Abandoned, remade, rebuilt: A look inside the 2018 DSA Rust Belt Convention

The official logo for the first annual DSA Rust Belt Convention held on August 11–12th, 2018.

On Sunday August 12th, 200 socialists gathered on the steps of Community Forge in Pittsburgh, PA for a group photo, ending the first Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Rust Belt Convention. As ironic fate would have it, on the same day white supremacists were marching in Washington D.C. on the 1 year anniversary of the murder of Heather Heyer. The crowd in Pittsburgh stood proudly in front of a banner stating “Always Antifascist” and outnumbered the white supremacists in DC approximately 10 to 1. The message was loud and clear to anyone paying attention. 200 socialists from the entire region were willing to gather for the weekend in a small corner of Pittsburgh, sleep on a church floor, and meet in a sweltering re-purposed school. Meanwhile a white supremacist rally with exponentially larger media coverage couldn’t even muster a full city bus of attendees in the nation’s capital.

Something is happening in the Rust Belt. What that will be has yet to be determined.

The conference was put on by the Pittsburgh chapter of DSA, with lead organizer Lindsey Disler running the whole event. She spoke to me after the hubbub of the conference had passed. She describes the genesis of the convention:

Really bunch of people hoping on a conference call and deciding they wanted to do a meet up. Some of us had experience with conference planning so we decided a conference was a great idea.

When asked what the goal of the conference was:

The goal was to bring together people from across the Rust Belt, get the ball rolling on creating a regional support network in a region where it can difficult to organize. I wanted to help keep the conference as grassroots as possible, because frankly, the rank and file members often have some of the greatest ideas in addressing Rust Belt issues because they live it. Furthermore, the rank and file members is where our power comes from, the power is in the locals.

Hailing from Cleveland, I went to the DSA Rust Belt Conference not as a writer, but an attendee. I have been a member of DSA since January of 2016, having been a Marxist for many years but never really finding a political home. What I saw at Rust Belt was surprising in more ways than one, overall a hopeful and inspiring glimpse at what’s to come. I left the conference with a singular thought: the politics of the Rust Belt are not shared as state or city politics, but regional in scope.

The group photo on the last day. (Photo credit: Pittsburgh DSA Twitter)

God’s Houseguests

The place where most of the attendees will be sleeping is the Christian Church of Wilkinsburg. After I’m let inside, I join a tour in progress of the church itself, a beautiful building opened in 1916 after a fire destroyed the congregation’s original church the previous year. A glance at the church’s history states a rare admission: that race exists in America and the history of changing communities areoften inextricably wrapped up in it. A small group of us follow Shane, who looks friendly, harmless, but a bit overwhelmed. He wears a rainbow flag W.W.J.D. lanyard and acts part-caretaker and wrangler. He’s God’s tour guide, telling us which fridges to not use and to ignore the gendered signs on the bathrooms.

The church is a mishmash of spaces, all close-quarters. Parochial studies are strewn with sleeping bags, even the full basketball court, a creepy lower level, and the chapel itself doubling as a relaxation area. The sanctuary is the only room large enough to stretch out in without tripping over someone. I didn’t see anyone praying in particular, the Bibles and hymnals left undisturbed, but when you enter and see the altar, the giant cross, the expanse of it, everyone just quiets down. Not very many of us are overtly religious, but we respect our hosts, heavenly or otherwise.

The church sanctuary (Photo credits: Christian Church of Wilkinsburg)

The church is the old and the new smashed together with the new, soot-covered brick with paper doves hanging from the rafters. The space exudes a lovely, handmade feel, obvious that the regular occupants care a great deal about it. I never thought otherwise.

After spending about 15 minutes on the tour, I realize none of the church is really air-conditioned. It’s stiflingly hot, being mid-August, which is why most of the early arrivals camped out in the cool basement area, including the entire 20 person group from Cincinnati. The entire setup feels less like a political conference and more like a socialist lock-in party.

