Across the Dianneverse
Updated: Jul 23, 2022
Students carried a mayoral campaign on their backs. Why were they blamed for its demise?
By Claire Shang
In June, as New York City voters plodded through the morass of a dozen Democratic candidates ahead of the mayoral primary, any diligent citizen who visited Dianne Morales’s website was greeted, emphatically and urgently, as a “fellow loving disruptor!” Like many in the field, Morales emphasized her commitment to breaking from the past—a pose that, given Bill de Blasio’s extraordinary unpopularity, would have been silly for any candidate not to strike. Each built their own brand of aversion to the status quo; Morales’s rested on a three-pillar platform of “dignity,” “care,” and “solidarity,” the center of which was a plan called “Dignity Now,” which promised, in her first 100 days, a citywide rent moratorium and free tuition for CUNY students. The most headline-worthy promise was her proposal to slash the NYPD’s operating budget in half, a $3 billion commitment that no other candidate dared to match.
Morales ran as much on her own identity as on progressive initiatives, vying to become the first woman and first Afro-Latina mayor. She was raised in Bed-Stuy public housing, and her campaign was the first to designate a section of its field outreach exclusively to NYCHA residents. A first-generation college student and product of New York public schools, she pointed to her professional success leading a handful of national nonprofits as proof of her sheer force of will.
The primary drew weeks, not months, away, and the left had yet to consolidate under one candidate. With endorsements from linchpins like the Working Families Party and the Sunrise Movement, Morales seemed increasingly likely to emerge as the top progressive, despite—or perhaps thanks to—her lack of political experience.
By May, she had received three million dollars in city matching funds, and had, at that point, the second-most donors in the race and the lowest average donation. She’d doubled her name recognition among voters since March and squarely dominated the under-24 vote. “Some polls were putting us at the same place as Maya Wiley,” said ex-staffer Lia Franklin, a sophomore at Wesleyan University. “We were doing the best we’d ever done.”
But within the last week of May, Morales’s ascendant candidacy became one of “the biggest jokes in city politics history,” said University of Connecticut junior Alice Volfson.
First, her campaign manager and senior adviser resigned, citing her inaction over accusations of staffer sexual harassment. Further allegations of racial discrimination, lack of pay, and an enduringly toxic work environment culminated in an internal vote for a union, Morales’s firing of four union leaders, and what amounted to a work strike for the majority of her staff, who subsequently lost access to campaign email and the office. On June 9, three days before early voting, Morales formally fired 45 workers, a third of whom were college-aged.
As Morales lost control over her campaign, pundits and writers dangled her candidacy as an example of the failures of identity politics, or “leftist” lingo, or “unionization militancy.” The one throughline was a constant emphasis on her young campaign staff. In “The NYC Mayor’s Race Is a Warning for Progressives” from June’s Atlantic, Hunter Walker warned that “young progressives are unwilling to make the sort of labor commitments necessary to actually elect a progressive.” A post-election autopsy in The Nation classified the conflict over unionization as a mutual destruction, “a progressive campaign eating itself alive, with its staffers and candidate publicly turning on each other.” Attributing equal culpability to employee and employer, the article also slipped into scapegoating “the organizing and activist culture of the young staffers” which “conflicted with the professional world of a campaign.”
In this rendering, Morales’s young staffers were irresponsible, incapable, and irreverent. They were the ones to blame for their boss’s fall, and even greater, for “undermin[ing] the overall interests of the working class,” as one Jacobin article put it. Implicit in this coverage, infantilizing though it may be, is a recognition of how influential young people have become in politics—and how difficult it’s been to accurately describe their presence.
When young ex-staffers rejected this narrative, they affirmed the very professionalism they purportedly lacked. “You shouldn’t have to reside in a toxic work environment. And also, it’s not like we weren’t working,” said Franklin. “People were working their asses off every day.”
Having taken the spring semester off from college, Franklin began volunteering for Morales in January and was hired in April as part of the campaign’s expansion from eight to 50 staffers in two weeks. As with all staffers, her contractual “labor commitment” was 40 hours a week. Most worked well over 50—even up to 95, a college student who averaged 70 hours a week told me—and were granted no days off.
Aside from certain aberrations—like how Morales, unlike Adams, Garcia, Wiley, Donovan, and McGuire, did not offer staffers health benefits—none of this was entirely unusual for political work. And that was the issue.
“We were being told this is the norm, this is what you’re going to get in politics,” said Volfson. Even after her three years of campaign work, only the Morales experience made it click that “just because it’s the norm doesn’t mean it’s right.”
In late April, NY1 declared that “through TikTok, memes, and custom sneakers, Dianne Morales may be the youth candidate.” All the young staffers I spoke to did indeed discover Morales through social media, but they cited her policies—especially her commitment to defund the police and her background in education—as the reason for her enshrinement as the “youth candidate.” “We’re not just there for TikTok, we’re not just there for memes, we’re not there for some diversity quota, and we’re also not there for youth outreach,” Volfson said.
