If we are to succeed politically, it’s important that the socialist movement be representative of the broad diversity that makes up the multi-racial working class. This is particularly true in the United States, whose working class is intensely heterogeneous, containing within it countless racial and ethnic communities, in addition to a multitude of genders and sexualities. To this end, it makes sense that some might view diversity requirements for chapter leadership as a way to increase diversity within DSA. In practice, however, such policies do little to actually increase membership of those with marginalized identities, and in many ways hinder tackling the underlying problems that can make it difficult to organize them.
It is true that Maine DSA is a chapter which struggles with diversity. When it comes to race, part of this comes down to the fact that Maine is a state that is 94.8% white, making it the whitest state in the country. That our chapter is for the most part made of white members should therefore not only be unsurprising, it should be expected. Despite this, however, it has only been in the last six months that the steering committee has lacked a person of color, having previously had at least one since 2019. The reaction to our steering committee currently not having a person of color should not be to make the requirement stricter, but to instead analyze the underlying causes of why this is the case.
If we as a chapter are serious about making inroads into the communities of color in the state, the solution isn’t diversity requirements that do little to actually facilitate this goal, but instead engaging in a tactic of prioritized recruitment, and mapping out strategies to facilitate this process. For example, if we want to reach more immigrant workers, we need to make progress towards becoming a more multilingual chapter. In other words, we should identify the concrete steps that we can take to engage more with people of color and other marginalized communities, and the issues they care about, while incorporating those efforts into our general political work in order to link the particular with the broader universal socialist vision. All of this stands in contrast with diversity requirements, which simply declare ourselves a diverse chapter by fiat. Figuring out what those steps are is more challenging, but it is ultimately part of the hard work of being a socialist organizer. Cutting corners isn’t how you build a successful, sustainable organization.
In addition to failing to get at the heart of the issue, diversity requirements can actually hurt growing our chapter among non white cis straight men, by burning out the very members we hope to recruit and keep. As it stands now, there is an incentive that the chapter places onto itself to push people from marginalized backgrounds into leadership to fulfill these requirements. Rather than fostering leadership that can encourage further diversity, these have led to higher rates of burnout as we push comrades towards the steering committee to meet our arbitrary standards. There is already a pressure to fill steering seats; it is doubled for anyone who isn’t a non-white cis straight man. If anything, we should be doing the opposite—providing more support and space for our members, so that they feel agency over their decisions and want to remain in the chapter, at a level of involvement they feel comfortable with, rather than tokenizing them and their identities.
It is also important to keep in mind that it is often far more difficult for people with marginalized identities to be in positions of leadership because of how they make easier targets of ridicule and abuse, both externally and internally. In Portland, we have repeatedly seen this play out in city politics, where progressive women of color have been attacked in a vicious way others are not. If we as a chapter were to run a candidate in the future, we almost certainly do not currently have the structural capacities to support a comrade who would be in such a situation. Likewise, marginalized comrades face a degree of scrutiny others do not, and whether intentional or unintentional, this happens in DSA, and this is something I have personally experienced and witnessed as a queer trans woman. This doesn’t mean we should bend the stick too far in the other direction, leading to a culture of deference that can shield individuals from reasonable criticism, but it is something we need to keep in mind when thinking about our work. If we want more marginalized people in leadership—particularly as we consider who we have in front-facing positions—simply throwing our queer, disabled, female or POC comrades into the organizing meat grinder is not the path ahead.
Strengthening our diversity requirements is an understandable impulse, but it is fundamentally an incorrect one. Adding disability to the list will only serve to expand all of the problems outlined above to a new class of members, and creating stricter race requirements is unlikely to bring in more POC members. Expanding the kinds of members we have and who are in leadership is an admirable goal and one we as a chapter need to make strides towards. Speaking personally, I am frequently frustrated by the lack of women in our chapter (though this is something we have made advances on this year), and it can be an alienating experience when you are one of the only members with a particular identity. In the bigger picture, the socialist project isn’t going to succeed unless we have the whole working class, not just part of it, organized into our membership. We won’t get very far without solidarity. But bringing in a broader array of members into the socialist movement is not something we can solve through quota or prescriptive policies—it is at its core an organizing challenge, so let’s treat it as one.