Austin Democratic Socialists of America

James Cole

Do you self-identify as a man?:

Do you self-identify as a person from a traditionally marginalized group?:

Please describe your involvement in Austin DSA:
Since November 2017 I’ve served as Austin DSA’s first ever secretary. Over the past few years I’ve been a committed contributor to socialist organizing within Austin DSA, the national DSA Medicare For All campaign, my own union (NABET-CWA 6186), and Austin’s long-standing Jacobin Reading Group.

In Austin DSA I’ve taken on quite a bit of administrative work. I am responsible for the weekly DSA update email that goes out to members each week and maintaining DSA’s online event calendar (though I’ve had a lot of help, particularly from Maryam N). I record and distribute minutes from general body meetings and Leadership Committee meetings and have often handled inquiries from new members or prospective members who reach out to Austin DSA. I’ve also taken part in the LC’s planning activities, helping plan our general body meetings and other chapter-wide events (including fundraisers, discussion forums, and other large events).

Through this work, I’ve helped facilitate a greatly increased level of transparency, knowledge among members, democratic decision making, and accessibility within Austin DSA. I’ve also done that outside my work as the chapter secretary by working on several sets of bylaws changes. The first set I worked on and organized around created our current 9-person Leadership Committee which holds monthly open meetings including time for member feedback. Those bylaws changes also formalized our system of Roberts Rules and Progressive Stack, which provide equal access at our general body meetings for all members (replacing an informal system where the co-chairs held most decision making ability). Since then I’ve helped develop bylaws changes that create our annual convention, allow for special general body meetings, expand the LC to 11 members, and elect the entire LC at-large. I believe these combined changes have greatly increased the ability of members to participate in our democratic decision making process and our political work.

I’ve also done a great deal of organizing work for DSA. I spent much of 2018 serving as a co-chair of the Health Justice Committee and took a leadership role on our successful Paid Sick Days/Medicare For All campaign, which included our chapter’s largest-ever canvass event and a series of canvass events that energized our membership, developed a number of new leaders, and increased our presence as an organization within Austin politics. More recently I’ve been one of the lead organizers of our Socialist Night School program, the chapter’s first major foray into providing members and interested non-members a basic socialist education.

I also serve on the national DSA Medicare For All Political Subcommittee, an advisory body for the Medicare For All campaign. I’ve contributed to that national campaign in various ways: developing written training materials, leading training calls with activists around the country, holding calls with individual chapters to help them get their own campaigns off the ground, and travelling to Wichita to assist with one of DSA’s regional training workshops. All the while I’ve been an active attendee of various DSA events throughout the year, canvassing, showing up to rallies and protests, contributing (and often taking notes!) at committee meetings, and just generally being invested in DSA’s day to day work.

Outside of DSA I’m no less involved in socialist organizing. I’m a shop steward through NABET-CWA 6186 at my job in public television, where I was a key part in organizing around and negotiating a new contract for my workplace that raised the minimum wage to over $15 for the first time. For the past three years I’ve helped run the Austin Jacobin Reading Group, a long-standing socialist education group that has helped dozens of people learn about socialist history, practice, and ideas and has been a place where many of DSA’s organizers have developed their political perspective.

What strengths would you bring to the leadership committee?:
Dedication and Follow-Through: I’m very dedicated to this organization and the broader movement. I believe that within the next few years we can grow this group to an effective political organization numbering in the hundreds of thousands with a significant presence in local and national government and, more importantly, with a leading position within a renewed and more militant labor movement. But I know that such a transformation doesn’t happen by default; it’s our collective responsibility to follow through when volunteering for a task and to keep up a steady level of work over the course of the year. I take that very personally. Because of that, I’m willing to take on a lot of work, ask others to take on work as well to facilitate leadership development, and follow-through and follow-up to make sure work is getting done, new leaders are developed, and our movement continues to grow.

Patience and Solidarity: We can’t win socialism alone or in tiny groups – socialism has to be a genuine mass movement to succeed. But any time you get a big enough group of people you’re going to wind up with some pretty severe disagreements (especially if those people are leftists). Working in the last LC has helped me develop more patience and the sense of solidarity necessary to work through disagreements. Some disagreements can be set aside as we take collective action together. Some disagreements are more urgent, less ignorable, and have to be worked through via listening, discussion, argument, and then either a new shared consensus or a democratic decision that might not always leave all parties happy but allowed all parties the ability to participate. This is a really important quality for an LC member in Austin DSA. I believe I’ve shown an ability to work through really difficult conflict this past year with patience and solidarity, and I’m committed to doing the same in 2019.

