I was first introduced to the Socialist Party USA (SPUSA) though my college friend Nick W. We went to a Freedom School out in Los Angeles; Jen M. led the event and asked one simple question: when did you become a radical? The question floated around the room while people told stories of abusive parents and lovers pushing them left, of mass political demonstrations and rallies throughout the modern century, and of finding solidarity and support. Nick W. went before me and gave a clear-cut answer that went against the grain of most in attendance: he didn’t see himself as a radical; rather, the U.S. had moved more radically right, leaving logic behind. I went next. I grew up with a mother in retail and my dad in a union in a trailer park in a poor city until the age of 15 when we moved to a rich white area. I recounted being 17 at my second high school and carrying around a “Vote for Nader” sign which got me laughs and scoffs. I talked of my high school anarchist days and of never imagining myself as anything other than left once I became politically aware and saw what a difference color and class made in the treatment of people.
Two and a half years after that meeting, I am the secretary of the Inland Empire Socialist Party (IESP) in addition to being the managing editor of The Socialist and the co-chair of the Socialist Party of California. I guess one could say that once I admitted openly to a room full of people that I was a radical and always had been, there was nowhere for me to go but further left and to become more committed to the cause of socialism in the U.S. Where I live, the Inland Empire, is situated North of Orange County and East of Los Angeles and tends to be both more conservative and more dangerous than either chartered SPUSA chapter it is near. June 2017, for example, had herds of skinheads and white nationalists gathered in San Bernardino to protest Sharia Law. The Left (Democratic Socialists of America, the Inland Greens, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, and other groups including our own) that gathered in the Inland Empire to counter the protest found themselves outnumbered three to one, at least, and also facing threats of violence, beatings, and ravenous dogs on short leashes. I didn’t and couldn’t charter the IESP alone, and it took the help of Nick W., Mimi S., Shannon H., Lynn L., and Joey D. to get this chapter going in the face of such adversity.
For the past year or so, I’ve been bothering my friend Nick W. about starting our own chapter. We like L.A. meetings and still go to them, even now that we run a chapter of our own, but it was an hour drive (or more) with traffic and there were times when we were simply too tired to make it out. Not only that, but because these were L.A. local meetings, the focus was on L.A. when it came to local action. Mimi S. knew we were thinking of starting our own chapter so when people in our area like Joey D. contacted him and showed interest in joining, Mimi S. sent them our way. Joey D. helped plan our first meeting and worked events to help spread the SPUSA in the Inland Empire. Shannon H., a longtime member who also went to the L.A. meetings, lived in our area so we reached out to him and other members of SPUSA in or close to the Inland Empire to try and start some informal meetings in October 2016.
With a handful of replies and Shannon H. volunteering to start and help run a Facebook group for us (in addition to myself and Joey D.), we held our first meeting in November 2016 at Bright Star Vegan Thai in Rancho Cucamonga. The food was great but we found our first pitfall of organizing: space is important. With about twelve people showing up to check out our first meeting (only four members of SPUSA proper), we had to push three tables together in a busy restaurant and try to talk over the crowds. It didn’t work well, unfortunately. Because we couldn’t find a good space to use, and because we didn’t want a repeat of meeting in a busy restaurant, taking up space, and not getting much work done, we didn’t have a meeting in December of 2016. It also probably didn’t help that I am a graduate student and had two major papers due that month as well.
Besides all of the writing I do, the organizing I do, and the schooling that I do, I also work multiple jobs to be able to support myself. I think that, for me, the hardest part was finding time for sleep while trying to get this chapter off of the ground. Lynn L., co-chair of the Socialist Party of California and Executive Editor of The Socialist, took on a bigger workload at times to allow me time to organize. Nick W., Joey D., Shannon H., and I sat down and discussed roles and location and started using The Headquarters in San Bernardino. Nick W. made the agendas and led the meetings. Joey D. became our event planner. Shannon H. became our treasurer and I took on the role of secretary. Our first few meetings, while still not having enough official members in attendance to charter our group, went well. Joey D’s Socialist Forum (which is what we call our community outreach/education events) on veganism was both well attended and informative.
We continued to meet as an unofficial chapter of the SPUSA until June of 2017, when we finally had not only the membership and roles ready but a fifth person, Brandon V., willing to sign our charter (for some reason, we had members in good standing who either weren’t willing to sign the charter or never answered our inquiries to do so). Mimi S. mentioned that it takes other chapters a lot longer to charter and that the eight months we spent organizing, meeting, and reaching out to the community could be considered relatively short. Our struggles to stay organized and to keep membership isn’t over, despite being chartered and officially recognized as a chapter of the SPUSA as well as having new members join all the time. Our meeting space, The Headquarters, seems to be closing down so we were meeting at a brewery on my college campus for a while but that space isn’t the best for political discussion. Next we’re trying a community space and seeing how that works for us. With school starting up again, and this being my last year of graduate school, I will continually have to try to find a work-work-work-school-thesis-writing-volunteer-enough-sleep-so-I-don’t-die balance.
It will never be easy to run a chapter of the SPUSA because we are a left group made up of working-class people. Having to work hard can keep our membership and even our leadership away. Our treasury was started by a generous donation by Shannon H. and fundraising but beyond that, most of our members can’t afford to pay their dues and our chapter does the best it can to pay for those applications. Many spaces we could use cost more than we can afford, so we meet in public places or find community spots and see if they’ll allow a left, socialist organization to meet. The latest spot has agreed but is apprehensive about the possibility of the Right getting wind of socialists meeting in this space and of the location being under threat.
If you are thinking of chartering your own chapter of the SPUSA, I strongly encourage you to do so. The best advice I can give is that allies are going to be your best resource. Mimi S. and Lynn L. both have had experience organizing their local chapter and were there to offer guidance and help when I needed it. Nick W., Joey D., and Shannon H. all stepped up and played their roles well in order to get the IESP off the ground. Even people at the national level like Greg P. and Pat N. quickly gave replies and aid when I requested it. For me, the SPUSA’s platform, message, and goals as well as the people at my local, state, and national levels make all of the work and struggles worth it.