Last fall, Massachusetts senator Ed Markey’s unexpected victory over Joe Kennedy was attributed largely to “an army of 16-year-olds” who spearheaded digital organizing on a scope so broad they appropriately dubbed themselves the “Markeyverse.” Markey himself specifically credited the Markeyverse for his win.
These new strategies challenged public perception of youth involvement in politics as “superficial,” said Josephine O’Brien, CC ’26. O’Brien was one of over 200 unpaid fellows who worked on Markey’s campaign last summer. Because traditional door-knocking was not an option in the pandemic, these young organizers created sprawling social media networks and proved the efficacy of relational organizing, which calls upon individual staffers to organize their immediate communities, nudging friends, relatives, and peers to become involved.
This spring’s “Dianneverse” was fashioned after Markey’s, said Owen Potter, who worked for seven months of his pre-Oberlin gap year as a volunteer, then as a staffer. He first created a Twitter account for the teen-run organizing group Youth For Dianne and began posting memes in the spirit of “just messing around.” Soon, other volunteer-run Twitter accounts emerged, each with a customized profile picture set against the campaign color scheme and hundreds of followers: bagels4dianne, cats4dianne, subways4dianne. They interacted constantly with each other.
In May, Debi Saha, a sophomore at Rice, left her internship with mayoral candidate Scott Stringer, who was accused of sexual assault, and began volunteering for Morales. The Dianneverse’s “good vibes” pulled her in—Saha called the strategy “brilliant” for making interacting with politics abnormally fun. When she reached an organizing milestone, the Dianneverse constituent accounts would tweet “like, ‘we love you,’ or something like that. It was just really affirming and funny.”
While young people had exceptional decision-making power on both the Markey and Morales campaigns, in Morales’s universe, “the youth were allowed to do stuff ’cause there was really nobody else,” said Potter. Over 90% of the campaign’s volunteer base, estimated Volfson, was under the age of 20. For these volunteers especially, the campaign’s horizontal organizational structure, which created ample space for both independence and confusion, made it “very easy, I think, for people to feel like the whole campaign is kind of on them,” added Potter.
When the campaign was able to expand in April, it hired young people who had been working for months as volunteers. Franklin remembered a “blurred line” between the two capacities: “When you’re a volunteer, it’s one thing—you’re not getting paid, you’re not under contract, you’re doing what you can do. But when you do have a job, your employer has to pay you and give you a day off.” This apparently simple distinction was complicated by the fact that post-hiring, young staffers’ duties often didn’t change substantially. “At times it kind of felt like I was doing the same thing, just getting paid for it,” said Potter.
In the Atlantic article, an anonymous Democratic political operative said, “It seems like many of these kids would be shocked and upset at just normal boring office jobs and the expectations there. And campaigns are so much harder than that.” The commentator was right to distinguish “normal boring office jobs” and campaigns: The mundane “expectations” of the former were never established for Morales’s staff. “We never had a code of conduct, we never had a workplace set of norms, we didn’t have sexual harassment training. That is not hard to ask for,” said Franklin.
The existence of the Dianneverse—to push the metaphor to its limits—displayed an understanding that campaign work norms, relegated to another universe altogether, could not reasonably be acceptable in this world. The volunteer effort to create meaningful support for staffers in the campaign work environment filled a vacuum of defined structure or due process. It was an optimistic rewriting of political norms, a hope that, by leaning into the insularity of political work, it would be possible to perform it on one’s own terms.
Organizing, Volfson said, is “intoxicating, almost like an addiction.” It’s both “so fun” and “so fast-paced”—a description that, delivered in one breath, implied the two were inextricable.
Volfson first experienced the reward of overinvestment while working for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign in Iowa. “You see change happening so tangibly that it’s like, you want more,” she recalled. “You want more yeses, you want more people to talk to you about policy, you want to go to another fundraiser, you want to see your fundraising numbers go up.” At the onset of the race, Morales felt to her like New York City’s own Sanders.
O’Brien described the visible return of work campaigns offer, which tends to attract “perfectionist types or overachieving types” who might otherwise find themselves in equally intense, data-driven jobs. Unlike those careers, though, the intensity of campaign work comes with “built-in community.”
Political work, she summarized, is “this very, very important thing that I care a lot about, and I have a lot of control over even tiny little bits of it”—unique because both the work and the devotion to it are inherently rewarding.
But especially because campaigns have a set end date, campaign work also comes to be defined by what inevitably follows it: “It’s just non-stop. And when it’s done, everything’s paused, you’re just kind of empty,” said Volfson. The intensity of this work is such that it can only be described by referencing what occurs in its absence: burnout. This identification, which every interviewee reached for, encompassed work-induced exhaustion but also betrayal, confusion, jadedness, even guilt.
For Volfson, whose Twitter bio reads “burnt-out staffer with too many books,” Monday staff meetings at 11 a.m. coincided with class. A full-time student and staffer, work-school balance—let alone work-life balance, she clarified with a chuckle—was infeasible. These two spheres were instead intense in their simultaneity: “I would set up the staff meeting on my phone and I would set up my class on my computer,” she said, “and both of them would just play.”
