When James Williams started as a labor organizer in the 1960s, he carried around an A.B. Dick mimeograph machine—the type where you had to manually spread ink inside the drum with a brush—along with an Underwood typewriter in the trunk of his car. During an organizing drive, he would wait for workers to get off a shift at 3 o’clock and report what had happened in the shop that day, and Williams would have a leaflet ready for the midnight shift.
“Now,” the 75-year old member of the Tacoma, Washington, chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America reflects, “we got WiFi and social media and things we could only dream of.” At the recent DSA Convention in Chicago, he is surrounded by people half a century his junior, many of whom have developed community, rituals, shared references, and friendships on Twitter, and practically none of whom can picture a mimeograph machine, much less operate one. “I’m way behind the curve.”
Williams, a retired professor of social work initially from Kentucky, joined DSA in 1992. For most of the following 25 years, however, his involvement has consisted chiefly of reading and trying to stay informed about what was going on in the organization. Retiring to Tacoma in 2010, he found that the local chapter had about 15 members—on paper. “All of us were white geezers, and we never really met or did anything,” he said. “Then Bernie came along, and whoosh!”
That is the sound of the membership of DSA exploding from roughly 6,000 to its current figure over 25,000. It now boasts that it is the largest socialist organization in the United States since World War II. With 697 delegates from 49 states, the 2017 convention is by considerable measure the organization’s largest ever. The great majority of the new members are Bernie Sanders’s most devout base of support: young people.
Vaughan Allen Goodwin saw it coming. “I knew that at some point the frustrations of young people would cause them to want to go somewhere and to be in something,” says the 49-year-old Boston-based delegate. Goodwin, inspired by the late scholar Manning Marable to get involved with Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, has been a DSA member ever since. This is his first national convention, though. “The emphasis was not on young people last time I was invited,” he explains. “Most successful movements start off and are led by young people.”
Like Williams, Goodwin took a hiatus from DSA, coming back after many years when the blossoming membership encouraged him to bring his long experience organizing to the novice-heavy chapter. Hailing initially from Philadelphia, Goodwin has never known a life without the left: His mother was a labor organizer, he attended Morehouse College for undergrad, and then set out for the north of England for graduate school at the University of Lancashire. It was there that he got his first taste of organizing, serving as an antiracist officer with the National Union of Students. When he returned stateside, Goodwin moved to Boston to go into his mother’s line of business and organize with a labor union.