. YDSA chapters often do not reach this threshold when counting dues-paying members, despite having a similar number of active members as many DSA chapters that do.
Resolutions passed at YDSA’s conventions in the last few years have provided some insight into the desires of YDSA members for safe organizing spaces and development on the grievance process, but we have not arrived at a meaningful solution to these ambiguities. In 2020, a resolution which sought to clarify whether YDSA would use DSA’s R33 or another framework, was referred to national leadership, the National Coordinating Committee (NCC). At the following year’s convention, a resolution passed that affirmed the need to build a safe organizing space, and the creation of a policy to address those needs.
These resolutions are a positive step forward, but there hasn’t been significant change from YDSA nationally and many chapters continue to lack a grievance policy. Right now YDSA’s template constitution doesn’t have a harassment or grievance policy for chapters to use. The blame for this isn’t with NCC or staff, who have many other tasks and shouldn’t be solely tasked with carrying out this labor. However, YDSA’s grievance policy does urgently need direction.
There are several significant reasons to prioritize a grievance process. Most importantly, people who experience harassment, discrimination, or other inappropriate behavior deserve a reliable process. While many campuses do have processes for interpersonal conflict, these are unlikely to follow the survivor-centered and transformative justice practices that we want and may lead to unnecessary escalation, thus denying or limiting survivor agency. A grievance process within chapters is the most reliable way to allow members experiencing harassment or non-harassment grievances to address their concerns. This is an intersectional issue. The social forces that lead to grievance-worthy behavior will have a disproportionate impact on the most marginalized in our society without an intentional effort to combat it.
Additionally, chapters without grievance processes are likely to face challenges when attempting to resolve grievances. With no formal process outlined to membership, some issues may never be brought to the attention of leadership. Even if leadership is aware, without a process and HGOs they will face a significant amount of labor, leading to burnout and harming the chapter overall.
The lack of a sufficient grievance process can also contribute to the collapse of organizations as a whole. One example is the International Socialist Organization (ISO), which collapsed in the aftermath of a mishandled sexual assault allegation, which understandably led many to doubt the future of ISO and its leadership. Prioritizing the grievance process and the organizing culture surrounding it will greatly improve the chances that there is accountability and a situation similar to ISO is prevented. Thus, prioritizing our grievance process is paramount to ensuring the long-term success of our organization and the socialist movement.
Addressing the need for a safe organizing space and implementing a grievance process within YDSA isn’t something that can or should be done exclusively by our chapter leadership, national leadership or staff, but rather its own dedicated body. That was overwhelmingly recognized in DSA by the 2021 Convention which created a National Committee of Grievance Officers. The resolution calls for a focus on developing training for HGOs and developing practices of transformative justice.
Resolutions passed at previous YDSA conventions show the desire for action on the grievance process. This resonates with my own experience, as many comrades I have spoken with wish to set up a grievance process in their chapters. This is often motivated by a grievance-worthy incident which leadership found itself unprepared to resolve. I faced a similar incident in my own chapter, which is a large part of what inspired me to work and ensure my comrades would be prepared, and not have to face the stress and burnout that we did.
We need to build up the fundamentals, with a focus on basic resources for chapter leaders. This would include a template for chapter constitutions, a basic explanation of the grievance process, instructions regarding how to appoint HGOs and the responsibilities of chapter leaders and HGOs. Another important resource to develop is a template to be shared with chapter membership, which explains prohibited behavior, how to file a grievance, and other important aspects of the process. We also need to dedicate labor to one-on-one meetings with chapter leaders. These meetings can help them establish a process and answer any questions they have. This can be best achieved through a national YDSA grievance body, which is exactly what myself and other comrades have proposed in Resolution 6 (R6).
This body, called the National Grievance Advisory Council (NGAC) would be tasked primarily with the aforementioned goals, along with developing an understanding of how YDSA’s context may require a different approach for some grievance related issues. The body would include YDSA and DSA HGOs, and work with DSA’s National Grievance Committee once it is formed.
It is important that this body be created now instead of relying on DSA’s National Grievance Committee. I am not against more integration of YDSA within DSA’s national committees, but the unfortunate reality is that relying on DSA’s yet to be established committee is not prudent if we want this work to be prioritized. Additionally, the state of the grievance process within YDSA and DSA is sufficiently different that it is important to create infrastructure to deal with YDSA’s needs as they are now. Perhaps in the future, integration between these two bodies may be a good idea.
Within YDSA, we often debate what our external political priorities should be. Alongside these important debates, we must not ignore the safety of our internal spaces. We must fight to make YDSA a safe organizing space for everyone, especially the most marginalized in our society. To do so, we must prioritize the implementation and maintenance of a grievance policy, and create the National Grievance Advisory Council to help chapters with this labor. I call upon all YDSA delegates to vote for R6 to establish this council at this year’s convention!