It’s the first night, so I go out, making fast friends with a trio from New York, and then once again for beers with a larger group of people attending the conference. We’re from all over the region: Buffalo, Syracuse, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Akron, Harrisburg, Detroit, Huron Valley, West Virginia, Louisville, and of course Pittsburgh themselves. Everyone is happy to be a part of something new, even if we’re not sure what that is yet. There’s a nervous energy, everyone is eager just to get started.

A running theme of the night’s conversation is a healthy skepticism of electoral politics and a general resignation that nothing revolutionary will come of it. An important detail is that even though many of us joined DSA funneled in from the Bernie Sanders 2016 Presidential campaign, people are talking about him in the past tense. Something overall good that happened in the past but has little forward potential. Our political imagination has grown beyond capitalist party electoral politics and hoping for a single Trump term in 2020. We don’t have time to wait, there’s too much at stake.

After I get back, slightly tipsy, I sneak around and find my way down a tight set of plastic stairs, not knowing where they go, and find myself standing in the empty baptismal pool looking out into the sanctuary. The walls are covered in a hand-painted mural of an arcadian river. Where I’m standing is approximately 2 miles from the Allegheny River, a notoriously polluted water source, a disastrous legacy of the region’s infamous steel industry, at once its most popular economic driver and then environmental annihilator. A main tributary of the Ohio river, the Allegheny is now a popular dumping ground for fracking chemicals. I imagine no baptisms are happening there.


Ghost Towns

(Photo credit: Carl Wilhoyte)

The morning of the first day, I decided to walk to the conference to get a better feel for the town I knew absolutely nothing about: Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania. It is hot, humid, and damp outside the church; it is also eerily silent. A city built into the foggy hills of Pittsburgh. There’s no car traffic, no animals, almost empty streets. I pass one person on a bicycle going in the opposite direction. A bus with a half dozen people putters by.

A ghostly idea of a town remains. This is a place typically euphemistically called “rough”.

Downtown Wilkinsburg (Photo credit: Realtor.com)

Wilkinsburg, a borough east of Pittsburgh, is an all-to familiar sight for anyone from this area. Its history has been copy-pasted across the Rust Belt: settled after the Civil War, enjoyed the boom of the early 20th century with a single industry propping up the town, then suffered a slow, painful economic decline when it left for greener pastures and cheaper international labor. A once-prosperous steel town for middle-class whites, soon abandoned in white flight and now a majority-black neighborhood, left in the moldy wreckage of post-industrialism: boarded up, forgotten, and ignored. In a bitter twist of irony, after the land was first stolen from the native Shawnee and Ohio Valley tribes, the tract was originally called “Africa” for reasons unknown and passed hands for decades until the town was formally declared in 1893. The majority of the inhabitants here are the descendants of the continent this stolen land is named after, and they are both weathering all of the consequences of both forms of colonialism and capitalism.

(Photo credit: CBS Pittsburgh)

Now in 2018, after the white people fled to the suburbs taking their tax base with them, there are lots of grates on windows, “beware of dog” signs, doors hanging off hinges, trash piles everywhere. Wilkinsburg is a town barely hanging on the razor’s edge. Several surreal billboards populate street corners. The sidewalks are split open like cracked plaster. There are a few houses that are impeccably well-kept, with picture-esque gardens and colorful shutters, as if to emphatically say, “We live here and we’re not going anywhere. I love my home.”

It is very easy to hang your head and bemoan the decline of industrial America as some inevitable event. It’s not like a hurricane or a tornado hit this place, it’s attempted economic murder. It’s a hate crime, the victims of capitalism are always first black and brown folks. You may scoff at such a violent term as “economic murder”, but what has happened to this town is violence, just bureaucratic, slow, and not (most of the time) at the barrel of a gun.

