How I Became an Activist


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.

RI might be next!

by Karen Topakian

Watch out big news could be on its way from my home state. Little Rhody. On Wednesday, February 9, RI will hold its first State House hearing on same sex marriage.

A newly released study by the Williams Institute indicates that the cash strapped state could benefit financially from legalizing gay marriage. To the tune of $1.2 million over three years. And that only refers to state tax revenues.

Governor Chafee who promised to sign gay rights marriage legislation chose to include his support in his January 2011 inaugural speech.

“I would hope that Rhode Island will catch up to her New England neighbors and pass a bill to establish marriage equality,’’ said Chafee. “I urge our General Assembly to quickly consider and adopt this legislation. When marriage equality is the law in Rhode Island, we honor our forefathers who risked their lives and fortune in pursuit of human equality.’’

If RI does catch up to her Rhode Island neighbors, I will be deeply proud of my home state.  And once again wonder if California will ever catch up.

Notes from the directionally challenged

by Karen Topakian

North South East West

Four simple words that produce within me great anxiety.

Growing up in New England, in the tiny state of RI, east meant water. Narragansett Bay.

South also meant water. The Atlantic Ocean.

Then I moved to San Francisco. And lost my directional bearings.

Here the ocean lies to the west. But the Bay still sits to the East.

In RI, you can always drive west. In SF, you can never drive west. Without getting wet.

My father* possessed a keen sense of direction probably honed during his years as a navigator in the Army Air Corps in World War II. Whenever I visited him in RI and borrowed his car, I panicked when I got lost. Unlike most cars, his had no maps. “Why don’t you have any maps in the car?” I asked him. “Because,” he said, “I always know where I am going.”

*My father would have turned 87 on Dec 13, I miss his no nonsense communication skills.

Fellow Rhode Islanders, I need your help

By Karen Topakian

Two months ago I moved my grandparent’s antique gas fired stove out of cold storage into my mother’s garage. With the expectation of selling it. Quickly. On Craigslist. Those hopes were dashed. And still it sits in Cranston taking up precious space that my sister needs.

I’m selling it. To the best offer. Photo to the left. It’s a beauty.

A Barstow Insulated Stove, circa 1920’s. Cream colored enamel with green trim. Curved legs.  4 burners. 2 ovens. 45” in length. 53 ½” tall. 23” deep. (unfortunately, I don’t know if it works)

Delusionally, I had thought that someday I might buy a beach house in RI and use it for a bookcase, as my grandfather had done. But that ain’t happening. Soooooo if you’re interested or know someone who might be. Let’s make a deal. I even have a mover to recommend.

Massachusetts’ loss was Rhode Island’s gain

images-1by Karen Topakian

Three hundred and seventy four years ago today, the Massachusetts Bay Colony banished Roger Williams as a religious dissident. Primarily because he spoke out against punishments for religious offenses.

Roger Williams believed that the magistrate should not punish religious infractions. He did not believe that public officials had the right to enforce religious duties. That civil authority should not equal eccleastical authority. Thomas Jefferson later adopted Williams’ revolutionary belief in the “wall of separation” between church and state.

He also opposed the requirement that all male Bay Colony inhabitants of 16 years of age or older swear an oath of allegiance to the Colony and the Crown, ending with the words “so help me God.” Roger Williams said that swearing an oath to God made no sense if one was an unbeliever.

At the threat of being deported by the Boston Church back to England for his transgressions, where he would surely be persecuted for his unpopular beliefs, Williams fled south. For 14 weeks he wandered in the bitter snow and wilderness seeking a place to rest.

The Narragansett befriended him as he attempted to settle on the banks of the Seekonk River. When he learned he was still within the confines of the Plymouth Colony, he moved to the headwaters of Narragansett Bay where he founded a settlement he called Providence on land purchased from Canonicus, chief of the Narragansett. Purchased without patent or title from the king.

This settlement based on religious freedom later became the foundation of Providence Plantations and eventually Rhode Island.

Thank you Massachusetts for throwing out our founder.

I can’t believe it wasn’t Rhode Island!

by Karen Topakian


 It was New Jersey.

The state where the FBI’s money laundering, bribery and corruption sting took place. Snaring 44 people including elected officials, rabbis and a man charged with trafficking in human kidneys.

The Ocean State has had its share of public corruption and bribery but this escapade will be hard to beat. We thought the 1980’s Federal corruption scandal of Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci’s administration ensured our top dog position. With a whopping 30 indictments and 22 convictions. But we gotta hand it to New Jersey. You win.

There just might be hope for Rhode Island. [That is the state motto by the way. Hope.] With the kidney market torn asunder in New Jersey, could RI get a piece of the action?

If not, niche marketing might be a good strategy. RI officials and religious leaders could consider trafficking in other vital organs, like hearts or intestines.

According to the Washington Post story, the rabbis were selling counterfeit handbags. [I love that accessories were involved.]

Is there space for RI religious leaders, maybe the Catholic Church for instance, to jump into the trade? Bingos and church suppers would be the perfect venue for hawking bogus Balenciaga’s or fake Fendi’s.

We gotta start thinking outside of the box.

Congratulations New Jersey! You won today fair and square.

What’s In A Name?


by Karen Topakian

This headline in the Providence Journal, “Medical examiner confirms body was that of ‘Joe Onions,’” may not mean much to you if you never lived in RI. But to those of us who did and still do, it reminds us of the state’s colorful mafia history.

I’m not referring to the location of the body but the name of the victim. Joe ‘Onions’ Scanlon. I bet he got this nickname because Scanlon sounded like scallion and these folks aren’t known for their educational pedigrees. Maybe it was because he loved onion sandwiches. Or because he didn’t.

According to Wikipedia, a nickname is a descriptive name given in place of, or in addition, to the official name of a person, place or thing. I would say these favorite mafia nicknames of mine meet the test. 

Tommy ‘3 Fingers’ Brown

Ronnie  ‘Balloon Head’ deAngelis  

Salvatore ‘Sally Fruits’  Farrugia

Angelo ‘Spastic Colon’ Gasdrulli

And everyone’s favorite, Sammy ‘the Bull’ Gravano

The mafia deserves a lot of credit for donning their dons with rich nomenclature.

If you’re wondering what your Mafia name might be test out this website: Mine comes up as The Harpoon.

Rhode Island, You Should Have Been First



by Karen Topakian

My home state of Rhode Island is once again in the news. It’s the last holdout of the six New England states to legalize same sex marriage. Rhode Island proudly stands first in many historical events that formed this country and its bedrock philosophies of freedom and liberty, why couldn’t it have done so now? For example,

Roger Williams, the founder of the first colony in Rhode Island in 1636, based his Providence settlement on his strong beliefs in religious liberty, specifically in the separation of Church and State. A unique model for government in the 17th century. And an unwelcome concept in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which exiled him. Rhode Island became a haven and refuge for people seeking religious freedom. He adhered to his beliefs in religious freedom along with other revolutionary ideas that influenced Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. 

On May 18, 1652, Rhode Island took first place in North American history by making slavery illegal.

On June 9, 1772, two Rhode Islanders, Abraham Whipple and John Brown committed the first act of bloodshed against the British government’s onerous taxation and trade policies when it attacked, boarded, looted and burned down the British revenue schooner, the Gaspee. A year and a half before the more widely known and celebrated Boston Tea Party. 

On May 4, 1776, the Rhode Island legislature became the first colony to declare its independence from Great Britain.

For a state founded on the basis of religious freedom and independence, why are we now in last place amongst our New England neighbors?