A Troubled Haven: The Story of Cambridge's Democracy Center
The Blue Haven Initiative, Divest, and the Progressive Activist Scene
The Democracy Center at 45 Mount Auburn Street is a building overlooked by most Harvard students. Located in the center of campus and self-described as a “21st-century meeting house,” the center is a hub for progressive activists in Cambridge.1 Hosted organizations include the Better Future Project (BFP), a nonprofit dedicated to spreading awareness about climate change; the Black Response, a group dedicated to “defunding and abolishing the Cambridge police department”2; and the Center for Black, Brown, and Queer Studies, a nonprofit that studies how to “dismantle”3 barriers in childhood education. One never quite knows what to expect on a visit to the Center. On one night one might find a nudist painting session, on another a meeting of Queer Muslims of Boston or an amateur tango club dancing the night away in the Nelson Mandela Room.
The Democracy Center is based in the “Stickney-Winn” house on the corner of Bow and Mt. Auburn Street. Named after carpenter Nathaniel N. Stickney and his partner Francis Winn, who first built the property in the early 19th century, the house used to be owned by an infamous fraternity called Pi Eta, known for a flier they distributed to members that advertised women as “slobbering bovines fresh for the slaughter.”4 The group eventually collapsed after years of complaints of disruptive behavior, unruly conduct, and a rape lawsuit.
If you want to know where Divest got its start, or if you’d like to found the next big movement to sweep Harvard’s campus with protests, look no further.
The house came into the hands of progressive activists beginning with the Living Wage Campaign, a movement dedicated to ensuring that Harvard employees earn at least $10.25 an hour. The campaign ran for three years and ended with a three-week-long occupation of Massachusetts Hall.5 One of the students who attended this occupation was Ian Simmons, a scion of the family who founded the department store Montgomery Ward. Inspired by the effectiveness of the Massachusetts Hall sit-in, Simmons wanted to found a center where students could continue their activism without the intervention of the university. Luckily, the Stickney-Winn house went up for sale in 2002. With the help of his family’s fortune, Simmons’ newly-formed nonprofit, the Foundation for Civic Leadership, bought the house for 2.75 million dollars.6
Simmons continued into a lucrative career in finance and married Liesel Pritzker, a former child actress and a member of the Pritzker family, one of the wealthiest in the United States. Her cousin happens to be Penny Pritzker, senior fellow at the Harvard Corporation and chair of Harvard’s recent presidential search committee, while her half-brother Jennifer Pritzker is the world’s first transgender billionaire. Liesel sued her father while an undergrad at Columbia University and won $500 million.7 Together, she and her husband co-founded the Blue Haven Initiative, an activist investment firm whose mission is “informed investing for profit and with purpose.”8
Blue Haven is headquartered in One Mifflin Place, right down the street from the Democracy Center. Advertised as “a truly prestigious location,” their office stands in contrast to the poor conditions of the nonprofit’s house.9 The Democracy Center is not regularly cleaned, the plumbing often malfunctions, the stoves do not work, and at one point they had to switch to drinking bottled water after it was discovered that the tap water contained unsafe levels of lead.
Despite these unhealthy conditions, the Democracy Center still requires its visitors to wear masks in order to create “the most accessible space for everyone,” especially the “immuno-compromised.” Inside, visitors will find a dimly lit wood-paneled foyer decorated with the trans flag, and a mashup of a rainbow flag and a black power symbol. A sign directly ahead shouts “No New Women’s Prison.” To the left, one finds the Malala Yousafzai Library, which is actually a magazine browsing room. The shelves hold various activist publications sorted into boxes labeled “Radical America,” “Queer + Trans,” “Health + Sex,” “A” (the symbol for anarchy), and “Education / Parenting.” Adorning one wall is a poster of Frederick Douglass with the quote “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Going further into the building, one finds a hallway leading to several offices. Tacked on one office door is a sign labeled “water/fire/blood/cops/locks” with a phone number. In the back lies a dilapidated kitchen and bathroom. In the bathroom, a tacked card on a poster board entreats the viewer to follow artist “@leathal_lolita” on Instagram. A dank odor pervades the place, as if the building has not been fully cleaned in a while.
Simmons wanted to found a center where students could continue their activism without the intervention of the university.
Whether due to its central location or its independence from the university, left-wing political groups at Harvard use the building as a primary meeting spot. One of the main groups periodically sheltered by the Democracy Center is Harvard Divest, which recently announced victory when the Harvard Management Company announced that they will be divesting from fossil fuels. Divest Ed, the college divestment organization that sponsors Divest Harvard, Yale, and the other Ivy League divestment initiatives, is a child organization of the Democracy Center’s Better Future Project. Through the Democracy Center, Harvard alumni raised $60,000 and hired two full-time employees to train and organize Harvard students for their divestment campaign.10
The Better Future Project recently came under fire from the progressive community after an employee suffering from gender dysphoria accused the executive director and founder of BFP of sexual harassment. The would-be transgender man accused the director of making lewd jokes and of firing him because of the accusations.11
Though there were no substantiated claims of harassment, employees at BFP created an anonymous twitter account named “BFPWorkers” which tweeted “We are rank and file workers at @BetterFuturePro. We believe survivors,” with a screenshot of a message saying “Non-profit climate movement spaces are often occupied and driven by those governed by money, asseture, white supremacy, and the heteropatriarchy.”12 The board of the nonprofit, in the face of such public pressure, was unable to stand up to their own employees. The former director and founder now works for another environmental group in the Boston area.
If you want to know where Divest got its start, or if you’d like to found the next big movement to sweep Harvard’s campus with protests, look no further. Has the patriarchy got you feeling down? Head down to the Democracy Center, crack open a copy of the Child’s Illustrated Guide to Community Anarchism, and relax. It’s home.
MARCUS VALERIUS MARTIALIS
A version of this article originally appeared in Fading Crimson, the November 2022 print issue of the Salient.
“Home,” The Democracy Center, n.d.
“The Black Response,” The Black Response, n.d.
“About BBQ+,” The Center for Black, Brown, and Queer Studies, 2022.
“Over the Years at the Pi Eta Speakers Club,” Harvard Crimson, Apr. 15, 1991.
Victoria Baena, “A Decade Ago, Another Occupation,” Fifteen Minutes, Dec. 1, 2011.
Katherine Dimengo, “Settlement Reached in Frat House Suit,” Harvard Crimson, Sep. 13, 2002.
Erin Carlyle, “Liesel Pritzker Simmons Sued Her Family and Got $500 Million, But She's No Trust Fund Baby,” Forbes, Dec. 1, 2013.
“Blue Haven Initiative,” Blue Haven Initiative, 2022.
“Harvard Square-Mifflin Place,” Property Shark, n.d.
Alexandra Chaidez and Aidan Ryan, “Harvard Alumni Recruit Professional Divestment Activists,” Harvard Crimson, Sep. 27, 2019.
Internal Better Future Project emails.