After Wearing Black, What’s Next ?


by Karen Topakian

On Sunday night the Golden Globe stage stood awash in black. Black dresses with plunging necklines, black off the shoulder gowns, black mermaid style dresses that required a helping hand for the wearer to ascend the stage, black dresses with big wide skirts, black body hugging gowns covering all but an arm. Beautifully rendered. Exquisitely worn. A statement that drew attention and awareness.

A few winners used their moment at the mic to speak about assault, harassment, bullying, inequity and inequality.

Several lent their names, support and ticket to organizations advocating for women’s rights in the workplace.

Without the limelight glaring, what can and should these actors do next?

What would you tell them to do today, tomorrow and the day after? Here are my ideas. What are yours?

  1. Ask workplace advocacy and women’s rights organizations how to help. Then listen and follow their directions.
  2. Leverage your status, privilege, access, and resources by making a significant financial gift to these advocacy organizations and announce it publicly. Offer to raise money for them. Invite your friends, colleagues and family members to get involved in the cause. Write an op-ed about the issue and why it’s important to you. Re-post and re-tweet the organizations’ messages to your fans for free. Deliver a keynote address for free at their conference. Appear in a video about the organization and its mission. Work behind the scenes to open closed doors. Show up at rallies and public demonstrations without much fanfare
  3. Cede your privilege. When a reporter approaches a celebrity standing with a woman representing an advocacy organization, direct the reporter to the advocate. Give her the moment to speak.
  4. When you’re interviewed for your latest project, talk about these issues and the organizations, too.
  5. Tell your own story about work place harassment, bullying, inequity and inequality.
  6. Publicly name the abusers. Push through the silence. Prepare yourself for the haters.
  7. Advocate publicly and privately for pay equity for all women in your sector from the production assistant to the director, from the assistant dresser to the starring actor.
  8. Convene women at your tier in the acting world and commit yourselves to serving in solidarity.
  9. Find out the pay scale for other women in your field and advocate with them for pay equity.









Planning Ahead


by Karen Topakian

Time management consultants always advise us to plan our time, mark out our days and hours to help us reach our goals.

In 2018, I vowed to heed this advice by seeking help from two time-honored sources – The Old Farmer’s Almanac and Martha Stewart. They provided these useful suggestions, which I will try to follow.

Yikes, it’s almost noon today, Wednesday, January 3, 2018, and I haven’t even started to:

  • Clean the canary cage
  • Dry fruit/vegetables/meat
  • Lay shingles
  • Prune to discourage growth
  • Travel for pleasure

I’m not sure how Wednesday, Jan 17 will turn out after I:

  • Schedule an eye exam
  • Castrate animals
  • Perm my hair

I will need a good night’s sleep before Friday, January 26, when I will:

  • Clean and oil my saddles
  • Cut my hair to encourage growth
  • Color my hair
  • Paint
  • Buy a home
  • Harvest above ground crops

Stay tuned for February when I will feed the orchids, quit smoking, ask for a loan and wean animals and children.

A Fish Out of Water



by Karen Topakian

This summer, I accepted an invitation to attend the Pomegranate Film Festival, in Toronto, Canada, which celebrates Armenian inspired films.

The Festival planned to screen “Arrested (Again),” a short documentary film made by Dan Goldes, about my 30 plus year experience with civil disobedience.

Scores of people entered the Cineplex on opening night, juggling popcorn and drinks while greeting each other in Armenian and English. I found a seat between two separate groups of women.

An older woman on my left spoke with her daughter seated beside her but occasionally glanced over at me. I could feel her puzzled expression as she tried to place my unknown face.

Ignoring her glances, I focused on the thick glossy program full of the directors’ biographies and film descriptions.

The crowd fell to a hush, when a female festival volunteer approached the mic. She opened the event with several minutes of remarks in Armenian, a language I don’t understand and can’t speak unless you count swearing, telling you to comb your hair or sit down to eat.

As laughter and applause erupted from the audience, I sat motionless, noticing the woman to my left observe me.

The festival volunteer briefly switched to English. Then she introduced the first film “The Last Inhabitant” and the filmmaker, Jivan Avetisyan, who had come all the way from Armenia, that afternoon.

The volunteer interviewed the filmmaker in Armenian. When she didn’t provide an English translation, I began to worry. What if the entire festival took place only in Armenian? Why hadn’t I asked about the language before I said yes to the invitation? How could I sit through 5 days of films without understanding a word? I felt like a fish out of water.

Then the house lights dimmed, the music started and, thankfully, English subtitles appeared on screen.

