Dorm Captain

Dorm Captains: In charge of their own dorm-sized Democratic organization.

A lost program.

I. Text of the Dorm Captain proposal

The following proposal was written up to convince the 2003 - 2004 College Dems board to allow Seth Flaxman to proceed with the program:

I have focused on solving three problems now embedded within the structure of the College Democrats, and structured the responsibilities of the Dorm Captains around solving those problems.

Problem #1

Not enough people attend our large events because people don’t know about them. We are doing a weak job both in postering and in getting out our message.

Responsibility #1

Dorm Captains would be in charge of getting as many people as they can from their dorms to the big campus wide events. That doesn’t mean a boring and monotonous job of printing out pre-designed posters and taping them around the building. That means doing whatever they want in order to get the word out. Be creative, design multiple slogans and posters, appoint leaders for different floors, create their own action committee, go door to door, find and target those people in their dorm on the CU Democrats email list and specifically contact them. Field Ops would have the freedom to do whatever it takes to get people to the event; the theory being that people work best when they have clear goals and the freedom/independence to reach those goals however they want to.

Problem #2

Although we have an email list of over 2000 people, we don’t have a visible presence on campus. This means two things, one more tangible than the other. First, although there are more than a thousand people who see themselves as members of the College Democrats, these members might not get involved in a CU Democrat’s event more than once a year. This first concept of “campus presence” deals more generally with increasing the amount and degree of participation by the student body in Democrats’ activities (this may sound like a repeat of problem number one, but it’s not). Second, the less tangible concept of “campus presence” deals with people talking and thinking about the College Democrats even when we aren’t actively seeking out their participation or involvement. Outside of our events, the student body should feel our presence everywhere, constantly seeing what we are doing and hearing what we have to say.

Responsibility #2

Increase our presence on campus. As mentioned above, there are two concepts of “campus presence,” one much more tangible than the other.

A. First, the tangible one: we need to get those 2000 people on our mailing list to more events. Wait, does that sound like problem number one? No. For example, during this past State of the Union Address, the College Democrats co-hosted a watching party in the piano lounge. Attendance was really good for a watching event, but after returning to the lounge in my dorm I noticed that about five people were watching the event there instead of at the watching party. A field operative would be responsible for hosting their own events. They would determine what it is they want to do, and we would provide them with some funds every month (or so) to carry it out. Returning to the example, a field operative would increase the amount of people watching the State of the Union Watching party (thus getting more people involved in Democrats events) by organizing the party in their lounge. Further, when it was over they could provide information to those watchers as to what Bush was really doing, lying about, and etc. It would even be possible to even organize movie watching nights, and show movies like Primary Colors, The Contender, The America President, or whatever.

B. Second, the less tangible definition of “campus presence”: This responsibility would most likely be fulfilled by postering without the intention of getting people to events or asking for their participation. For example, one of my favorite quotes from Bill O’Reilly goes like this; “If the Americans go in and overthrow Saddam Hussein and it's clean, he has nothing, I will apologize to the nation, and I will not trust the Bush Administration again, all right?" On ABC’s Good Morning America, March 18, 2003. Sometimes I wish we had the time and energy as an organization to just go around posting things like this quote with the organization’s website at the bottom (; however we don’t have the infrastructure to do that. Since a Field Operative would only be in-charge of one dorm building, it would be much easier for them to go around and put up things like this in order to increase our presence on campus.

Problem #3

Our events are more passive than interactive, heavy on speakers and debate watches and less likely to organize massive efforts to unseat Republican and make sure Democrats get elected. Interactive events let people actually make a difference and passive events can often get redundant (especially since every other club in the university is also heavy on passive events). Further, interactive events would make the College Democrats more relevant because we could help influence events off campus. However, it is impossible to make the change from passive to interactive events without a very involved body of members because they are so much more labor intensive.

Responsibility #3

Improve our organization infrastructure around campus, so that we can get more done and take on bigger projects. That would mean creating a list of people interested in doing things to help democratic causes beyond simply going to events and listing to speakers. The idea is that the more people who are interested in helping the greater the mission we can undertake. For example, we are hoping to recruit hundreds of volunteers from Columbia University next fall to campaign against in Bush in swing states, and we could always help take back the Senate from the Republicans by bringing in a large group of people to help in a near-by (although not local, because they’re already Democrats) congressional race, for example, the disgusting Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Further, beyond creating a list of names, this means creating a small community of active democrats who are really interested in helping. We don’t want to compile more lists of emails, but rather it would be important for the field operative to build personal relationships with possible active democrats and thus create a more dependable network of people.

II. Text of the original recruitment email:

The following original recruitment email went out to members in May 2004, and had recruited over 100 volunteers by the start of school the following November:

Yeah, we’re all pissed that Bush won, but we don’t have the luxury to give up this fight. Like at no other time, we have to organize and we have to fight back. Help me transform the entire Columbia/Barnard campus into a hugely effective and powerful activist organization.

Because Columbia and Barnard aren’t really colleges — they’re just huge progressive organizations that don’t accomplish anything yet. With the smartest, most organized, most determined, and most amazing progressive students in the country attending Columbia and Barnard; we have the human resources to accomplish whatever we can imagine.

There are kids on campus trying to single handedly end genocide, pollution, poverty, and AIDS.

The CU Dems has an email list of over 1500 members, the human resources of an incredibly progressive and Democratic student body, and yet we still have a very uninvolved body of members. This makes taking on big projects (helping Kerry defeat Bush) very difficult.

The position of Dorm Captain was designed to correct this problem by changing the power structure of the CUDems. The Executive Board will be in charge of organizing the really big events (finding buses for the swing-state campaign invasion and organizing campaign workshops), but the DCs will be in charge of connecting the CUDems to the student body. You will be independent from the E-Board, running your buildings like a dorm-sized democratic organization.

Since our first priority next fall is to win the election, DCs will have the authority within their own building to do whatever it takes to recruit volunteers for the campaign invasions, register people to vote, and educate people on the issues. You can host recruiting/debate/West Wing/movie watching parties, or if you find an editorial or news piece that you want everyone to read you can post it up in all the bathroom stalls. These jobs are designed to give you power, independence, and responsibility, so you are free to originate and run with your own ideas.

However, I ultimately cannot give you an exact and detailed job description. You will be asked to get more people on our mailing list, recruit a certain number of people for campaign invasions, and to host and organize a few events. How you decide to fulfill those responsibilities is up to you, so be creative and have fun with it!

III. How well did it work?

It was good for the election, but I'm not sure for what else.

Ultimately the DC program had over 100 captains working in teams throughout over 20 Columbia and Barnard dorms. They recruited successfully for the first annual campaign trip, some organized great debate watching parties as the election got closer, while others organized very efficient voter registration drives. In terms of mobilizing the campus for the 2004 election, the program did a great job.

However, after the election, there was a huge drop in participation that signaled that perhaps this organizing structure wasn't strong enough without the force of an election to back it up. Further, I feel like it would have been difficult for anyone who hadn't founded the organization, cough, Seth Flaxman to have gone to those 20 meetings a week in different dorms and know how to get the captains to work without giving them orders.

IV. Lessons of Dorm Captain program

If brought back to life it would (1) need greater advice and planning support from the DC coordinators with (2) more coordinators. Further, it should be noted that the most succesful dorms had teams of captains with a very clear natural leader. At its core, it was an idea to deal with the problem that people are difficult and hate doing just ordinary tasks - by turning ordinary tasks into important jobs we got huge increases in participation.

More leadership positions need to be created around presidential elections, people are hungry to get involved, and this is a perfect opportunity to expand the recruitment and operations of the campaign trip.

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