Political Understanding: I’ve got a good understanding of the larger discussions and debates within the socialist movement, the labor movement and American and International politics in general. I’m a constant reader with a good understanding of the fundamentals of many of the various branches of left politics and the theory and history that underpin our current political moment. Admittedly, some of this is just nerd shit: esoteric debates from 60 years ago aren’t always going to apply in 2019. But it’s worthwhile to recognize that as we try to go somewhere new we’re coming from somewhere as well. As we work on developing our strategies and tactics towards building a new world we need to look at the history of those strategy and tactics (and some of the theory that motivated them) and to let that inform our decision making.

If elected, what would be your priorities be for the leadership committee and Austin DSA?:
I’d like to see Austin DSA focus more on outward facing activities. I believe we have a good internal culture (though not without its issues) and lots of different places for people to plug into chapter activities. That said, I feel that our chapter can get bogged down in inward-facing work to the detriment of our continued growth. On any given month, the overwhelming majority of events on a DSA calendar are committee meetings. I’d like to see more outward-facing events like canvasses, lectures, leafleting, picketing, Socialist Night Schools, rallies, tabling, and other activities that are targeted at people outside the organization.

Similarly, I’d like to see our outward-facing communications improved. I think we can develop the ability to get featured in the media more often, place op-eds in newspapers, get members interviewed on podcasts, and develop a presence in Spanish-language media. I think we could also stand to improve our social media presence; Austin DSA should be active on all major social media platforms promoting our good work and asking our followers to get involved.

Lastly (and most importantly), I’d like to see us engage in large coordinated campaigns with other DSA chapters. I think Medicare For All and Labor work will be crucial places where we can work with other chapters across the country. Reproductive justice work during the lege session will necessitate coordination with other Texas chapters. And should DSA endorse Bernie Sanders for President (and I hope we do!) we’ll have a campaign where our 55,000+ members can make an enormous difference, talk to vast numbers of people about socialism, and build the socialist movement into a true mass movement where we can count adherents and sympathizers in the millions, not thousands.

What is your approach to resolving conflict and achieving consensus among differing viewpoints?:
Conflict is inevitable in an organization like ours and shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a negative. New ideas are often generated through conflict and I don’t believe there’s anything to be gained by expecting people to paper over serious disagreements or pretend everyone in the organization is on the same page. When conflict is political in nature it’s best to let it play out – let everyone make their case, encourage people to listen and to think about the issues at stake, work together as a deliberative body to identify areas of agreement, and then vote on decisions openly and democratically. We agree about more than we disagree, and we should work to find those places of agreement and turn them into political action.

Less productive is personal conflict which can be intensely destructive to a collective political project and leave individual members traumatized, burned out, and unwilling to continue participating in DSA. The first goal in personal conflict resolution should be de-escalation: getting parties involved to take a step back, lower the stakes, and agree to moving through the conflict without letting it get out of hand. I believe that, again, we’re best served not ignoring conflict or pretending it doesn’t exist. Rather, we should discuss our issues openly, figure out areas of agreement, and find mutually agreed upon solutions. I’m hopeful the chapter can develop a code of conduct to adopt to help with this.

Although I think that conflict can be productive, I believe that serious toxic or oppressive behavior should not be tolerated within the chapter. This includes racist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, and other bigoted, harassing, bullying, or violent behavior. Members found to be engaging in behavior that clearly crosses those boundaries should be removed from the organization.

Do you identify with any caucus or political tendency, either within DSA or in general?:
I’m a Marxist and a democratic socialist. Within DSA, I associate with the caucus forming around The Call/Momentum. I believe in the power of large universal social programs to bring masses of working class people into political action and that socialist organizations and organized labor are essential vehicles for transformational working class politics.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?:
2018 was a rough year for working class people in the United States. The continued growth of DSA has been one of precious few silver linings in a year dominated by the racist, misogynist, xenophobic, authoritarian, anti-union, quasi-fascist Trump presidency. The Big Tent, Multi-Tendency nature of DSA is a big strength but also invites lots of internal conflict. Whatever happens at Austin DSA’s convention (and DSA’s national convention in the summer) let’s recommit to working together to build socialism in the face of the hard right, try to avoid needless infighting, and focus on developing the kind of transformative campaigns that can help move working class people into political action.