Friday, July 19, 2024

The Democracy Center at 45 Mount Auburn St., Harvard Square, has been a hub of community organizing and arts in Cambridge for 22 years. The Covid pandemic only made it more essential. On April 6, the Foundation for Civic Leadership, which fiscally sponsors the Democracy Center, made a sudden announcement of its unilateral decision to shutter the center Monday with no input from the community members and organizations who have long called it home. Cambridge Day has covered the potentially disastrous impact of the proposed closing on arts, activism and community cohesion. But the closing will also be an immeasurable blow to the participation of disabled and chronically ill people in civic life.

The ongoing Covid pandemic, and our government’s response to it, has been destructive to the capacity of marginalized communities to organize effectively for change. To be blunt, a lot of people who were fighting for change are now dead. Many more have had our lives changed forever by the disablement of long Covid. Long Covid is an umbrella term that describes hundreds of possible symptoms (many of them debilitating) that often mean that someone can no longer do paid work or live independently. The number of people with long Covid grows every day. Covid and long Covid disproportionately kill and (further) disable people of color, disabled and immunocompromised people, elderly people, trans and queer people and poor and working-class people.

Many of the tools organizers have long relied on, such as meeting face to face, have become fraught with new risk. The harm to the social fabric has been immeasurable, and many arts and social change organizations that once had vibrant weekly meetings are struggling to draw attendance and revitalize their membership during the ongoing plague era. Working for social change – not to mention just participating in public life as a disabled person – amid the ongoing pandemic has only become harder as systemic protections against Covid have been dropped by our government and our social institutions (e.g., free vaccines, free masks, universal masking in health care, universal masking on public transit, direct cash payments to people). Millions of people in the United States have been left behind, including here in Cambridge.

The Democracy Center, with its commitment to protecting community members from the ongoing harm of the Covid pandemic, has been an oasis. It has allowed community members to continue to make art and make change together who would not otherwise be able to without undue viral risk to every organ in our bodies. The center has not always been accessible, and it has a ways to go, but it still stands out in today’s context, where far too many institutions have given in to denialism and prefer to pretend the pandemic is over and done killing and disabling our loved ones.

The Democracy Center was one of the last community spaces in Greater Boston to require masking, and offers free masks at the door. It requires event bookers to include Covid mask and vaccine policies on all publicity, along with all other accessibility information, allowing participants to make informed decisions about attendance based on their access needs. When you walk into the Democracy Center, air purifiers are running. It houses Fan Club, a lending library of air purifiers and CO2 monitors that event organizers can borrow to help keep the air clean and the Covid risk-managed. In 2022, the the center provided training on facilitating virtual and hybrid events for organizers, equipping civic leaders to make events more accessible to all.

Keeping the Democracy Center open to the whole community is critical for public health.

I am an advocate for Covid safety and disability justice who has worked with the Massachusetts Coalition for Health Equity and this spring’s push in Somerville for city-funded free (K)N95 masks and Covid tests. I started attending Democracy Center events, primarily with the organization Cambridge Heart, after moving to Cambridge in 2021. To the chorus of voices saying how harmful the foundation’s rushed, top-down closing of the Democracy Center will be, I will add that it’s a huge loss to the fight against ableism and mass pandemic-related death and disability.

When I attended virtually the meeting hosted by the foundation on April 11 about the closing, I was struck by all the community members in attendance with their masks on and the excellent hybrid facilitation (those trainings paid off!). At a subsequent meeting on April 25, foundation president Ian Simmons explained his rationale for closing the Democracy Center over a chorus of community voices telling him that it would not be just fine. “What gives me hope,” he said, “is Covid.” He went on to explain that the community (which community?) had endured resiliently and adaptively through Covid, and that we could surely do so again. Office space, he told the assembled community members, is plentiful now: We could make do. I was shocked. I think all of us, regardless of politics or attitudes about how best to respond to Covid, look at the pandemic as something that we would have gone to great lengths to prevent had we known it was coming. Yet Simmons blithely compared his decision to evict the center’s nonprofits, small businesses and community groups to Covid as if the pandemic were a positive outcome.

Following the revelation of this bizarre logic, one of the community members in attendance asked us to raise our hands if we were part of an organization which was smaller and weaker since the start of the pandemic, to raise our hands if we knew people who should have been in this room but couldn’t be because of Covid. Nearly every hand went up. If the foundation’s rationale for closing the Democracy Center is that, “as with Covid,” our communities will be okay, I ask the foundation to take a long hard look at which communities it cares about. My disabled and chronically ill communities are indeed resilient, flexible and brilliant, but we are struggling and suffering needlessly. I am inclined to agree with Simmons that the sudden and unilateral closing of the center will be similar to Covid: devastating, disproportionately harmful to already marginalized communities, and a death knell for numerous invaluable community organizations who are already struggling to make it.

From start to finish, the foundation’s decision-making process for the Democracy Center has been undemocratic, offering less than three months’ notice to tenants and dragging its heels on engaging with the community-formed Democracy Center Advisory Council despite six weeks of good faith requests for a meeting. Indeed, the the foundation board agreed to meet with the Advisory Council only one business day before the planned closing, on Thursday, and refused to delay the closing to make time for a more inclusive decision-making process. “We were clear,” the council said in a subsequent statement, “that any democratic process would need to begin with a pause to the July 1 closing: we cannot collaborate as equal partners with eviction looming over our heads.”

The Democracy Center has been a window into a better world, where people don’t need to unduly risk debilitating sickness to participate in civic life. I urge everyone who has ever had or longed for the joy of looking through that window to take action to save the Democracy Center.

Oliver Wilson, Springfield Street, Somerville