“Socialism Is the Future”: Inside the 2023 YDSA Conference

“Socialism Is the Future”: Inside the 2023 YDSA Conference

“Socialism Is the Future”: Inside the 2023 YDSA Conference

In mid-April, hundreds of young socialists from around the country gathered at the Chicago Teachers Union for a weekend of education and debate.

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Last year, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade., ignoring decades of precedent with the Dobbs v. Jackson Health Organization decision. Republicans have used majorities in statehouses to curtail civil rights and liberties for queer and transgender communities. Tennessee Republicans were expelled Democratic lawmakers for calling for gun control in the wake of a school shooting in Nashville. Billionaire funded think tanks have drafted legislation that could erase decades of child labor law and protections.

All the while, members of the Democratic Socialists of America, and their youth wing, the Young Democratic Socialists of America have been campaigning, door-knocking, and text-banking to keep the fight for a better world alive. DSA chapters in Kansas, Kentucky, and Ohio fought hard to help defeat anti-abortion measures in their respective states, while YDSA propelled strike activity on campuses from California to New York.

That sustained sense of hope permeated YDSA’s 2023 Winter Conference. In mid-April, hundreds of young socialists gathered to meet, debate, and learn from one another under the theme “Socialism is the Future.” Conferences are treated as an education forum, and the interactions from members—longtime and newer—often inform the resolutions and elections at YDSA and DSA’s conventions.

As the youth wing of DSA, the Young Democratic Socialists of America specifically organizes at universities, colleges, and high schools. Though YDSA has existed since the 1980s—previously called YDS—its membership has skyrocketed in recent years. The organization grew from 25 registered chapters in 2016 to 84 in 2019, according to an interview with The New York Times. Today, the organization has 125 chapters across twenty-seven states.

The 2023 conference was held in the Chicago Teachers Union, where the city’s newly elected progressive mayor, Brandon Johnson, began his career. “Brandon for Mayor” signs lined the gate of CTU headquarters and could be found on overhead bridges, parks, and porches scattered across the city.

YDSA’s conference was combined with the larger organization this year. Such blending was ostensibly an attempt to generate conversation, allowing YDSA members and their counterparts in DSA to interact. Kristian Hernandez, chair of DSA’s National Political Committee, joined the group in 2016. Since that time, the youth wing has only grown more influential. “I think there’s been an ongoing discussion about the need to make sure there’s a lot more cohesion between DSA and YDSA,” said Hernandez, acknowledging that the last YDSA conference she attended was in Washington, D.C., five years ago. At this year’s conference, Hernandez was moved to see “a lot of folks here younger than I was when I first started,” and several “multigenerational speakers” in panels and workshops.

The purpose of YDSA—and its role in DSA’s long-term project—has always been a point of contention. During negotiations last year, one theme continuously emerged: limited understanding of YDSA’s structure among DSA leadership. There was “confusion about why YDSA was having a separate conference,” and a general “lack of knowledge about these prior conferences,” said Leena Yumeen, a senior at Columbia University and the other co-chair for the NCC.

But YDSA’s recent student worker unionization campaigns and the Day of Student Action for Reproductive Justice have been especially impressive to older members. “The NPC is starting to see YDSA as a strategic part of the organization that deserves resources and investment,” said Colosa. “I’m really excited for the momentum that this will build, and how that will influence the convention.”

Labor anchored the event’s programming. After the conference, in the nearby UAW hall, DSA announced its Strike Ready campaign to support UPS workers this summer. “That’s the highest national priority for the organization,” saidDSA Communications Director Chris Kutalik. Other members of DSA leadership felt “it was important to us to have another space outside convention that labor and electoral activists could coordinate, strategize, build relationships, and lay the foundation for that kind of organizing.”

A panel of labor organizers—young and old—gave advice to conference attendees on how to best support unionization. “YDSA and university campuses are at a uniquely critical point in society,” said Noah Thompson, a member of University of Oregon YDSA. At Thompson’s school, undergraduate student workers have recently undertaken a campaign to build a wall-to-wall union. If successful, it would be the largest such union in the country. “Student workers have this unique dual oppression, where being a worker interferes with our ability to study, to be good students, to learn, to get a good education.” By focusing on colleges and universities, according to Thompson, you create the “next generation of organizers to transform our workplaces, to transform our schools, and to transform society as a whole.”

For May Hall, a member of the University of Missouri–Columbia (Mizzou) YDSA, coming to terms with their identity, and the societal structures that ostracized trans people, were necessary steps in their development as an organizer. “I had suspicions when I was young, but I pushed them down, because I was in Missouri and I didn’t think it would be a safe idea.” Describing the wave of anti-trans legislation as a “nightmare scenario,” they spoke about the new rules enacted by Missouri’s attorney general restricting gender affirming health care for trans youth and adults. Given the circumstances, Hall feels that socialist organizing has become the only viable option for many trans youth. “It’s impossible to look at that and not go: there is something fundamentally wrong here, something systemically wrong here, and we need to fix it.”

Sean Orr, a UPS Steward and leader of DSA’s Labor Committee, said that he is inspired by young people’s commitment to creating a better world. What should YDSA members do with the knowledge and lessons gained at the conference? “Take them to your fellow workers, because that’s where they need to be.” Ultimately, what happened in those few days at the Chicago Teachers Union will help shape the future of American socialism. “We are seeing a new moment in the labor movement,” said Mae Bracelin, a freshman from the University of Oregon. “We are seeing a new, up-and-coming generation that I am genuinely confident will push us further than we’ve ever been.”

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