East Cleveland, abandoned (Photo credit: Youtube, Osprey1998)

If anything, Wilkinsburg reminds me of East Cleveland which reminds me of Youngstown which reminds me of Detroit which reminds me of Flint which reminds me of Buffalo which reminds me of Gary which reminds me of Decatur. Pittsburgh and Cleveland specifically have shared a bitter sports rivalry and also the same post-industrial fate. The same aching pain from the working class watching the rest of the world move on and pass them by. Everything that held these cities together just left and no one in power seemed able to or wanted to stop it.

The walk to the conference is crushing in that I could see what the town could be if the state had decided to invest in it, or if the most vulnerable of its residents weren’t cast to the whims of international capital. The borough has many churches, who act as the only functioning support structure in the area. They are to be commended, as are the people who choose to stay. Many don’t have a choice, yet have carved out a town for themselves the best they can.

Community Forge, formerly Johnston Public School (Photo credit: NEXTpittsburgh)

I arrive at Community Forge, an appropriate metaphor for what these groups are trying to do; an abandoned structure being revitalized. Much like the American Left, it is a work in progress, a handmade affair. Formerly Johnston Elementary School closed down in 2012, Community Forge opened in 2016, repurposed as an office space and community center, keeping the outdoor basketball courts and main atrium. It still feels and smells like an old school, the same linoleum floors, indoor gym, and central staircase at the main entrance. A wave of grade school nostalgia smacks me in the face.

It’s a slightly confused space filled with many different organizations, including the Pittsburgh chapter of DSA lucky enough to score their own office. It’s also home to XPogo, an extreme pogo stick sports entertainment company. You can’t make this stuff up.

After checking in, I take a moment to rest and check the news. White supremacist Gavin McInnes and The Proud Boys had been banned from Twitter. This came a full one year after their disastrous appearance at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally resulting in the murder of Heather Heyer and the gang beating of DeAndre Harris. (By the way, depending on the compassion and market savvy of corporate media to fight white supremacist violence and hatred is a failed strategy.)

That morning, the DNC wheezed out a press release also effectively reversed its policy on accepting donations from fossil fuel lobbying group. Our collective mistrust in electoral politics is well-earned. You’d be amazed how wary mainstream publications are about naming what things are: the Proud Boys are white supremacists, not “white chauvinists”, and the DNC allowing fossil fuel contributions isn’t called “climate suicide”. The DNC and its head, the walking skeleton Tom Perez, claimed the language was “anti-worker”, regardless of the fact workers themselves were never prevented from personally donating. Every single proposal socialists have supported to phase out dirty energy has always put the worker first and foremost, helping them transition to the immediately necessary world. So it goes.

If anything, the dismantling and hollowing out of the Rust Belt has been a bipartisan affair for decades. We’re on our own, folks, and maybe we always have been.


The First Day

The auditorium (Photo credit: Carl Wilhoyte)

Community Forge is a sweatbox, just like the church. Not only is the air stale, but there’s 200+ people inside. Attendees are milling about, talking, setting up chairs, all in the atrium where a giant fan in the corner is the only source of ventilation. After about 45 minutes, the conference begins. The opening introduction is mostly housekeeping: respect the buildings, note the gender neutral bathrooms, and makes a concerted effort to be inclusive. An interesting addition is using the ASL clap, which is waving your hands in the air “jazz hands” style. This was a last minute change. The speaker also makes emphasis that everything is voluntary and also calls for the audience to suggest rule changes for the conference. No one openly does, but it’s a meaningful gesture.

The conference organizers understand the outside world can be punishing and alienating, and ascribing to any philosophy that doesn’t include hunting the homeless is seen as “unpragmatic”. The American economy is industrially designed to make you unhappy and unsatisfied, advertising being an assault on your self-esteem, identity, culture, and history. Politics are displayed as gladiatorial combat between rich morons. Entertainment is louder, more expensive, more incoherent. The world moves at a million miles an hour and we’re just trying to not be spun off into space. This type of acknowledgement of your right to not be assaulted by the modern world, to take a moment for yourself, to opt out, feels so strange because we’re just used to being so alone and having no choice.

