History & Analysis of MATCH and Organizational Reproduction

September 4th, 2021

Intro

In July 2021, the Mutual Aid Tenant Collective of Hudson County (MATCH) voted to officially shut down and to disburse our remaining funds to the Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm. Ultimately I think it’s the right way to end things, but MATCH existed for two years and was able to engage in a number of forms of organizing despite a limited membership. That merits analysis from strategic and organizational standpoints.

As a socialist I believe that theory and practice must exist in conversation with one another; that we have to learn from our organizing experiences and use it to improve our practices in the future. In this piece, I’ll be going over the history of MATCH from its founding to its dissolution, including my personal perspective and analyses along the way.

Founding

MATCH was founded in June 2019 by four recently resigned members of the local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter, including three who had previously held elected leadership positions, and one recently relocated member of Silk City Socialists. The reasons for leaving varied, but common ones were frustrations over the budget for housing for the 2019 national convention and the strain it put on smaller chapters for fundraising, and decisions surrounding the Bernie 2020 campaign endorsement.

While those did play roles in my decision to leave DSA, it was mostly a matter of moving up the timeline: I had been planning to leave for several months at that point and had picked after the 2019 convention as when I would do it. A constant conversation within DSA was (and still is) “why isn’t the organization more representative of the working class?” I didn’t agree with people who said that an emphasis on theory was alienating — reading groups were a small part of the organization and were completely optional. Moreover, theory serves to articulate the pressures that capitalism puts on working-class people every day. Reading groups break theory down into more relatable language than old translations. If anyone in a socialist organization is alienated by reading theory it should be more petit bourgeois elements within that organization.

I felt that my issues with DSA related more to how the organization related to its local communities. When an organization is recruiting members, it’s easiest to go through members’ own social circles. This can easily and quickly end up building a membership that is overly online and cliquish. To reach beyond that into the community you must overcome several barriers related to visibility and capacity to organize. An organization is most visible when members are actively participating in a campaign, and while you may garner support for a specific campaign, people are still working long hours and struggling to keep food on the table and roofs over their heads. Making the leap to come to an hour and a half-plus meeting for your socialist organization without it being clear how that can improve one's material conditions can be a big ask.

This is compounded by the fact that in the US, class is still most commonly thought of as a ladder rather than a function of one's relationship to the means of production. Getting a Marxist sense of class consciousness to grow across a broader segment of society and constructing “the working class” as a political subject feels like a prerequisite for a true mass socialist movement/organization.

The other issue I had was with how many campaigns were structured around petitioning the state. It is definitely possible to have measurable impact on legislative decisions through canvassing and pressure campaigns, but regardless of the specific campaign issue, when you keep going back to the same state officials to get your priorities passed the analysis inevitably becomes, “enough with begging these assholes for what we want, let’s elect our own assholes”. Without making any major judgments about electoral work, it can consume a great deal of members’ time and energy, it’s very cyclical, and you risk becoming the people who only come around when it’s time to ask for peoples’ votes.

Because of these considerations, we founded MATCH in June 2019 with the plans for hyperlocal organizing with an emphasis on visibility in our communities. We limited our focus to Hudson County, and we ruled out organizing based around petitions to the state, not out of making a statement on electoral strategy, but to carve out a (small) space where we could experiment with our organizing and not get caught up in the same pattern of hours-long city council and county freeholder meetings of which we had become accustomed and from which we were exhausted. Instead, we wanted to develop deep ties with community members, meeting the most basic of needs that the state had failed to provide for the housing- and food-insecure, and to talk about class and our vision of the socialist movement needed to bring about an equitable future. I personally took a lot of inspiration from Organizational Materialism by Jean Allen, wanting to see what we could do with an organization that was focused on direct work with a material impact in our communities.

Initial work

To start, we decided to open a food share and to do housing organizing, with plans for local labor organizing and sex worker outreach should our capacity increase. The food share came from prior experience with Food Not Bombs and with DSA during the 2019 government shutdown, and most of us had experience with tenant canvassing.

After seeing through a campaign for stricter regulations on Airbnbs in Jersey City to its passage in City Council, we began our work in earnest. We made some initial preparations and then began a biweekly food share in September 2019 at the Junction, at the corner of Communipaw and Grand in Jersey City.

For the food share, we would serve hot meals, along with fresh fruit and pre-wrapped snacks in to-go containers. We also had zines with information about what mutual aid is and about class through a socialist lens. Besides feeding people who were hungry, it was a way to establish visibility as an organization in the community and to have conversations about issues people were having and our broader vision for what needs to happen to change things. It was effective in terms of developing relationships with community members, and we were able to recruit one new member (who initially asked us if we were DSA lol) just through these shares.

