R.L. Stephens

Chicago, IL

Friend, son, organizer, comrade. 

As a small child, I saw a man beaten with a lead pipe two blocks away from my house as my family rode to a dinner. My father slowed the car as we passed. A crowd had gathered as he staggered around, shirt torn and bloodstained. There was nothing I could do. I’m a deeply compassionate person, and I always have been. As we drove away from the scene, I was sick to my stomach. I blamed myself. I refused to eat. I couldn’t stop thinking about the blood and wondering whether he lived or died. My family moved less than a year later. Yet, the man’s image comes back to me from time to time. With the memory comes a new thought, what would it mean to have power?

As I got older, I began understanding that to make deep social change, we cannot go it alone. The beating I witnessed was actually a manifestation of social relations that no amount of personal compassion could overcome. I became increasingly politically active, particularly on matters of racism. I spent my teenage years in suburban Minnesota, in Michele Bachmann’s district. It was the Bush years, so living there was a deeply racist and isolating experience. In high school I was featured on the front page of the biggest newspaper in the state talking about how racism affected my life as a student. I had just graduated from middle school and the article came out my first week in high school. My white classmates were incensed. They ridiculed me and tried to intimidate me. I was 15 and I was afraid. I backed down and I felt ashamed about it. I told myself I’d never back down again. But I couldn’t do it alone.

I graduated from college and then law school, all the while committing myself more and more to political work. I was deeply involved in Occupy, my first public attempt at political practice as an adult. That’s how I met my fellow DSA Praxis candidate Michael Patterson. It felt good to be in a team, even though the movement collapsed. Knowing that I didn’t want to practice law, I tried to get jobs outside my educational background, but to no avail. I found myself working at the Gap. So, I decided to organize. I fumbled around on my own for a while, until I connected with some other groups and pushed a campaign to get scheduling policy changed nationwide. The Gap changed the policy. But, we had no power on the shop floor to actually enforce the change. I had leadership ability, but I didn’t actually know how to organize people into a collective force. It was then that I realized that I need to learn more about organizing methods and campaign strategy.

I became a staffer at a union, Unite Here. I had organizing responsibilities, but my main job was strategic campaigning. I threw myself into organizing and research, and we won campaigns. But I wanted something more. I liked the union, but I felt compelled to embrace political organizing beyond the union context, to embrace a wider political struggle. When Trump was elected, the compulsion to act grew stronger. A few months later I quit the union and joined DSA.


Why I'm Running

The stakes of this election are high. Will DSA be a truly mass organization, one that is viable for the poor, the racialized, the sexually subjugated, the disabled, and all those for whom oppression is not a theoretical articulation but rather a daily experience? This is the fundamental question. In response, we have prioritized creating a program that fuses universal projects like healthcare with the concerns and challenges facing a range of marginalized people, particularly women and people of color. We also embrace trust-based and relationship focused organizing methods to build political solidarity in order to overcome division, and to have general political accountability– but particularly for racist, sexist, anti-gay and other attitudes and behaviors.

That’s why we’ve called for an abolitionist horizon, one that envisions a world in which police and prisons are not the default response to interpersonal and social problems. We have anchored the DSA Praxis program in this position because it will revolutionize the way DSA organizes and campaigns. For example, in our push for universal healthcare, we need to include a divestment/reinvestment framework–part of the abolitionist horizon. In Chicago, the largest portion of the budget is spent on police. Prisons and police are a major budgetary constraint around the country. So it’s only natural–both politically and fiscally–to attach the particularity of the struggle against police and imprisonment led by anti-racist groups to our call for the basic universal social service of healthcare for all. This abolitionist shift in our program would radically alter the type of audience DSA appeals to and the composition of our membership. It would also increase the likelihood that we could form a constituency and a coalition capable of winning the demand. However, we must first commit to the horizon.

Our commitment to mass movement must be manifested in the political horizon we establish and the organizing methods and philosophy which reflect that broader sociopolitical vision.

I’m running with DSA Praxis (dsapraxis.org) because we want to bring an emphasis on base-building and trust-based organizing relationships to the national level. My teammates are Leslie Driskill, Michael Patterson, Celeste Earley, Allie Cohn, Zac Echola, and Ravi Ahmed.