The film told the story of two older men who continued to live in Artsakh (also known as Nagorno-Karabakh), a disputed area between Armenia and Azerbaijan. They remained committed to being the last inhabitants of this hold out village, prepared to defend it as Armenia. One man also needed to protect his daughter from the trauma she experienced from her violent husband. Not an easy film to watch – lots of pain and suffering.

A brief intermission before the second film started allowed me to return to my program.

Again, I could feel the women to my left staring at me. After a few moments, she gently put her hand on my left wrist and tried to ask as politely as she could in English who I was and why I was there.

“I’m the subject of a short documentary.”

“About what?”


She knitted her eyebrows together trying to understand.

“A film about my experience with civil disobedience.”

She tilted her head towards me.

“I’ve been arrested many times in anti-war protests.”

She leaned closer.

“At the end of the film, I talk about my grandfathers who fled the Turks.”

“Ah, the Turks,” she exclaimed while raising both arms in the air. She patted me on my wrist again and smiled. I had made a new friend.





Say My Name, Rohingya


by Karen Topakian

When leaders refuse to say the name of those oppressed, we all suffer.

The most recent case took place in Myanmar when the Pope chose to not “say my name” Rohingya.

Instead, he said, “The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity, respect for the rule of law, and respect for a democratic order that enables each individual and every group – none excluded – to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good.”


“Religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation building.”

He came close to calling the Rohingya by name. But close ain’t good enough when it comes to genocide. Plain and simple, Myanmar did commit genocide – the extermination of a people and their culture – against the Rohingya people.

When we don’t name genocide, we cast doubt on it or deny its existence. By doing so, we render the victims and the survivors invisible at worst and liars at best. We make it easy to look away, aside, past it.

The effects of unnamed genocide last for many generations. My own people, Armenians, still struggle under the Turkish government’s refusal to acknowledge and accept responsibility for the genocide in 1915.

When we don’t name genocide, we enable other leaders, other despots, other tyrants to commit the same crimes against their people without risking retribution, sanctions, punishment. In the process, we bruise, stain, tarnish our own humanity.

We fight to be recognized. Heard. Believed. It happened. Say my name.



Her Death Incites Me


by Karen Topakian

Yesterday, I attended the memorial of one more lesbian friend who moved mountains. Debra Chasnoff. I didn’t know her well or for very long. But I did know she put her curiosity and interests into her films, whether she tackled – nuclear weapons, promoting respect and equity in the classroom or LGBTQ issues. She went behind the camera to learn, explore, reveal and investigate. Debra even earned an Oscar for doing so. She showed the lives of lesbians, in a way others had forgotten, overlooked or shunned by opening up our loves, stresses and challenges for others to enter, learn and, hopefully, respect.

She didn’t shy away from the tough subjects or the sharp rebukes. She faced fear, however it arrived. And most recently it arrived as breast cancer, a deadly fear for many women. She embraced the disease by filming it. In a twist, she became the subject of her film.

She followed into the next world in the footsteps of another fallen giant – Barbara Brenner, world leader as a policy advocate and activist for women living with breast cancer. She wrote the heck out of her ALS diagnosis, treatments, and struggles in blog called Healthy Barbs. A sharp commentator, always on the side of the patient, the consumer, the survivor.

When I think of these two women’s lives and careers dedicated to social justice, I must add two other friends who, too passed away well before their time but still accomplished so much – Eileen Hansen and Carla Johnson.

Eileen’s birthdate of May 1st signifies how she spent her life – devoted to people left out and left behind. Working literally tirelessly for peace and justice at home and abroad from her years as a policy advocate for people globally living with HIV/AIDs to running local political campaigns for progressive candidates whose vision would address issues of inequity and injustice

And finally to Carla Johnson, an advocate for designing San Francisco buildings, events, websites and services for people with disabilities. A true believer in going above and beyond, Carla again worked tirelessly to meet the needs of people with disabilities.

I marvel at my friends’ accomplishments and will re-dedicate myself to reach higher. Face my fears. Give more. Fight back, nonviolently, of course. And never waver in the quest for freedom and justice for all.




by Karen Topakian

Retired General John Kelly, White House Chief of Staff, longs for the days when we treated women, religion, “life” or Gold Star families as sacred.

Don’t treat women as sacred.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan once said, “Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified.”

Don’t revere us.

Why can’t you get it through your thick skulls we are equals. E-Q-U-A-L

Mr. Kelly, born in 1950, must be remembering back to those halcyon days of alleged sacredness when women, 50+% of the U.S. population, didn’t have:

  • The right to equal pay
  • Access to birth control
  • The right to not be discriminated against in all aspects of education programs that receive federal support
  • The right to terminate a pregnancy
  • The right to serve on a jury
  • The right to unemployment benefits during the last three months of pregnancy
  • The right to seek civil rights remedies for gender-related crimes and to sue our attackers in federal court
  • And the list goes on.

