On a bright Sunday afternoon, most of the offices on the fourth floor of downtown Durham’s historic Snow Building are dark. But the stillness at 331 W. Main St. is interrupted by energetic voices and warm light spilling from a door at the end of the hall: activists at the Durham Solidarity Center finalizing plans for the day’s event.
The center, which has occupied a space in the Snow Building for its three years of existence, provides free resources and meeting space to activist groups in Durham. Out of a small but well-stocked workspace, volunteers reach out to community organizations in need of structural support.
Run by a small advisory board, the center thrives on time and money donated by volunteers.
“It’s an all-volunteer governing body,” said Elena Everett, one of the center’s co-founders. “We sort of take care of the day-to-day operations and manage the finances and do the outreach and are ambassadors for the Durham Solidarity Center in the community.”
Though its resources are available to any local nonprofit, Everett said the center focuses on those groups that don’t receive grants or regular funding.
“It exists to try and provide space and resources for community organizations and efforts by people to come together for social justice, racial justice, environmental justice, education justice – particularly groups that don’t have funding,” she said. “We try and be a hub for helping incubate projects and organizing.”
Groups working out of the Durham Solidarity Center have use of everything from computers with Internet access to bullhorns for protests. Shelf space for affiliate organizations lines the center’s walls, sharing the office with a small lending library and tools like button makers and screen-printing kits.
“The kind of the things that, if you’re just a little community group, you can’t afford necessarily,” Everett said. “This was created to fill some gaps that we saw. Working and doing organizing in Durham, sometimes it’s hard to get meeting space.”
The center currently provides space for several Durham and Triangle-area organizations, including youth groups like the Youth Organizing Institute and the N.C. Student Power Union. LGBT groups frequent the center, such as the iNSIDEoUT 180 gay-straight alliance coalition and the Lavender Kitchen Sink Collective for low-income and minority women. During the Occupy Wall Street protests of late 2011, members of Occupy Durham held meetings at the center whenever rain forced them out of their camp.
And Sunday’s event, a forum on women’s rights in India, was co-organized by the Durham branch of the Workers World Party, a Marxist political group that regularly works out of the Durham Solidarity Center.
WWP member Zaina Alsous said the center has been an invaluable hub for the organization.
“The Durham Solidarity Center is really, for us, an incredible resource that we can use for organizing purposes, for meeting, for having these sorts of community events and lectures that really bring different people from around the Triangle, especially in Durham,” she said.
Alsous, who is also a senior political science major at UNC-Chapel Hill, said the Durham community’s rich history makes it an ideal area for activism. In addressing socio-economic issues faced by Durham minority communities, she said it’s critical for activists to keep that history in mind.
“What I think is important is for us to really cherish and respect this historic legacy of Durham – this historic legacy of black leadership in Durham,” she said, “and as much as possible, really uplift the voices of people who I think are really silenced often.”
For activists like Alsous, the center is a place for organizers to connect Durham to justice struggles around the world.
As the fourth-floor meeting wraps up, center volunteers head downstairs to the lecture by WWP leader LeiLani Dowell on the state of women’s activism in India.
Staying behind a moment in the center’s office to finish her introductory speech for the event, Everett says an exchange between different communities is what makes for effective activism. She says as the center readies for its May relocation to a space in the Hayti Heritage Center across town, volunteers will remain focused on the needs of their home community.
“I think that every place is different, and community is different every place,” she said. “Everybody that comes in here is an activist and is connected to community and community organizing. We kind of have our ear to the ground and have a sense of what’s needed.”
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