Let’s go ahead and get something uncomfortable out of the way: it was a very white room. Of the 200 attendees, only about 10 were people of color. This is in a city that’s 67% black. My own town, Cleveland, is 53% black. In all honesty, DSA chapters from this area simply do not do a good job representing the makeup of the cities they hail from. Many chapters are actively making a good faith effort to recruit a more diverse membership, wary of the problematic tokenism that commonly follows efforts like these.

Lindsey Disler, the lead organizer for the conference, responded to the demographic imbalance as:

This really speaks to the fact that this is something that DSA (as a whole) actively needs to do better on. We need to take a hard look in the mirror and ask why that is and then actually do something about it.

Adam Bojak, a DSA member from Buffalo, echoed that sentiment:

I think the racial and socioeconomic makeup of the conference attendees likely reflects that of the attending chapters — it sure does ours. I think diversifying our membership is an issue DSA faces nationally, and it’s something that I know most members take very seriously. Minorities need to be properly represented in the DSA.

For much of the last half-century, the American Left has existed in several exclusionary spheres: academia and small hostile enclaves. It didn’t used to be this way, however, and even the most cursory glance at the history of anti-capitalist politics before and during the civil rights era shows people of color leading the way.

Every campaign worth waging these days: Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, the Flint water crisis, immigration, all lead by black, indigenous, or other people of color (BIPOC). Capitalist political parties have always exploited racist fears through ignorance and economics, and America has never really dealt with its own racist history in a meaningful way. It’s only through a concerted government and capitalist campaign, from internalized white ignorance to militarized law enforcement to trade deals to political party machinery, that the American Left is continually marginalized.

The Left’s demands, such as single payer healthcare or cooperative economics, are increasingly popular and, not shocking, always have been among the people who could use them the most. This is considered a stage of rebuilding, and diversifying membership needs to be a central goal. Not just to resemble a college recruitment photo for optics, but to be a vital, necessary force in people’s lives who need a better narrative that what they are being sold. Wilkinsburg has a narrative that is accepted as inevitable. Bullshit. Working class people of color are smart to be wary of politics in general, less they be co-opted as window dressing for wokeness or exploited and betrayed as they have so often been.

DSA is an untested, unknown organization to most, and honestly, isn’t radical enough most of the time for its namesake. The deck is stacked against people of color enough as it is, and often their concerns are nowhere to be found in mainstream discourse favor of celebrity, horse race electoralism, or personality clash. Most DSA members are brought in through friendships and work colleagues, which screams the obvious.

The first talk is the history of the Rust Belt. It’s a general overview. The emerging trend was any town or community focused on a single industry has essentially been decimated. One of the inconvenient truths when we talk about the Rust Belt’s previous industrial success is that its economic success went almost exclusively to whites, yet its failures are dumped like industrial runoff, sometimes literally, into communities of color. The success of the unionization of labor around the turn of the century can partially be attributed to white workers banding together against emigrating Southern black workers to Northern cities.

Yet another blind spot is when people talk about the “golden age of prosperity” post-WWII, what they are describing is the building of suburbia and sprawl. This malignant form of car-dependent, corporate infrastructure is one of the central drivers of the economic decay and social alienation many of us are experiencing right now. It is entropy made physical. Industrial America, without any perspective, was digging its own ecological, economic, and psychological grave.

Wilkinsburg had its own light-rail until it closed in 1975 due to declining ridership. Jobs had dried up, white people moved to car-dependent suburbia, the rest is history, empty towns, and a vine-covered building.

The Wilkinsburg Train Station (Photo credit: Nyttend)

Book Learning

I attend a talk by DSA of Metro Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky with a banger of a presentation about their successful campaign to save the North Building of the Cincinnati Library from being sold to scummy developer 3CDC.

DSA C/NK library protest (Photo credit: Socialist Alternative)

They built a coalition of citizen and library patrons and just did the work. The group dug in, pulled public records, packed city council meetings, held demonstrations. Even one member was arrested for printing off a sign using the library’s print lab. They revealed the son of a 3CDC executive was also on the Cincinnati library board of directors. They even did the math and showed the $54 million deal wouldn’t even net the city that much.

