Tools for Change
by Kimberley McCoy

Graphic: Karen Kerney

An important role of the artist in society is to question authority and to challenge the status quo. It is said that artists hold a mirror up to society, allowing us to see reality and truths that may have gone unnoticed. It is of no surprise that many artists align themselves with the work being done around the world for peace and social justice. In Syracuse, NY, the locally-owned Syracuse Cultural Workers (SCW) has created, published and distributed art that seeks to create a culture “that honors diversity and celebrates community; that inspires and nurtures justice, equality and freedom; that respects our fragile Earth and all its beings and that encourages and supports all forms of creative expression.”

Last year, SCW celebrated its 25th anniversary. For 25 years this peace and justice publisher has been creating “tools for change” that seek to inform and inspire those within the peace and justice community as well as those outside of it. These tools have come in many forms, including posters, calendars, note cards, t-shirts, lawn signs and even coloring books. Their print catalog and newly revamped website make these and other products available to customers across North America and beyond (  

The success of the Peace Calendar is one of SCW’s largest accomplishments. The Peace Calendar actually began in 1972, 36 years ago, as a project of the Syracuse Peace Council. In 1982, after the Peace Calendar lost money for the first time and Dik Cool was no longer on the SPC staff, the Peace Council decided to stop publishing the calendar. Dik and Karen Kerney (the calendar’s art director for over 30 years) decided it was too good a tradition to drop, and so SCW was born. Today the Peace Calendar is known both nation-wide and internationally. The 2006 edition sold a record 32,000 copies.

SCW has also become known for its ‘How To’ series of posters (eight and counting), most notably the original “How To Build Community” which has sold over 40,000 prints and is available in English, French and Spanish. The poster features a list of suggestions, such as “turn off your TV” and “bake extra and share.” Above the list and along the edges of the poster are watercolor scenes of a neighborhood sharing, gardening and being happy together. This poster proudly hangs in community centers, co-ops, businesses and homes all across the country.

The paintings, drawings, collages, stencils, photography and graphic work that have been created or used by SCW contribute to a visual culture and document a movement. By making these images available to so many people, whether it is through a poster or a postcard, a common visual language is being created.

Unlike much art that is designed to be one-of-a-kind, the SCW’s artwork is designed to be distributed as widely as possible. SCW designs and prints certain “poster/leaflets” for mass-distribution on inexpensive, thin paper that can be easily folded, packed and shipped. Bulk discounts are made available so activist groups can afford to purchase large quantities on a small budget. The poster, “You can’t be all you can be if you’re dead” is priced at only one dollar so activists working on counter military recruitment can fill their communities with posters. SCW also provides discounts to groups who sell their products for fundraising purposes.

For those of us already in the peace movement, the work of SCW can be self-affirming, inspiring and beautiful. Flipping through the pages of the Peace Calendar encourages a sense of solidarity with the global movement as we see images of peacemakers from Colombia or Korea. To those outside the peace movement, interacting with a SCW product may be the tool that brings someone to reconsider a political view, think from a new perspective or be inspired to act. SCW offers a discount to teachers and also produces a teacher’s guide to the Peace Calendar that is available to download from their website. A student in a classroom with an “Upside Down World Map” may think about the world in a slightly different way than a friend across the hall with a view of a timeline of US presidents above the chalkboard.

The next adventure of SCW will be the financial support and the lending of art and activism expertise to a new nonprofit organization. The Community Outreach and Resources for the Arts (CORA) Foundation and its progressive art gallery, Artrage: The Norton Putter Gallery, will be located at 505 Hawley Ave.—just a block away from SCW’s offices, store and warehouse. The new organization and gallery will bring progressive art and events to Syracuse and connect with the community through the public art of murals. The CORA Foundation and SCW will continue to make art that inspires, educates and challenges.

Kimberley is a former SCW employee. She recently researched and documented the public murals of Syracuse for the Syracuse Mural Project of the CORA Foundation. She currently lives in Boston and is pursuing a Masterís degree in Arts Administration.