Losing a species


photo of Sudan taken by Jana Hajduchova

by Karen Topakian

In case you haven’t heard we lost the last white rhino male, Sudan. And I mean we. The human race. The species that thinks it’s in charge.

Now only two females roam the planet. Two.

In the 1960s, there were approximately 2,000.

According to the New York Times, “War, habitat loss and poaching for rhino horn have decimated populations, and by 2008 researchers could no longer locate northern white rhinos in the wild. But a number of the animals — including Sudan, who was captured in 1975 — remained at zoos around the world.”

We, humans, bear the responsibility for their decline. We start wars. We encroach on their habitat and we kill these majestic creatures to grind up their horns as a mythical cure for cancer.

And we show no signs of stopping. Since we don’t assign a dollar amount to our natural world, we don’t value what nature does and provides. In a capitalist world, no financial value truly means no value at all. Therefore, we don’t know how to assess the “cost” to the planet when we lose a species.

Because white rhinos eat grass, they have changed the ecology and structure of the grasslands. According to Business Insider, “Although seemingly counterintuitive, grazers, like rhinos, increase biodiversity by selecting certain plants over others, giving other species more ability to grow.”

The loss of this one species can alter this ecosystem in profound ways.

If we lost these five species, humans could not survive on this planet – ants, termites, bats, frogs and birds. These creatures decompose plant material, stir up soil, aid in seed dispersal, pollinate plants, serve as bio-indicators of our ecosystem, recycle nutrients and provide pest control. Try getting along without these free services!

Until we value these creatures’ lives, defend their right to live and protect their homes and habitats, we will reduce biodiversity. Disrupt the intricate web of life and place our food sources and clean drinking water at risk.

Now back to Sudan.

My friend and colleague, Jana Hajduchova, knew Sudan since she volunteered for the Czech zoo in Dvur Kralove before he was transported to Kenya in 2009. “I met him several times, last time about three weeks ago. He was still doing well, although I could see that it is already painful for him to walk. He was such a darling… Well, all rhinos are, but he was very kind and a nice animal.”






Heartbreaking and Heartening


by Karen Topakian

I bolted out the door a few minutes before 10 this morning to cheer on the students at Mission High, whom I thought would be walking out to support gun control.

Before I could cross Dolores street, I found a lively group of about 30 8th graders from the Children’s Day School, occupying the median strip on Dolores Street.

They chanted and held up signs with vigor and seriousness. They asked me to sign their petition, which they will deliver to Rep. Nancy Pelosi on their class trip to Washington D.C.

I asked permission to stand with them and hold up my RESIST banner. They agreed. After a few moments, I decided the students needed to own this event, so I crossed to the corner to join other adults, mostly parents and teachers, standing in solidarity.

Horns tooted from passing trucks and cars. Pedestrians chanted along and dog walkers remained for a moment or two in support.

As I stood watching them capture our hearts and minds, I found myself feeling two disparate emotions: a heartening spirit and a heartbreaking reality.

These students were not protesting actions and activities in a foreign land or to support a big concept like science. They were protesting to protect their own lives.

Though gun violence in schools, accounts for a small proportion of gun deaths. One is too many. These people are the target audience.

I don’t go to work in fear that someone will burst into my home office with a gun and shoot me. However, students may and do. It’s real for them. Very real. This is the part I find most heartbreaking – this reality in which they live. In which, we have not protected them.

The heartening part lies in their actions. Their organizing. Their use of social media. Their passion and solidarity. Their commitment to solutions. Their hashtag #NeverAgain.

Trump’s Topsy-Turvy World

by Karen Topakian


Under the Trump regime, up is down, black is white and right is wrong. His topsy-turvy world makes my head spin,

First, the President attacks the FBI and the Justice Department for: conducting a Russia probe witch-hunt, operating by partisan motivations and carrying out tainted investigations.

Since his claims are false, I need to defend the Bureau and the DOJ because these institutions stand as the bulwark against his condemnation of Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian election meddling and the president’s alleged obstruction of justice.

The FBI however, deserves condemnation for its prior acts of violence, murder and sabotage against American citizens, specifically nonviolent activists and organizations and African-American citizens involved in the Black Panther movement, for which they have not been sanctioned or punished.

Under J. Edgar Hoover’s iron-fisted paranoid leadership, the FBI established the COINTELPRO, a secret counter-intelligence program. According to a March 8, 2006, L.A. Times story, the Bureau created this program, “to investigate and disrupt dissident political groups in the U.S.”

The Bureau targeted individuals – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the actress Jean Seberg – and organizations – The Communist Party of the U.S.A., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Non-Violent Organizing Committee, the Black Panther Party, the Women’s Strike for Peace…

And they killed people, specifically Black Panther leaders Mark Clark and Fred Hampton in cold blood in their Chicago apartment on December 4, 1966.