Later that fall we began doing tenant canvasses. Previously in DSA, we had done targeted canvasses towards people with open eviction cases based upon the work performed by the Metro DC chapter. When online court tools in NJ were taken down, our capacity to gather case data was extremely limited, so for MATCH we did canvassing that was more door-to-door. This was largely ineffective. Groups like Jersey City Together are able to target many buildings owned by negligent landlords because they have a larger membership through their congregations. MATCH was far too small to have a scattershot approach to tenant canvassing. We made several contacts with community members who did have issues with their landlords, but follow-ups with them didn’t lead to any action.

The furthest we got with housing work actually came through our food share. A community member saw us tabling, and while she didn’t want food she asked us about an issue with her landlord. She was already withholding rent so she already knew a good amount about her rights, but in early March 2020 I was able to pay a home visit to see what the situation was like. I went with her to talk to her neighbors, who unfortunately seemed afraid to confront the landlord over the issues, which included raw sewage coming up in the land behind the building and a persistent mold issue. Our contact ultimately made the decision to move, but did not pay back-rent. She would also begin to donate water and hot meals to our food share, but didn’t get involved as a full-on member in terms of internal decision-making processes.

In terms of an online presence, we intentionally only posted photos of our food shares and housing on social media and nothing else so that if we did build a base it would not be online.

Pandemic – Shift

We had been tabling every two weeks for six months without missing a date once when coronavirus cases started spiking in mid- to late-March 2020. Without knowing what was actually safe to participate in, we decided to take precautions and shut down the food share prior to the statewide shelter-in-place order coming down. We texted all of our contacts to let them know and to make sure they had our contact information should any need arise.

One of our members started up a North Jersey mutual aid group on Facebook, and a network of organizations began sharing best practices around safety and mutual aid. We collectively made the decision to begin accepting donations for contactless grocery deliveries of $50-75 each to people in need, the majority of whom had lost work or were immunocompromised, and people began flooding into MATCH. Since we did not have any sort of by-laws or formal structures at that point, there was not really any distinction between what constituted a member of MATCH vs. a “volunteer”, but we had three dozen people participating in the grocery deliveries and we were able to convert over $21,000 of donations into hundreds of grocery deliveries for people in need.

Most of the grocery deliveries were made between March and early May of 2020, and new organizing came about through connections we made, like donating our labor to the Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm. There were some questions of membership overlap with Solidarity Jersey City, a group that formed in response to the pandemic, but since we hadn’t defined membership that strictly I don’t think that it really mattered.

Reopening the table

Our deliveries had slowed down over the course of the summer. Some of our open capacity went towards working on the farm, but with others more free we decided to restart the food share at the end of August. Coronavirus cases were down, we had more knowledge about how the virus spreads, and facemask supplies had increased to the point where we could offer them for free at the table. We served food outdoors and would wear masks, so as long as we were careful about keeping some physical distance we felt it was safe to get back to serving food and talking to community members.

Attendance at the food shares did not match our pre-pandemic levels. We were regularly serving and talking to 15–20 community members every time we held a food share before we shut down, but after starting back up we were often struggling to serve 10 meals. There are a few potential reasons for this. One could be that people are hesitant to accept food in an environment like this after having gone through the pandemic, not knowing exactly what precautions we were taking. Another is that we were gone for a while, and people either stopped expecting us to come by or saw that we weren’t present for mutual aid in a visible way at the height of people struggling during the pandemic, and there was a possible loss of trust. And another reason, the most difficult to confront, is that some of our regulars probably did die from COVID-19. We served a highly vulnerable population of people who were housing- and food-insecure, and with the way the virus affected the Black community it’s not something we can discount. In all likelihood, it was probably a combination of all these reasons and more not accounted for here that led to the drop in attendance.

We also started having more issues with homeowners who were primarily concerned with “cleaning up the neighborhood”. On at least two occasions homeowners came by to try and get rid of us, though it never escalated to the level of them calling the cops. One thought that what we were doing was the realm of nonprofits, which is what the theoretical basis of our organizing was in direct opposition to.

It was not all negative though: we were still serving community members and having conversations about abuses by landlords and nursing home administration, and about their rights and how to fight back. We also began receiving donations from a community member who we had handed a zine to one day, and who would come back intermittently with his car to drop off a staggering amount of donations of applesauce. I don’t think we ever got your name, but thank you.