Seeing us as sacred and revered prohibits us from living full intentional lives. Lives of purpose. Lives of value outside of the home and hearth. Lives of our own making.

After you cry, what will you do?


by Karen Topakian

I cried today when I read this story about a woman named Phoolvati who lived in Bihar, India and lost her daughter and husband in the raging monsoon floods.

She thought her family would survive when she packed them in a small boat, her daughter clutching a metal box protecting their worldly possessions. The boat couldn’t fit all three so she stayed behind unsure if she would make it. Instead, the waters swallowed up her family. They were found later, her daughter’s arms wrapped around her father’s neck. Together they perished.

In one moment Phoolvati lost everything.

A few months ago she thought they would have saved enough money from their earnings rice farming on someone else’s land to buy their daughter a bicycle. A few month’s ago they felt hope.

Now she’s lost everything in a cruel heartless way. Because storms and natural disasters have no heart, no soul, no conscience. They only have wind and water and the power to destroy. Those same forces also have the power to give life.

We humans also have the power to do both.

I fear this government can only do one – destroy. Our elected leaders think they are creating by loosening up environmental regulations, dismantling executive orders and removing our country from voluntary treaties that they see as ties to bind us. Instead, they are destroying our lives, eco-systems and habitats in this country and around the world.

No. Donald Trump did not cause this monsoon and Cat4 hurricanes. His thinking and behavior along with others who deny the existence of climate change and who feel they/we bear no responsibility for changing our behaviors, systems and practices to mitigate it, turn it around, slow it down, stop it did. They/we are complicit.

We caused that woman to lose everything. Just as we caused the impacts of Irma and Harvey by NOT destroying the fossil-fuel economy that contributes to the increased carbon in our atmosphere and the increase in global temperature levels and the added moisture and heat in the air and the increased ferocity of natural disasters.

Phoolvati’s family fell victim to our unwillingness to take the steps needed to address climate change head on. She pays the price for our global leaders’ refusal to make the heard choices that will stop pipelines, stop drilling, stop fracking. Stop burning fossil fuels. Her daughter and husband died at the end of the pipeline we built.

Yes. India bears responsibility for its environmental practices, behaviors, policies, regulations….though not all of it.

After I finished crying this morning. I thought about what more we could all do to turn this around. Many of us do many things – we divest from fossil fuels, put solar panels on our roofs, drive less. That’s not enough. Not even close. We have to take our activism up a few notches. We have to get out of our comfort zones and push ourselves and our communities and our leaders to meet this challenge head on.

I fear for the future of this planet. Trust me, I feared for it under every previous president. Nobody gets a pass in my book. Some performed better than others. Nobody gets high marks. Nobody will unless we make them.

Read this article for yourself and see if you don’t also cry. When you wipe away the tears, tell me what you’ll do next. Take another sip of coffee or get up and act?

Starting tomorrow I can hit the streets of civil disobedience, to stop the pipes, ports and permits, will you join me?

Ode to the Sun


by Karen Topakian

Wisps of fog dance across the eclipse, creating more mystery and excitement. The sun and moon, eventually shrouded by the fog, become invisible to my protected eyes.

I wait expectantly for the darkness to abate, for the brilliantly glowing chubby crescent sun to reappear. The receding fog reveals a small bite snatched from the sun’s bottom left edge. The moon hasn’t finished its journey.

Seeing the sun always delights, never disappoints me. It warms my face and arms as the moon reveals more of the sun’s glow.

This orb has guided us as a people for millennia. Let’s leave the sun to itself, to shine, to warm, to heat, to inspire. For us to worship, adore, enjoy, revere.

Sun, wind, water, air enable us to exist as a species. Enable our planet to harbor life. This little fireball 92+ million miles away could provide the world’s energy, if we just let it.

The moon makes its exit stage left, returning the sun to wholeness. The sun shows no sign that the moon removed it from our view only for a moment. Fully circular, the sun stands alone without knowledge of the moon. It remains intact, without affect. Unscathed, unmarred, unmoved and unchanged.

The departed moon reminds me that occasionally we cross the sun’s path. Some create bigger shadows than others. Some try to eclipse its brilliance. None have. None can. None will.

Our sun. Our glory. Our joy.

Questioning My Commitment

downloadby Karen Topakian

After listening to white supremacists in Charlottesville, VA, screaming these anti-Semitic and racist Nazi slogans, “Blood and Soil” and “You will not replace us,” I began to question my commitment to nonviolence.

Because part of me wants to hit a Nazi, throw a brick at a Klansman, whack a fascist in the shins.

