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‘This Is What Democracy Looks Like’: Democracy Center Affiliates Rally to Protest Closing

The Democracy Center is located at 45 Mt Auburn St. Nearly 100 people rallied Sunday afternoon to protest its closure next month.
The Democracy Center is located at 45 Mt Auburn St. Nearly 100 people rallied Sunday afternoon to protest its closure next month. By Frank S. Zhou
By Azusa M. Lippit and Saketh Sundar, Crimson Staff Writers

Nearly 100 organizers, affiliates, and Cambridge residents gathered on Mount Auburn St. Sunday afternoon to protest the July 1 closing of the Democracy Center, a meeting place for activists and nonprofit organizations.

The Foundation for Civic Leadership, which owns the building, announced the center’s indefinite closing for renovations in an April 2 email to affiliates, writing that the building “would be used for different purposes going forward.” The announcement sparked frustration and shock from local activist groups, many of which hold regular meetings at the center and rely on the building for office space.

Organizers previously asked FCL leadership to reconsider the closing at two April meetings, but FCL President Ian T. Simmons ’98 has held that the decision is “not changeable.” However, the FCL did announce the formation of an “advisory council” following criticism from the Cambridge City Council.

According to Alan B. Palm, executive director of the Better Future Project and a speaker at the rally, a “community advisory council” formed by a group of local activists requested negotiations with the FCL to begin on May 21, but the FCL maintained that they alone will make the decision to close the center.

Some of the organizers are set to meet with FCL leadership this Thursday, which Palm lamented is “one business day before the announced closure.”

In response to a request for comment, interim FCL Executive Director Sue Heilman reiterated that the building needs to close for renovations and is still set to close on July 1. She added that there has been ongoing communication between FCL and the organizers, whom FCL will keep “involved” in the process.

In an April meeting, Simmons said the renovations would likely take “many, many” years. Once they are complete, FCL leaders say the space will become an outlet of Democracy House, an FCL-sponsored organization that “inspires rising generations to defend, strengthen, and improve democracy,” according to its website.

Simmons has also insisted that local organizations will be welcomed back into the space after the renovations, though some have remained doubtful.

Palm said their demands — “to pause the closure, to have a transparent and community-led process, to have shared decision-making power, and no retaliation for organizing” — have been largely ignored.

“Despite the minimal acknowledgement of our demands to pause the closure for a community-led process, there still remains so much opportunity for goodwill and for the renovation of the Democracy Center to be a celebration, as it should be,” Palm said at the rally.

Speaking into a megaphone from the roof of the Democracy Center, activists led chants of “Show me what democracy looks like,” to which the crowd responded, “This is what democracy looks like.”

Several speakers and attendees said the decision to close the center contradicts the principles of accessibility and democracy that it was founded on.

“We are here because we believe in democracy. What we are unfortunately encountering is the profound betrayal of democratic principles,” said Evan C. MacKay ’19, former president of the Harvard Graduate Students Union.

“In my time at FCL, we were dedicated to bringing people into the democratic process who were too often excluded,” former FCL employee Sam Heller ’18 said. “I’ve been disappointed to see the FCL now close the Democracy Center without transparency.”

“Does that sound like democracy to you?” Heller asked the crowd, who responded with a loud “No.”

Attendee Kelly Regan said the top-down nature of the decision was hypocritical.

“For just one person, or just one entity, to make a decision that impacts everybody in the Cambridge community — it doesn’t seem fair to me, it doesn’t seem right or democratic,” Regan said.

“So this is not adhering to their own stated values,” Regan added.

Dara Bayer, co-director of the Cambridge Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team, said groups used to relying on the Democracy Center have few other options as Cambridge’s housing prices continue to increase.

“As we know, Cambridge is incredibly gentrified. There are basically no spaces left that are affordable for people to exist in who are trying to build something from the ground up,” Bayer said at the rally.

Several speakers at the rally drew attention to recent pro-Palestine organizing outside of the Democracy Center, intermittently leading chants of “Free Palestine.” A banner draped across the building read “Resist Displacement from Gaza to Cambridge” and “Save the DC,” accompanied by the Palestinian flag.

After the rally, attendees and organizers filed into the building for a discussion and planning meeting.

—Staff writer Azusa M. Lippit can be reached at azusa.lippit@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @azusalippit or on Threads @azusalippit.

—Staff writer Saketh Sundar can be reached at saketh.sundar@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @saketh_sundar.

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