Twenty Years of Singing for Peace & Justice
by Karen Mihalyi

The Syracuse Community Choir singing a Summer Solstice concert with Francisco Herrera. Photo: Marjory Wilkins-Mitchell.

It was a hot summer night in 1975, and I was upstairs in SPC’s newsletter room with two Peace Council staffers, Barb Kobritz and Chris Murray. We were working on a flyer for Woman Harvest,a weekend sponsored by the Women’s Information Center, and I wistfully mentioned that I’d always wanted to direct a choir. My two friends, energized by the emerging world of possibilities for women, jumped right on it, saying, “Why don’t you put it in the flyer and see how many women sign up? We’ll mail the music and you could rehearse at the weekend and perform.” Yikes! A few weeks later, 80 women had signed up and I was on the way to directing my firstchoir. George Johnson and I arranged the first piece (“Hay Una Mujer” by Holly Near) and soon there I was, scared and excited, standing in front of a massive group of gorgeous, smiling women, teaching parts from a little electric keyboard. They were actually singing! It was beautiful and I was hooked.

Karen Mihalyi joyfully directing the Syracuse Community Choir at the People’s Music Network Concert with Pete Seeger in January, 2003. Photo: Larry Hoyt

The Woman Harvest Choir continued in many forms for ten years. Each fall we gathered at Woman Harvest to sing. During the year, a smaller group rehearsed and sang at events such as Plowshares, “Women By Women” shows, and even at the Women’s Pentagon Action (1982), where we organized a choir and sang to women as they were being arrested.

Then in 1984 I traveled to Nicaragua and witnessed the extraordinary work of ordinary people involved in creating a new democratic society. Music and art were central to this revolution and I came back with several important ideas: 1) everyone has a right to both experience and participate in creating beauty and culture; 2) a revolution, a movement for social change, needs music and art to sustain it; and 3) I would start a choir that included everyone. There would be no auditions. We would sing songs that would inspire and support the work needed to “repair the world.”

The chance came in the spring of 1985 when a group of activists organized a Peace Day at Thornden Park and I put out a call for singers. 100 adults and children showed up. We ended with singing “We Are the World” from the stage as people danced below in the amphitheater.

Shortly after that, a steering committee was organized and the Syracuse Community Choir was officially born.That year we did two significant performances that have framed our seasons since then – we decided to sing on the Summer and Winter Solstices. Our first summer concert, at the United Baptist Church on South Beech Street, was a huge affair with tables from community groups, and a full house. That fall we planned our first Winter Concert at Grace Episcopal Church to honor the earth and the Solstice, based on our growing connection with the traditions of the Onondaga Nation and the pagans in our midst. We included songs from Cha-nukah, Kwanzaa and Christmas, traditions represented in the choir membership. We began the night honoring the dark, and then welcomed the light back with candles, and songs of peace, justice and community. These ideas have continued to be a part of many Winter Solstice Concerts.

The years have been filled with much more, of course. We’ve sung at rallies, memorial services, celebrations and events; we’ve celebrated International Women’s Day, Martin Luther King’s Birthday and my birthday. We’ve performed with guests like Pete Seeger, Holly Near, Kim and Reggie Harris, Pat Humphries, Francisco Herrera and local dancer/choreographer, Cheryl Wilkins-Mitchell. We’ve collaborated with others such as The Paul Robeson Company, the Onondaga Nation, NOON (Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation), Peace Child, and the People’s Music Network.

Some of us nursed our babies at rehearsals and later watched as our children grew and then sang with us. We’ve learned hundreds and hundreds of songs and shared them. We’ve sung through our grief when singers/community members have died. We’ve sung for the earth and all of life. We’ve continued to put forward a vision of a world where all people matter – one based on cooperation rather then competition, on connection rather then isolation and fear, on sharing rather then greed, on peace rather then war, on harmony rather than discord.

I am filled with pride at what we have done. Thirty years is a long time, since that first Woman Harvest Choir. There is so much to celebrate.

Come and join us! We will gather at 7 pm on December 17 at the Palace Theater in Eastwood for a grand Winter Solstice/Reunion Concert. It will be a wonderful event with puppets, pictures, quilts, and our favorite songs. If you listen carefully, you may hear “Hay Una Mujer,” coming full circle from that fall, twenty years ago, when the seeds for the Syracuse Community Choir were first planted.

Karen, founder of the Community Choir, is a mother, counselor, and activist, and believes that everyone can sing, no exceptions!