How can I adhere to my deeply held belief in nonviolence against such evil? Can I abandon my principles, just for a moment, to beat the crap out of a Nazi? Aren’t those the people we all hold up as the poster children for evil? The worst scourge of the planet. Why not get in a few licks? Assuming of course, I had the physical power to beat the crap out of anyone.

For several moments, ok hours, maybe days, I toyed with the notion of going off the nonviolence wagon to teach these folks a lesson.

Then I pondered, what lesson was I teaching and would it have any lasting value?

Fascism and White Supremacy will not end because I’ve pummeled a true believer. Support for them may even grow, if the public sees them as the victim or worse, the government may make the call for “law and order” to limit all protests.

Intellectually, I know their racist ideology won’t ever die because people can cling to ideologies long beyond their expiration date. Just ask the people who still believe Obama was born in Kenya.

Resorting to violence would only address my immediate anger and wouldn’t provide a long-term solution to White Supremacy.

How strong are my commitments if I’m willing to abandon them in difficult moments?

As I struggled with my dilemma, I turned to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s writings whose words first resonated with me when I heard them in my early 1960s sunday school class.

For half my life, I’ve tried to live by his six principles of nonviolence.

  1. Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.
  2. Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding.
  3. Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people.
  4. Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform.
  5. Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate.
  6. Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice.

I continued to question myself:

  • Can I win friendship and understanding against people wielding a lit torch and a gun?
  • Can I see them as victims and not evil people as they smash heads, drive cars into crowds and threaten to kill us?
  • Will my physical and emotional suffering educate and transform them or merely convince them to hit harder, strike deeper, shoot?
  • Can I honestly choose love when I feel their hate?
  • When, oh when, will that arc of justice bend far enough to reach us?

Why do I question them today when I’ve spent more than three decades participating in nonviolent direct actions? What’s different?

Then I realized most of my experiences with nonviolent action didn’t involve confronting someone who opposed my beliefs. In those 30+ years, I only engaged with law enforcement when I lay down in the road, occupied an office or disturbed the peace. People who advocate for war and the use of nuclear weapons don’t stand on the street corner carrying signs and brick bats, they occupy the halls of Congress and board rooms.

I acknowledge the privilege of rarely engaging my opponents face to face but that time will end now.

This time I will encounter the people everyone loves to hate – the Klan and Nazis. And I will need to live these principles and risk potential suffering and violence. Can I?

I looked to Dr. King who faced these same adversaries on his streets, in his home and in his life. He said, “In spite of the darkness of this hour … we must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence.”

If he could say this after those four young girls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, how could I give up and give in?

Instead, I will use this moment to test my belief in the power of nonviolence to overcome evil, bigotry and hatred and to test my ability to remain committed.




Nagasaki Day


by Karen Topakian

Today, on the 72nd Anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, I walked to the gates at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory with a heavy heart.

Heavy because as Americans we find ourselves farther away from nuclear abolition then we have been in decades. Because on Tuesday, our president unleashed a harsh, aggressive, bullying statement putting the planet at risk – he threatened to rain nuclear war on North Korea.

Other presidents have threatened other nations with nuclear war, but none have done so with such fervor and with such a slim connection to reality and to the devastating effects nuclear war would have on all life forms.

My heart grew heavier as I approached the gates. For decades, I have come to the Lab either on either August 6th, Hiroshima Day or on the 9th, Nagasaki Day, to oppose the Lab’s testing and designs of nuclear weapons. On every other occasion, I’ve risked arrest by lying down in the road, blocking the gate. Stopping business as usual for these architects of death and destruction.

Today I couldn’t risk arrest because as part of a sentencing agreement I had promised a judge in Washington, DC that I would not get arrested for 6 months for any reason anywhere in the country. As part of my practice of, and commitment to, nonviolence, I needed to keep my promise.

On other days, when I’ve lain down on the hard road under the blazing sun, to create a die-in, a simulation of what life would be like if a nuclear weapon landed in our community, our state, our country, I’ve thought about those who have come before me. Those who risked arrest by committing acts of nonviolent civil disobedience to abolish slavery, oppose war, demand women’s right to vote and defend the rights of LGBTQ people and people of color. Today was different.

Today, I with others was responsible for my fellow activists. I had agreed to serve as a legal observer – to watch the police as they arrested people, count those taken into custody and ensure the police released everyone.

My heart grew lighter as I watched 47 brave men and women put their lives and their freedom on the line for what they believed and into the hands of law enforcement. I watched 47 brave women and men make August 9, 2017, a day when people said No to the Lab and Yes to a world without nuclear weapons.

These acts, these moments, these people lifted my heart and gave me hope.