Rose Curtin from the chapter shared her thoughts on the campaign:

Our DSA chapter thought this was a clear case where rapacious capitalism would be obvious even to people who typically don’t want to see it. After the valuation of the library was done and it was clear that the library system would at best break even (make as much money selling an entire city block as it would take to vacate it and relocate the contents of the building), the plan was exposed as a ridiculous farce. But still the library board members didn’t immediately give up just because this wasn’t in the library’s financial interests, showing where their true allegiances lay.

The unambiguous win here was due to their framing of the narrative. The library board of directors created a technocratic, obtuse formula for the “value” of the building based on foot traffic, book circulation and computer center reservations per square foot, thereby determining what it was worth. This is complete horseshit. Libraries have qualitative social values that cannot be calculated with a number. It’s a public service, it doesn’t have a valuation like a stock price. DSA Cincy simply outbodied the library and the city, who simply couldn’t justify to the public why the building should be sold off to a corporate developer when it had such intrinsic value and importance to the city.

Rose Curtin elaborated on their strategies:

We were most successful at delegitimizing and displacing the board of trustees. Members of our coalition did extensive research to the point where we understood what was at play better than the board did and were able to make comments and ask questions at board meetings that made this clear.
When the (Cincinnati library) board spent $40,000 (which is probably enough to cover the annual salary for a social worker, one of the most common suggestions for what the building needs) on a meeting facilitator who wouldn’t allow the board to respond to questions and wanted to control the conversation, one of our co-chairs reminded the room that this was their public space and they didn’t need to be told what they could and couldn’t talk about.

Their victory shows a fundamental weakness of capitalist collusion: they do not like their malfeasance being exposed, they shrink from confrontation. Because they know what they are attempting is typically hideously unpopular. Because it looks so bad in the news, and local press likes nothing more that a story about seedy corruption. The public loves a villain, and subconsciously know big business is the cause of many of their ills.

Pittsburgh, 1940 (Photo credit: Smoke Control Lantern Slide Collection)

A later talk on eco-socialism alludes to environmental devastation as an industrial city pollution problem that drove workers, along with their racism, out to the ring suburbs far from the steel plants. One of the reasons for the existence of suburbia in the first place is the hellish coalscape of the modern industrial city. Capitalism always finds a way to innovate, it seems. A picture of 1940’s Pittsburgh looks like Blade Runner. Fracking and oil extraction in the Pennsylvania area is only as old as the book A Tale of Two Cities and intercollegiate baseball.

The library the talk takes place in has moldy, disorganized books on crumbling shelves. There’s a copy of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The room smells like an old garage; that sweet, pungent old mixed with dust. There are also unusual photos on the walls. Black schoolchildren individually looking into the same mirror, a photo taken over their shoulder, presumably by a teacher. They are at least six photos of kids on the walls, each looking at themselves, beaming with pride and youth.

I walk back to the church in the oppressive humidity and take a different route down the former downtown through Lincoln Highway. Several layers of Wilkinsburg are here: the original storefronts boarded up and repainted, then the secondary shops, such as closed video stores, former restaurants, car washes, TV repair places most likely drying up after the local Nabisco factory closed in 1998. The only stores to survive are convenience stores, a chain muffler place, cash for gold pawn shops, and a gun store. For all the endless wonk harping about the economic recovery, it skipped this town. All the good work in this town is being done at the intensely neighborhood level against incredible odds.

The tech boom that has “benefited” other areas comes with potential threats: gentrification and displacement, plus tech companies often don’t shop locally for talent. They want cheap real estate and desperate local governments to give them sweetheart tax breaks. There are no easy answers here.

Hosanna House (Photo credit: Mercury News)

That night, there is a DSA party at the Hosanna House, a local health and human services community center opening in 1996. The building was renovated through 2006 entirely by volunteers (totally about $200,000 of donated labor). Like Community Forge, Hosanna House is a reclaimed space and also a former school. Another party is happening on the first floor, a pan-African community event of local Somali, Nigerian, and Ethiopian immigrants and their families. It is a boisterous party and it’s still going as I head back to the church for the night.