When neighborhood organizer Wena Teng, CC ’25, reflected on unionization, the memory was inseparable from her last days as a high school senior. During the grueling eight-hour meeting in which staffers presented their case for and voted on unionization, in her pocket, her phone was signed into Google Meets for class. Most of the Queens field team, said Teng, were full-time college students.
Relational and digital organizing, said O’Brien, made work harder, as it became easier for everything to become work. “When I look back on texts from August of 2020, it’s literally all me asking my friends, ‘Can you come to a phone bank?’” With friends, she found herself implementing voter persuasion strategies and “thinking of how I can take advantage of this time that I’m spending outside of work to benefit my work.”
When Volfson left work, she re-entered the Dianneverse from home. And then, after hours of tweeting and posting and replying and DM-banking from her bed, “the first thing I would do when I [woke] up is check Twitter. Did Dianne post?”
Work was as unspoken as it was ubiquitous—“politics doesn’t recognize overtime,” said Volfson. As Anne Helen Petersen argues in “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation,” viewed over seven million times since 2019, “the thing about American labor, after all, is that we’re trained to erase it.”
Petersen writes of the pitfalls of the “return on work” that draws young people to politics. For her, burnout also comes about from “the psychological toll of realizing that something you’d been told, and came to believe yourself, would be ‘worth it’—worth the loans, worth the labor, worth all that self-optimization—isn’t.” Her example refers to student debt, which, like campaign work, is undertaken in the name of unlocking a better future—a future believed in so fervently it becomes part of one’s present identity.
Potter, one of Morales’s first hires, had trouble articulating his emotional response to the dissolution of the campaign. Eventually, his response echoed Petersen’s description: It was, he said, “definitely hard to put five, six months of your life into something, and it’s like, oh well, this wasn’t really worth it.” After his firing, he tried to enjoy summer by acting on his need to “get away” from the Dianneverse and reenter the world.
The purpose of identifying burnout is not to introduce a dead-end, although it sometimes feels like a foregone conclusion, an emotional and physical state nearly mythical in its magnitude. Understanding political work through understanding burnout can help us see that the latter has specific origins: the relentless normalization of demanding working conditions for first-time workers or volunteers.
“We had 13-year-olds on the campaign who were working the same number of hours, sometimes even more hours than I was, and definitely did not know that what they were doing was unhealthy,” said Volfson. Another factor, said Saha, is the lack of political opportunities for young people outside of campaign work. “They just thought that this is what work-life is like,” added Volfson.
One of Morales’s first responses to the demand for unionization was—after skipping a Monday staff meeting that she had promised would include “anti-bias training,” said Volfson—to send a Slack message encouraging staffers to “take time for self care.” Petersen writes that self-care is a “common prescription” when one willfully misunderstands that burnout is the diagnosis at hand: “It’s an $11-billion industry whose end goal … is to provide further means of self-optimization. … Self-care isn’t a solution; it’s exhausting.”
Volfson scoffed as we discussed the Slack message; the absurdity of Morales’s hasty effort to superimpose corporate solutions, a vestige of her years as a nonprofit CEO and wholly inappropriate here, was self-evident. “I was already planning on taking that day off, regardless of whether she gave us the permission to,” she said. Though this victory was hardly as concrete or revelatory as a campaign win, young people still emerged in June with a nascent understanding of the control they could wield over their own work.
Burnout, suggests Petersen, requires “paradigm-shifting change. Which helps explain why so many millennials increasingly identify with democratic socialism and are embracing unions: We are beginning to understand what ails us, and it’s not something an oxygen facial or a treadmill desk can fix.”
In this case, though, it was easy to reduce the union to a matter of language, and many did. It was never certified by an external body, unlike that of comptroller-elect Brad Lander. This is not to say they didn’t try: Staffers had approached the Campaign Workers Guild in March but “because hiring practices were taking so long in the campaign,” they were told that recognition would not be possible, said Volfson. And in the second push for unionization, they based their demands on the successful Lander agreement—“literally verbatim went through it, edited it a tiny bit, and then those were our asking points,” said Franklin—but still faced backlash for “wildly aberrant” requests.
Regardless, the union came to represent what a campaign workplace should be; ex-staffer Twitter bios that read “forever Mayorales Union” indicate that it remains so. In the weeks after unionization, as workers remained unsure of their employment status, the union was a “point of support,” said Franklin. Most tangibly, it raised ten thousand dollars, distributed as mutual aid to ex-staffers, in a single week in June.
Reflecting on her six months in the Dianneverse at the end of our conversation, Franklin sounded truly burned out: resigned, guilty, and, most of all, lost in a sea of countless other staffers. Still, like many fellow workers on the Morales campaign, her original, urgent faith had sustained her for months. “I guess I didn’t really want to look further [at her flaws], so that’s kind of my own fault, but I think it was true in a lot of people,” she said. “You wanted someone to believe in.”