by Karen Topakian
Responding to the in-coming administration’s grand entrance, friends and colleagues have asked me how to become an activist, probably because I’ve been one for decades. First, as a community organizer then as a Greenpeace campaigner and as a frequent participant in nonviolent direct action. To answer, I thought back to my own humble beginnings.
Here’s my story:
In 1977, my late friend Mary Levesque, a public interest lawyer representing low-income clients, asked me to testify before the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (PUC) against a proposed electricity rate hike. Her organization, which advocated for the then radical idea of lowering residential rates during off-peak hours, needed a consumer to testify favoring their position. I fit the bill.
At the time, I lived in a communal household with several other adults and assumed responsibility for collecting the money and paying the household bills. Therefore, I knew our electricity costs first hand. Despite being college graduates, my roommates and I worked at non-professional jobs as waitresses, fishermen and in other low-wage employment. Rarely was anyone home during the day using electricity, so decreasing our costs after 6 p.m. would provide us with considerable savings. Plus the recent 1973 Oil Crisis, which quadrupled oil prices, put us all a bit on edge.
If I could convince the Commission to change their rate structure, our household costs would decrease and so would countless others who struggled financially.
Having never testified publicly, I became anxious and excited at the prospect. I didn’t know the PUC from the IRS. Mary provided me with the facts but urged me to write my own testimony using my own words and experience.
I can still recall that warm spring hearing night. Rushing home from my waitress shift, hurriedly replacing my stained clothes with a clean blouse and skirt, before heading out to testify.
The Commissioners sat behind a long table at the front of a large meeting room. I signed up to speak then quickly found an empty seat in the audience. As I quietly practiced my statement to myself, I could feel my temperature rising causing my blouse to stick to the back of my chair and my hands beginning to shake. After hearing the clerk call my name, I pulled back my shoulders, set my expression to serious and walked down the center aisle. I felt all eyes on me, as I struggled to keep my anxiety at bay. When I approached the podium, I spied Mary standing in the corner, nodding and smiling. Her reassurance calmed my nerves. Given only a few minutes to speak, I began in a clear, loud voice looking directly at the panelists who wore government-issued blank expressions. Using my nascent acting skills, I slowed down my speech and emphasized the important words. When I finished, a flurry of applause erupted from the audience.
Back down the center aisle I beamed, practically skipping with excitement like Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz.” I felt an adrenaline jolt akin only to my brief acting experiences. But better. Much better. Instead of entertaining an audience, I had spoken up for my rights and for others. And I wanted to do it again.
Even though the Commission rejected our proposal, the experience whetted my appetite to use my voice again.
Feeling empowered by this experience, I sought a job as a community organizer in Providence at People Acting through Community Involvement (PACE). For two years, I organized low and working class neighborhood members, often training them to testify at public hearings about crime and public safety by using their own experiences.
And thus began my life as an activist.