In October we hit a snag where our members with cars were not able to make it, so we decided to only bring pre-wrapped snacks instead of hot food, and to bring hot food the following week. This presented a potential solution to something that had been a hurdle for a while: how to switch to a weekly food share. Capacity had been a limiting factor, but we wanted to make it weekly so that we could be more consistent, both for organization members and for community members, and be more visible. It would also be easier for newer members to get started with the food share, not having to cook on top of learning our process for setup and serving. This was good and bad; we were able to bring in new members to the table, sometimes only serving or only cooking, and for several months we were able to be more consistent than we had ever been previously. Unfortunately, this only lasted for a few months before we stretched things beyond our capacity.

Capacity issues, shutting down the org

At the height of our grocery deliveries we had three dozen people active with MATCH. Some people drifted away and new people came in, but by late fall this had been whittled down to around 10-15 active people. At the same time, the core founding members all experienced things that caused us to take a step back from the organization: personal and family health issues, having to leave the region for an extended period of time, etc.

We had been wanting to formalize structures for a while so that new members wouldn’t see core founding members as the authority or denote us with some sort of informal power, and as a last gasp of our capacity we set up a committee to write by-laws and a statement of principles for the organization. The process took a while, but I think that the documents we came up with were good; we didn’t set membership based on payment of dues, but based on activity in the organization’s programs. This was a way to set in stone the idea that as members we should be focused on what we are materially doing as an organization for and with community members.

The by-laws set up a quarterly election structure for committee positions, including steering committee, and I nearly completely pulled back from the organization. This is where a combination of capacity issues and lack of training and knowledge transfer for newer members by founding members would make us not functional as an organization.

Our food share started missing dates in January, and the lack of consistency and capacity led us to call off the food share in February. The new steering committee also began missing meeting dates, and we were skipping our regular monthly meetings. Essentially the organization had gone inactive except for work on the farm, and that was in support of and in collaboration with other organizations, so it can’t be considered a “MATCH program”. Not wanting to sit on the remaining donated money for mutual aid, in June we eventually voted to disburse the money and dissolve the organization.

Analysis

First with the good: I think we showed what is possible for a mutual aid project in terms of having an outsized impact. A small group of core members were able to form the basis of an organization that quickly came together and delivered $21,000 of groceries. We also produced a set of by-laws that — while too little, too late — put an emphasis on being active in our organizing work rather than letting decisions be made by people who were essentially paper members.

When I think about what our failures were, I have to center most of it around a failure of organizational reproduction. We were intent on focusing on our external work in a way that was ultimately reactionary towards what we had seen as an overly meeting-focused culture within DSA, and we didn’t pay much attention towards formalizing our internal processes. Early on, this meant that when we were doing food shares we had multiple community members asking us if we had regular meetings and all we could say was that we hadn’t set them up yet.

This was a key point where we could have been recruiting new members and we did not have the structures in place to bring them in. This would have been a community-based membership; instead we only really started to grow from the Hudson County Mutual Aid group on Facebook, so we ended up recruiting from the already existing activist base, a pattern we had set out to avoid. When we eventually did set up monthly meetings over the late spring and early summer of 2020, we did not include notice of these meetings in our materials that we included with grocery deliveries or handed out at food shares. Although the meetings were technically open to the public, we did not give community members an easy path to joining them.

Regardless, we did grow our membership by a significant amount. One way we failed to retain this membership was by rooting too much of our internal processes (organizing meetings, administrative work, political education, etc) in our core founding members. We managed to build skills around our external-facing work, but did not give the same attention to the functioning of our own organization. Part of this was because we didn’t want to set up our internal structures by dictate and instead wanted newer members to have a say in how the organization would function, but the end result was that we didn’t have any structure until the founding members were all burnt out and had to pull back for personal reasons. I was happy to pull back after elections were established and to hand things off to newer members, and that was an abdication of responsibility because I did so without doing proper knowledge transfer of what needed to be done or providing the sense of continuity needed to keep the organization running.

We can tell ourselves that the external work was so important and energy-consuming that we had to put it ahead of solidifying our internal structures, but when we are neglecting the health of the organization to the point where we are hurting the long-term sustainability of our external work, I don’t think that’s a defensible position. If we want to build organizations with the capacity for growth, we need to practice organizational self-care.

Since MATCH’s vote to dissolve, I have rejoined DSA. The International Committee’s work has been inspiring lately, and the emphasis on labor organizing is important. An organized working class is crucial to our goals as socialists, and if you want to talk about organizing where you’re at, a workplace where you spend five days a week isn’t bad.

Looking back at the ideas in our founding, at least for myself, I think they did come from a sense of arrogance. We are all facing the same questions about how to build an organized working class, and it was completely egotistical for me to assume that I knew what was needed better than tens of thousands of people in a socialist organization. It’s a very silly attitude to have. We all have some knowledge to impart if we’re going to build something larger than ourselves. Some might call that being a cog in a machine, but we need every gear to be spinning if we want to make that engine run.