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Social conscience is key for J.P. printer

Talia Whyte
Social conscience is key for J.P. printer
Since 1974, Red Sun Press has been a socially responsible printing and design cooperative that serves Boston’s social activists. The press celebrated its history during last weekend’s Jamaica Plain Open Studios with an exhibit of posters like this one, designed for World Fair Trade Day 2008. (Image courtesy of Red Sun Press)

Thirty-five years ago, a group of activists met in a Cambridge basement with only $350 to do something that was considered radical at the time — create a socially responsible printing and design cooperative that served Boston’s social activists. Started in 1974, Red Sun Press is still going strong, one poster, brochure and book at a time.

In celebration of its anniversary, the organization displayed some of its most memorable posters at “Impressions for Change: 35 Years of Political Posters from Red Sun Press,” a special exhibit at its Green Street offices during last weekend’s Jamaica Plain Open Studios.

“If you look at our posters over the years, they represent the evolving history of progressive social movements in the city,” said Jenny Silverman, president of the board of Red Sun Press. “Each poster has a story of its own.”

As Silverman spoke, she was flipping through folders of posters from the 1970s and 1980s. Most of the art advertised protests and meetings supporting activism around women’s and workers’ rights, as well as uprisings in Latin America and the Middle East. Many bore colorful, provocative sayings like “No Blood for Oil” and the Haitian proverb “Men anpil, chay pa lou” (“With many hands, the burden is light”).

One of the posters on display last weekend was a drawing of political leader Nelson Mandela by famed artist Kim Berman. The black-and-white poster was created to advertise the former South African president’s historic 1994 visit to Boston.

“Looking back at the Mandela poster reminds you of the excitement around Boston about his anticipated visit at the time,” Silverman said.

Silverman attributed Red Sun Press’ longevity to its ethical workplace practices. The company is a democratically controlled business founded on principles of worker self-management and fair distribution of profits. Red Sun’s 11 employees have equal say in all business decisions. She said that Red Sun thrives on teamwork and gives each person an opportunity to grow and develop.

“We think we have survived because we are a cooperative, despite the difficult economy,” she said. “Our democratic business practices have actually allowed us to make good decisions for both our employees and our customer base.”

Red Sun’s sustainability strategy is also a hallmark of the organization. It was the first printing company in Boston to stock 100 percent recycled paper in the early 1980s. Because recycled paper was hard to find at that time, the company had to have it mailed in from California.

Today, Red Sun recycles all of its own waste paper, as well as more than 50 tons of waste paper per year from its press room and offices, most of which is donated to local schools and day care centers. In addition, the press uses vegetable-based inks (a combination of soy, linseed oil and other vegetable oils) in all printed materials.

Its commitment to environmental protection extends to worker relations, such as offering incentives for employees who use public transportation instead of driving a car, and composting food waste in the office kitchen. Red Sun has received many awards for its green practices. It is a two-time winner of the Massachusetts Buy Recycled and Environmentally Preferred Products Award, and earned the City of Boston Green Business Award in 2007.

Despite its success over the years, Red Sun now finds itself having to keep up with evolving methods of communication. With more people using social media tools like Facebook and Twitter to advertise their political activism, the organization is looking into reorganizing its strategic plan to include more digital media services. It already has a Web design department, which Silverman said it hopes to expand over the next year.

Whatever changes come in the near future, Silverman said Red Sun will continue to deliver the same high-quality products to the hundreds of nonprofit organizations and state agencies they work with throughout the country.

“We have survived this long, and we are looking forward to the next steps in our company’s life,” she said.

“Impressions for Change: 35 Years of Political Posters from Red Sun Press” will be exhibited at Haley House Bakery Café, located at 12 Dade Street in Roxbury’s Dudley Square, from Oct. 9 through Nov. 17. For more information, visit