Story by Micah Castelo. Photos by Randy Plavajka.
On the edge of the historic Hawley-Green neighborhood sits a commercial building with a narrow green door and raised garden beds. If not for the bright rainbow flag waving proudly from its front façade and the environmentally-friendly posters posted on its side, your eyes might casually glaze over it while driving down Lodi Street.
This is Syracuse Cultural Workers, a national publishing company and retail store founded in 1982. Walk through the door with the sign overhead that reads “Tools for Change” and you’ll be greeted with progressive paraphernalia and products- from feminist artwork hanging on the walls to pins and buttons with messages like “Protect kids, Not guns” and “Drones R Terrorism” tacked on cardboard.
For 36 years, this business has been educating people about human rights and social justice issues and encouraging activist work through the visual materials they sell.
And despite going through several economic struggles, Syracuse Cultural Workers is still sailing on, especially with the rise in civic engagement and activism across the nation in the last two years.
According to a 2018 poll by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation, one in five American adults are participating in protests and rallies since the beginning of 2016. In this sampling of 1,850 adults, 19 percent have said it’s their first time joining a march or demonstration. About 32 percent of the total sampling are rallying in opposition to President Donald Trump’s administration and its conservative agenda. Syracuse Cultural Workers has tapped into this growing customer base of people who are searching for activist products, such as T-shirts, lawn signs, stickers, posters, mugs, and postcards that express their beliefs.
Dik Cool, a progressive activist and founder of Syracuse Cultural Workers, says Trump and his administration’s controversial policies are actually helping boost their sales.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s taken that, but people have become much more aware of their values and how they have to defend them,” he says.
Since then, more people have turned to their store to purchase products that represent messages they believe in.
“So when people say, ‘well there’s a silver lining,’ we’re it,” he adds.
Even before the merchandise they sell now, the company’s mission already existed, expressed through a monthly “Peace Calendar.” This was Cool’s brain child, a project he developed while working for the Syracuse Peace Council, the oldest running locally-based peace organization in the country.
Cool got a job coordinating activist events and making cultural products for the organization in 1970, two years after he was released from federal prison. He was arrested for being a draft resister during the Vietnam War. Although he was still on parole and was expected to work at a pharmaceutical company, his parole officer, who was also anti-war, let him take the job at the council.
At the council, he started making the Peace Calendar to remind people of how they can incorporate activism in their daily lives.
“As I was on staff longer there, I realized that I sort of had ink in my veins,” Cool says. “I loved to publish things.”
And when the council decided they could no longer afford to publish the calendar, Cool, with the help of a few friends—Karen Kerney, Linda Perla, Jack Manno and Jan Phillips—launched Syracuse Cultural Workers to take over the project.
“We said we’re going to continue the calendar because all of us felt that it was a way to influence people throughout the year,” Cool says. “That was really the first product that launched Syracuse Cultural Workers.”
The Peace Calendar still exists. In fact, it’s their most popular annual item. Cool pulls out a 14-by-11-inch wall calendar and flips through its pages, made solely from post-consumer recycled paper.
“It’s not literally a calendar that’s just about peace, but we’ve kept that title,” he explains. “It’s peace in a broad term because there’s a range of topics addressed in each calendar. That’s true in every edition.”
For instance, this year’s October page has a photo collage of black athletes protesting racism and injustice. The collage links back to October 16, 1968, the day sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists at an Olympic ceremony to protest against systemic racism in the U.S. The collage also touches on more recent events such as NFL players kneeling in protest during the national anthem.
Other months have consistent themes—March addresses women’s issues, April on the environment, June on the LGBTQIA+ community, and November on indigenous populations—while some are chosen from a selection process. The process for determining what goes in the calendar remains the same.
Each year, an eight-person committee spends roughly 10 months planning the calendar. They even host a focus group to get input from the local community on the issues they should focus on. Cool explains that the 12 final topics are researched thoroughly. That’s because the calendar doesn’t just have dates- there are over 200 annotations on marginalized peoples’ histories, blurbs explaining certain movements, such as Black Lives Matter, Occupy, and Water is Life, and powerful quotes from activists.
