It was the 1980s, and a strategic merger was underway. It wasn’t between BP and Standard Oil, or between BP and Conoco. This was a merger on a much smaller scale, and for totally different reasons: the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and the New American Movement were joining forces to become the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in an effort to resist corporate domination amid a rightward shift in global politics (see: the triumph of politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher).
They didn’t know it then, but in the decades that followed the DSA would not only engage its own political activists, but it would light a fire under designers, illustrators, and other formerly complacent creatives to put their skills towards making change happen. Now, those volunteer working groups may be changing how creative agencies and design studios do business.
Back at the time of its founding, the DSA was only 6,000 members strong. Decades later, in 2014, when it decided to support Bernie Sanders in his presidential run, that number had barely hit 6,500 nationwide. Yet in the months after the 2016 elections, the DSA gained 13,000 members, and at last count in August this year, that number had risen to more than 45,000—firmly cementing its place as the largest socialist organization in the United States.
Suffice it to say that the Dem Socialists have found a new fervor and foothold in American politics—and, in Trump, an opponent that for them is as worthy as both Reagan and Thatcher combined. Buoyed by the fact that the word “socialist” no longer carries its Cold War-era connotations for a younger generation galvanized by issues like social justice, racial justice, “Medicare for all,” eradicating involuntary homelessness, and abolishing ICE, 40 DSA-affiliated candidates won U.S. primaries this year; in New York alone, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar both beat long-term incumbents for a seat in Congress and Senate, respectively.
Salazar and Ocasio-Cortez’s campaigns were supported by the NYC-DSA, one of the largest local chapters at just over 3,500 members. As the New York chapter’s growth has mirrored that of the organization as a whole, it’s gained a unique addition: the Media Working Group, which acts as a sort of de-facto creative agency for the NYC-DSA. It’s made up of graphic designers, videographers, web developers, and copywriters who volunteer their skills towards supporting all the issue-based campaigns and activism that the NYC-DSA is involved in—anything from organizing protests against Brett Kavanaugh to advocating for the NY Health Act.
In part because New York is a hub for creatives, the Media Working Group is unique inside of the DSA for its size, scope, and level of design professionalism. But even for creatives of all political persuasions, it’s an intriguing case study in creating a lower barrier to entry for designers interested in using their skills for social and political work. In the years since the 2016 elections, designers across the U.S. who have been galvanized by social issues are not always sure how to best put their talents to use. Here’s one group that has figured out a system for assisting them to do just that.
The Media Working Group formed in early 2017 after a bump in membership following the election brought in a surge of volunteers, many of whom were artists or designers. The NYC-DSA found they needed a system in place to match the need for graphic work with those members equipped and willing to meet them. “People were creating graphics and outreach imagery ad-hoc, so they decided to form a group that would take in media requests and distribute them in a strategic way,” says James Thacher, a web developer and designer who joined as an organizer for the Media Working Group shortly after its formation.
The Media Working Group is organized like the DSA’s other “working groups.” Within NYC-DSA, there are geographically-based branches, and then there are campaign working groups, which are tasked with coordinating the organization’s work on specific issues. These groups include the Immigrant Justice Working Group, the Housing Working Group, the Racial Justice Working Group, and so on; each has its own elected leaders. Working groups plan campaigns in support of their specific issues, which NYC-DSA branches and members can join. The Media Working Group is essentially a microcosm for how the NYC-DSA as a whole is run: members elect “discipline leads,” who in turn help advocate for their group within the larger working group, and help establish the Media Working Group’s bylaws.
All of the working groups play a role in the broader make-up of the chapter. Each branch has its own organizing committee, and each organizing committee elects representatives to the Steering Committee and the Citywide Leadership Committee (if you’re lost, there’s a helpful diagram below). “We use a democratic-worker model for our membership,” says Hallie Jay Pope, who was elected design and illustration lead in December of 2017. “A lot of our workers are in unions; all of our labor is voluntary. It’s been an interesting position to be in, especially coming from the creative industry where labor is almost always undervalued.”
Prior to moving to New York, Pope, a Harvard Law School graduate and founder of the Graphic Advocacy Project, worked as the lone design volunteer for the D.C. chapter. “There’s a huge concentration of creatives in New York,” she says, and the NYC-DSA needed a way to organize them.
While working groups are typically for issues, not creative disciplines, the Media Working Groups is a bit of its own beast. It spans all of the branches and takes requests from the other working groups based on their design needs for the campaigns they’re working on. Each subsect within the working group—design and illustration, video, copywriting, and so on—has its own elected leaders, and those leaders speak on the group’s behalf in forming the bylaws for working group as a whole.
In short, the Media Working Group is run democratically, by its all-volunteer membership, just like every other aspect of the DSA. Thacher says that the group has also started holding Skillshare nights and workshops that discuss how this model might be brought back and applied to design studios and workplaces where volunteers are currently employed.
Pope, who grew up in a Dem Socialist household, sees the worker-ownership model that grounds the DSA working groups as the “core of socialism,” though she recognizes that for many of the millennial members, other issues offer a clearer way in. “All the things we’re working with dovetails into one broader goal, and it’s important to have messaging that reflects that—that Socialists believe in racial justice, gender justice, environmental justice,” she says. She sees design and illustration as a way to communicate what Socialism is to a broader public—especially people who are sympathetic to those issues but maybe don’t identify as Socialists. “The goal is for people to see that and, if they also believe in those things, realize, ‘Oh my god, maybe I’m a Socialist.’”
In a broad sense, the graphic language the Media Working Group applies across the chapter’s efforts seek to do two things: educate people about policy issues and mobilize them to support Dem Socialist causes. While the former tends to involve breaking down complex issues (a toolkit for a tenant advocacy campaign, for instance), the latter is meant to distill a message down to a impactful image.
Designing a poster for the counter-protests to White Supremacists in Charlottesville, for example, should be “stark, stand-out, and evoke an emotional reaction,” says Pope. The campaign imagery created by the group is similarly simple: lots of red backgrounds, clean, fat type, images of candidates’ faces, and the Socialist symbol of a rose in a fist. It draws the eye and gets the message across quickly.
During the primaries earlier this year, when the DSA was supporting several local candidates, members of the Media Working Group were frequently needed to help support the local campaigns. While Ocasio-Cortez had her own internal design team, Salazar’s campaign relied heavily on the work of the Media Working Group members. Ethan Fox, a social media organizer for NYC-DSA, was recommended by another member to join the Salazar campaign as their social media manager.
“We’re really trying to take advantage of the fact that we have seen a tremendous amount of growth, even just over the past year,” says Fox. “We’re hoping to use social media and social graphics as a funnel getting people connected to the work that they want to do and find important, and also enjoy doing.”