Second, the President fired James Comey, the former FBI director, for investigating Russian interference in the 2016 elections and possible collusion with the Trump election campaign.

I need to defend Mr. Comey for doing his job, exploring these connections, which threaten our democracy.

Yet this same James Comey broke with FBI protocols to announce the existence of additional emails from Hilary Clinton 11 days before the presidential election, partially contributing to her electoral loss. This same James Comey bears responsibility for the current president’s Electoral College victory.

Thirdly, the President released a Republican memo alleging bias by the FBI toward him and his administration, which he hoped would taint the Robert Mueller investigation. The FBI warned the White House not to release the memo because it contains classified information involving a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) application for wiretapping Trump campaign advisor, Carter Page. The Republicans claimed the FBI presented politically tainted evidence to secure the application.

Now I need to defend the FISA Court against these false accusations.

Yet this secret U.S. Federal Court, established to oversee requests for surveillance warrants against foreign spies inside the United States by federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, received permission to search deliberately for Americans’ communications in its massive databases. And they hear only the arguments of the government prior to deciding a case. Its rulings cannot be appealed or even reviewed by the public.

The FISA court absolutely deserves scrutiny and an investigation into its clandestine practices and procedures targeting Americans.

Trump’s topsy-turvy world won’t stop me from defending these individuals and institutions while I name their abuses.

To Go or Not to Go


by Karen Topakian

President Trump will deliver his State of the Union address on Tuesday, January 30. Should U.S. Congressional members boycott or attend?

The U.S. Constitution states the president, “…shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

However, it doesn’t require Congressional members to attend.

If a Congress member has spent the last 12 months opposing everything the Trump administration has presented, voted against every bill, championed the opposition should s/he attend?

What does attending mean/imply/infer/signify? Does attending equal complicity with or support for this administration? Does it only show support and respect for the executive branch of our government, regardless of who’s in the White House?

Does boycotting tarnish our democratic institutions? Does it indicate disrespect for the presidency or just the current president? Does it indicate an unwillingness to comply with a 100+ year tradition to register public opposition to the president and his administration?

I hope those who don’t attend will issue a public statement and defend their position. Not cower or offer excuses, i.e. my dog ate my invitation, I had to wash my hair, I had to prepare for a colonoscopy.

Each Congress member should decide for her/himself based on conscience, principles, values and the ability to stomach the bloviating rhetoric that will spew from the Liar-in-Chief.

What should they do?

But is He a Swindler?

Grandpa Charlie

Grandpa Charlie

by Karen Topakian

Charlie Asadorian, my maternal grandfather and an Armenian immigrant businessman, often thought people who worked on his house might try to cheat him. Maybe because he spoke with an accent, maybe because he had experienced dishonest business people first hand. No matter how good the deal, he was wary. To protect himself, he suspected them first, assuming they were swindlers.

“What do you think of the new wall?” asked my father to my maternal grandfather while they surveyed the progress on the low stonewall separating my parent’s house from their neighbor’s.

“It looks good so far. I hope he knows what he’s doing,” declared my grandfather about the mason.

“John said he does good work,” responded my father referring to a well-respected mutual friend.

“I hope he didn’t charge you too much,” stated my grandfather who always sought a top-rate job at a cut-rate cost. “Are you sure he’s not a swindler?”

My father raised his eyebrows. “I hope not.”

Several months later, my father noticed some serious problems with the wall and mentioned it during a Friday night dinner with my grandparents.

“I have to find somebody else to fix that wall. Several big stones came loose and fell on the ground. The guy that did the work won’t answer my calls.”

“I thought he might be a swindler,” acknowledged my grandfather regretfully, disappointed that he turned out to be right.

“You always think you’re going to get cheated,” accused my grandmother.

On another occasion during a Sunday afternoon dinner with my grandparent’s, my mother discussed their newest home improvement project.

“Dad, our new bathroom is almost finished,” declared my mother. “You’ll have to stop by and see it.”

“Where did you find the guy?” asked my grandfather to my father.

“He’s a customer at Mal’s Market,” replied my father while cutting up a piece of chicken.

“How do you know he’s any good?” asked my grandfather who often relied on my father’s recommendations of good workers.

“Last week, I heard you cursing in the garage about the rakes, clippers and bushel baskets piled up on the floor,” said my grandmother holding a serving spoon full of pilaf. ”Why don’t you hire him to build the shed you want? What are you waiting for?”

“I’m not ready yet. I want to make sure this guy’s not a swindler,” said my grandfather laughing.

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.