The committee also works closely with artists across the country as they find works that represent the topics they want to highlight in each edition. They send out a call for art submissions or contact artists from their 400-person list to get a piece commissioned for their calendar.
Karen Kerney, Syracuse Cultural Workers’ art director, has been with the company since its inception. She’s worked on the first Peace Calendars as a peace council volunteer.
She reveals the first level of their storefront shop used to be Caroma, a landmark Italian restaurant owned by three sisters- Carmel Sacco, Mary D’Addario and Rose Wadanole.
There’s a packaging center behind the counter where a few staff members are processing orders, rolling up posters and wrapping up T-shirts for distribution as they listen to NPR. Upstairs is an open workspace, individual offices and an art studio, all surrounded with banners, artwork, and newspaper and magazine clippings tacked on the walls. There’s even a small kitchen where “Soup and Bread” is held, a weekly gathering where they all cook and eat a meal together.
Kerney shows where they keep their archives upstairs. There are filing cabinets and acid-free boxes stuffed with past art submissions and copies of their printed posters and calendars. Since the company started, Kerney has acted as an in-house artist, hand drawing posters or making photo collages. She also makes artwork for the Peace Calendar when they can’t find pieces that best represent a topic they want to address.
“I like the idea of culture and words being put together to change the world,” she says.
Kerney, along with Maxx Hill, the design and production coordinator, is constantly working with artists to print new works on merchandise sold at their retail store, print catalog, website, and pop-up events. But they have to find balanced artwork- those that present serious issues in an empowering way.
Leslie Dwyer, an Oregon-based self-taught artist, has been working with Syracuse Cultural Workers since the late ‘80s. She says they often seek images that represent hope. For instance, her drawing of vibrantly-colored houses with the phrase, “May the night sky find us all warm, fed, sheltered, and loved,” was printed on Syracuse Cultural Workers’ holiday cards.
“Times are tough, and they wanted to present the side of us coming together and feeling our strengths,” she says.
Cool explains they also try to work their values into how they develop their products.
“We donate a great deal to community organizations doing the work that we support and seek,” he says. “We also try to have consistency between the content, the messaging on what we produce and how it’s produced.”
All of the T-shirts are made sweatshop free and with organic cotton. All their paper products are printed by regional union print shops. Everything ordered from Syracuse Cultural Workers is processed and packaged from their small warehouse, located in the back of their retail store.
Andy Mager is the sales manager at Syracuse Cultural Workers. He’s been working there since 2014, after he spent two years working on a project on Native American rights and environmental protection.
He says that despite having a large number of loyal customers today, Syracuse Cultural Workers is still facing challenges as a small company. Currently, work is split between 11 permanent staff workers and an additional five people during the holiday season.
In 1988 and 2007, they almost shut their doors because of financial issues. The company lost 50 percent of their growing $2 million revenue due to the recession between 2007 and 2009.
“But if it weren’t for Dik’s personal commitment and the staff’s willingness to cut back in terms of wages and benefits, it would’ve folded,” Mager says.
Mager also explains that as a small business, they have to find affordable ways to reach people who would be interested in their products. And since they try to reflect their values through their production, such as supporting fair living wages, their merchandise tends to cost more.
“In order to hold to that principle, it means we face an uphill battle in the marketplace,” Mager says. “As much as we’re not fans of capitalism, we do exist in a capitalist market economy.”
Cool says the company has seen a small profit in the last couple of years. He adds that it’s encouraging, especially because he wants to ensure his staff is getting a decent living wage and adequate health care. But despite the looming uncertainty of their earnings, the company’s staff enjoys working there.
Kerney comes downstairs with their fall catalog in hand. As she flips through its glossy pages, pointing out the most popular merchandise they sell, she reflects on what makes working there so special. She says she loves the camaraderie and feeling like she can be a part of creating tools for change.
Quay Winfield, a seasonal receptionist who has known about the Cultural Workers since 2000, chimes in. She says it’s like working with an activist family.
“I feel really comfortable with the fact that I got woke with these guys,” she says. “And being able to get up and do something that really does help other people do something is a treat.”