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Activists Demand ‘Indefinite Pause’ on Plans to Renovate Democracy Center for New Nonprofit

The Democracy Center is a nonprofit space for local progressive organizations, located at the intersection of Bow, Dewolfe, and Mount Auburn Streets in Harvard Square.
The Democracy Center is a nonprofit space for local progressive organizations, located at the intersection of Bow, Dewolfe, and Mount Auburn Streets in Harvard Square. By Emily L. Ding
By Sally E. Edwards and Asher J. Montgomery, Crimson Staff Writers

More than 100 organizers, activists, and Cambridge residents demanded an “indefinite pause” on plans to close the Democracy Center to make way for a new organization during a tense and frequently emotional meeting at the Center Monday night.

For the past 22 years, the Democracy Center has housed progressive activists, artists, and nonprofits struggling to find spaces to organize in Cambridge. Now, resident organizations have three months to move out before the Foundation for Civic Leadership — the Center’s fiscal sponsor — renovates the building for a separate nonprofit, Democracy House.

Dozens of organizers — some weeping — testified about the importance of the Center in their work and demanded answers from Democracy House’s interim Executive Director Sue Heilman during the meeting — the second of two community meetings about the closure. Activists also circulated a petition gathering more than 100 signatures protesting the FCL’s decision.

“What FCL is doing is genuinely a trauma,” Democracy Center organizer Elijah Patterson said Monday. “You are telling many, many organizations that they have to move or stop existing.”

Heilman, stoic and masked, told the crowd that the renovations have been a long time coming. In an interview with The Crimson, Heilman said that the FCL decided to begin renovations due to the growth of Democracy House — a subgroup within FCL that coordinates civic education training for students.

“Now, as the Democracy House programs are getting going more, the foundation decided that it was finally time,” Heilman said in an interview.

According to Heilman, the FCL has yet to secure the necessary building permits from Cambridge, finalize a budget for the project, or decide on a contractor for construction. She said that once renovations are complete, however, community groups will be welcomed into the space.

“Our thought is that there will be offices for people who work for Democracy House, and there also would be space available for community groups to use,” she said. “Exactly which people, which staff, that isn’t all figured out yet.”

But despite Heilman’s reassurances that community groups will maintain access to the space after renovations, many activists remained unconvinced.

Kimberly Jane, director of the Show Booking Collective, which has used the space since 2009, said she doesn’t believe that building improvements are the main reason for building closure.

“It just seems like they just want to get the building and start their shiny new nonprofit — kick everybody out,” Jane said. “They say it’s for renovations, but at least in the meeting it didn’t come across to me like that was the main purpose.”

“Real democracy is happening here all the time, and they want to come in with some shiny new website and I don't understand — I don't even get what they do,” she added.

Dara Bayer, who organized the petition as serves as co-director of the Cambridge Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team, said that due to the high costs of rent in Cambridge, HEART — one of Cambridge’s burgeoning unarmed policing alternatives — “wouldn’t be able to exist without the subsidized rent of the Democracy Center.”

“We are facing a serious existential threat,” Bayer said. “This could mean we couldn’t exist anymore if we can’t find space.”

Claire E. Pryor ’22, a HEART volunteer and a former organizer for Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, said that the Democracy Center provided an “essential” resource to the non-official student group, which was not allowed to use campus meeting spaces.

“It was a place not only where we had this lovely, welcoming atmosphere of a place to meet, but also a place that gave me the regular opportunity to meet and interact with groups that were organizing in Cambridge, and Boston,” she said in an interview. “For me, the Democracy Center felt like a real lifeline of connection to people and organizing happening in Cambridge and Boston.”

Pryor also said that it is “impossible” for a small nonprofit to afford rent in Boston and Cambridge.

“The closing of a space, like the Democracy Center, in my mind, is going to make it really hard for HEART and other nonprofits who are doing the work that our community desperately needs, but literally can't afford to exist within it,” she added.

One organizer for American Freedom United used her speech to address Heilman directly, urging her to change her mind.

“You can reverse this, this story can continue, you can do something different,” the organizer said. “There’s another way to do this, and you can be the blueprint for something great.”

—Staff writer Sally E. Edwards can be reached at sally.edwards@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @sallyedwards04 or on Threads @sally_edwards06.

—Staff writer Asher J. Montgomery can be reached at asher.montgomery@thecrimson.com Follow her on X @asherjmont or on Threads @asher_montgomery.

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