I sit in the chapel and think.


Bottled Water

The second morning starts with a mapping exercise. What does the future of the socialist movement in the Rust Belt look like? The consensus is nearly universal, that the issues facing the Rust Belt are regional, not limited to state or town, and the shared pain our communities face in the wake of post-industrialism necessitates a collective response in kind. We know manufacturing is not coming back, and the tech boom in certain cities will only benefit Silicon Valley expats looking for cheap, union-free labor, almost the inverse of the betrayal of the manufacturing base. A burning desire to go rural is also present. The socialist movement started with the farmers, and the renewed interest in water justice benefits farmers and those left with no choice but to sell fracking rights.

The Rust Belt (Photo credit: Belt Magazine)

What should be the focus of a regional organization? Should there be also state-level collectives for state-specific issues? No one is arguing esoteric theory, they are actively asking questions about how these things should be concretely constructed. Small breakout groups have brief but intense brainstorming sessions.

By day 2, there is a conversation emerging, the focus of several talks and also organic conversations between attendees: water. Since Community Forge is at least 85–90* all of the time, people have been pounding bottled water, including me, and I haven’t even thought about it once.

For all its post-industrial poverty, what the Rust Belt is rich in is freshwater. The Great Lakes, which almost all Rust Belt states border, are 20% of the world’s freshwater supply. The eco-socialism talk from yesterday leads into another presentation today on water rights, lead again by the library-loving Cincinnati/North KY DSA Chapter. ORSANCO, the regional water authority for the Ohio River Valley, is considering dropping its pollution regulations in favor of weaker federal regulations not specifically linked to the area. The call is to stop that change.

Eira Tansey, a vocal advocate of regional water rights, laid out a plan by ORSANCO, the regional water pollution regular to drop its regional-level regulations in favor of (weaker) federal regulation. And with Trump and his lapdog Zinke threatening to shred the last vestiges of the Clean Water Act, the urgency to act is higher than ever. Tansey wrote in the DSA Cincinnati newsletter:

ORSANCO’s argument for abandoning its pollution is that it is largely duplicative of existing federal Clean Water standards, and its time would better be spend monitoring river conditions. However, the argument that the federal Clean Water Act is sufficient to protect the Ohio River is simply false.
ORSANCO’s proposal to eliminate its role in pollution control standards is an abdication of its authority and responsibility to protect the health of the Ohio River, and therefore our own health. It is a moral failure and a scientific fraud that will be perpetrated on the public.

We’re always on the defensive now and every single meager environmental protection the Obama administration put in place will now be swept away. One thing that the people at this conference understand is that the basic application of power is what matters. The illusions of decorum are pointless pageantry. Not legacy or respectability optics, but the ability to effect change through raw structural power. If nothing changes, when it comes to a resource as precious and universal as water, the victims of shortage, drought, or pollution will not be the people making the decisions.

Water knows no state border or partisanship, only class and wealth. This is a regional issue since the freshwater of the Great Lakes is shared by all of us and we all sink or swim alike. Immediately, people start connected the following issues directly to water justice:

  • Lead toxicity from pipes
  • Fracking chemicals leaching into groundwater
  • Pipelines over indigenous land
  • Lake pollution from industrial runoff
  • Privatization of the commons
  • Plastic pollution from bottled water
  • Drought caused by climate change

It seems so obvious. Many of us supported the Standing Rock Tribe yet didn’t think about the water in our backyard, such as the recent NEXUS pipeline spill in Ohio and continual citizen pressure to stop it. All of these issues are intersectional. They align with racial/gender discrimination, climate change, corporate dominance of local politics, capitalist destruction of the environment, imperialism; an entire rogue’s gallery of villains are tied inextricably to this one resource. They all lead to a single economic impulse: the environment is a resource to be plundered as quickly as possible for as much profit as possible, and that profit goes to the 1%. We are all expendable to this system.

Water protester at the 2016 GOP Convention in Cleveland (Photo credit: Garrett MacLean)

Since this resource is regional, the prevailing opinion is so must its response. Attendees from different chapters start brainstorming what their particular local issue will be. For Cleveland, the choice is obvious: lead pipes in a lakeside city with lead poisoning 4x the national average. In 2016, it was worse than Flint. Cleveland City Council has yet to pass comprehensive legislation dealing with the crisis. A fun and horrifying game if you want to hate life is to match up historical redlined districts to lead poisoning to current economic hardship. It’s a near 1–1–1 ratio.

The 1940 redlining map of Cleveland showing racial discrimination in housing. The red areas are majority black neighborhoods.
The most current map of Cleveland lead pipes.
The 2010 census demographic map of Cleveland. Notice a pattern?

The current process to receive lead remediation help from the city is byzantine and overly complicated, and places the onus on the homeowner to fix the issue or risk losing their homes. There is help, but it’s an obvious technocratic neoliberal solution designed only for people who like to fill out forms. Toledo passed legislation back in 2016 that required all rental properties to pass lead inspection, and the cost of the repairs going to landlords, not the occupants. City Cleveland Councilman Jeff Johnson has similar proposed legislation, but City Council has sat on it for over a year. It’s a no-brainer, a slam dunk bill that protects renters and places the cost on landlords to fix their own properties.

It’s a start, but the goal seems to be larger: a focus on water justice. Everyone feels a sense of urgency, of moral certainty and inevitability, which is the feeling of a cresting wave about to hit.


Conclusion

The conference ends with a group rendition of Solidarity Forever, which is a song, I have to admit to myself, is not exactly a banger and feels more at home with the lefties of the 1960’s. It feels obligatory to sing it but attendees get into the swing of it.

The convention has been draining but exciting. There is a sense of shared experience, for better or worse, and the region realizes they have connective tissue between them.

DSA Rust Belt Con was a volunteer, wholly DYI affair that took 11 months of planning. DSA National only provided $1,000 for the event, with some cajoling from the Pittsburgh chapter, with them providing little to no local support. Despite this, it was impressive in scope and logistics. There is immense optimism, a forward momentum that can’t be ignored. People are energized in a way few events can.

I don’t know where this new energy will go, all I know is that it is there. We could have spend the weekend getting hammered and engaging in Marxist navel-gazing, but we didn’t. No one was interested in pure academic theory. They wanted actual concrete action. How do we do it? When do we start? Who’s against us? Who are our allies? What do we communicate and to whom? What should the world be?

Lindsey Disler recaps her hopes for the future:

It looks like we will probably have another conference. I would like to see it rotate from chapter to chapter as we continue to build power throughout the Rust Belt. This conference was entirely built by and for people in the Rust Belt. I hope we keep it that way.
Other focuses I hope stay around are: we really actively tried to make the conference accessible to the working class through free housing and food. We actively tried to make it accessible to parents by running our Socialist Sprouts program. We also really focused on making it accessible to folks with disabilities by making sure we had accessibility officers, ADA access to all spaces as well as a few other things.
I also would like to see identity causes stick around. Carving out space for people of historically marginalized identity groups is one of the many steps needed to make DSA a more inclusive space. We obviously need to always be doing better on all these fronts and I am hopeful this is starting to get the ball rolling.

It was a conference of questions and an open discussion of the answers, even the uncomfortable ones. A better world is possible, and not only is it possible, it is essential. There is so much to do and we should have started 2 days before yesterday.

I finish the most recent fill-up of my disposable water bottle and crush the plastic in my hands. I find a recycling bin and toss the bottle in. I say goodbye to new comrades, exchange phone numbers and emails, and leave Wilkinsburg. On the way home, storm clouds gather and it rains a warm, drizzling splatter on the long road ahead.

Follow Carl Wilhoyte on Twitter at @voodoo_pork