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.

Festivus for the Rest of Us


by Karen Topakian

Festivus, a secular holiday celebration that exploded after its introduction in a 1996 Seinfeld episode, includes airing grievances and performing feats of strength. For the past several years, Peg and I have celebrated this event in Belmont, MA with her lefty college friends and their teen-age and adult children. This year, some participants responded to “What’s your grievance?” by uttering only one-word while others posed a question. Here are the highlights:

Trump and the Election

Bernie or Bust people – Fuck You

110,000 people voted for Harambe, the dead gorilla, for president (PunditFact says this claim is a hoax)

Why is the voting age 18? (A college junior questioned whether his peers would know enough make the right choice.).


The Media

TV ads for pharmaceuticals (I’d rather take my chances on the disease than the medications’ side effects.)

Realistic video games. I don’t want my video games to look realistic.

Emotional tearjerker commercials. It’s just fucking shampoo.


 Parking and Traffic

Uber drivers. They drop people off where ever they want.

Boston drivers (do you really need an explanation?)

Self-driving cars

Road rage

Pedestrians surging into traffic

A lack of consistent placement of bike lanes

Belmont, MA roads. Requires the patience of a saint.

The Wilson Farm parking lot traffic pattern. It’s one way for a reason!


Tennis is boring when Serena doesn’t play

Football games are boring

The Cleveland Browns – ugh

Philadelphia sports fans: drunk, sad, angry


Why does every kitchen appliance beep whenever it completes a task? What am I supposed to do, applaud?

My dishwasher treats me like a moron

My new phone doesn’t know my swear words

Google is run by an evil genius


I HATE HAMILTON!!!!!!! (A high school junior rap fan resents the false belief that the musical invented the genre)

Private colleges are a rip-off (said by a private college student)

Pharmacies should designate a colonoscopy preparation aisle that includes Jello, clear liquids and citric acid. Like the wound and incontinence aisle.

Small pockets on women’s clothes

Lifesavers – why are they so hard to find?





An Alternative Post-Election Letter to Staff


by Karen Topakian

Though the presidential election took place only last month, it feels like a lifetime ago. As we struggle to accept the news and wrestle with the impacts of a Trump presidency, I’ve drafted some initial thoughts about how our organization will respond during these uncertain times. I want to hear your thoughts as well, because we’re all in this together.

First, it’s time to take a deep breath. Let’s think through this clearly. WTF. WTF. WTF. OMG. OMG. OMG. SOS. SOS. SOS.

Next, I reviewed our organization’s mission and values for guidance. Let’s face it, they are useless. I don’t even know why we have them.

Second, our community needs our support. We should continue serving the most vulnerable people, seeking new funding to expand and increase our services, working towards mutual support with our allies…wait, what? Trump just tweeted Putin would make the best Defense Secretary!!!

Breathe, Karen. Breathe, Karen. Ok, I’m back.

When I read the President-elect tweets bloody vile messages, I think the Communications Department should respond to the whirlwind. But why should they get all the fun while we sit on the sidelines responding to our whiny clients’ constant needs?

Third, we will keep our messaging short and pithy – as did the President-elect so successfully – but populated with facts and truthful statements without dumbing it down instead of how we’ve communicated in the past with excessive explanations.

Fourth, I suggest we work on improving our mental health in preparation for what the next four years will bring. We must stay positive. After looking at several health improvement options, i.e. exercise, diet, meditation, I decided to focus on only one – alcohol. If we work together, we can easily increase our alcohol consumption. I would like to set a goal of one bender a week per person for the next 208 weeks. To kick off the campaign, this Friday at noon we will showcase the new Margarita machine. Feel free to invite friends and colleagues to join us in a show of inebriated solidarity. Therefore, effective immediately, we will add add to our benefits menu, hangover days and TDW – “too despondent to work” days.

Finally, it’s critically important to keep our clients… Sorry gotta go, Trump just tweeted a screed against a toddler for crying at his rally!!

A Post-Election Letter to Staff

imagesby Karen Topakian

Dear Staff,

Though the presidential election took place only last month, it feels like a lifetime. As we struggle to accept the news and wrestle with the impacts of a Trump presidency, I’ve drafted some initial thoughts about how our organization will respond during these uncertain times. I want to hear yours as well, because we’re all in this together.

First, we will look to our mission and values for guidance. These principles will allow us to continue meeting the community’s needs. Needs that will increase if the President-elect fulfills his campaign promises. We will assure our clients and supporters that we will stay focused while remaining ever vigilant to the potential threats of: deportations, a registry of people of the Muslim faith, the gutting of environmental protections, among other campaign promises.

Second, staying focused on our work and our mission will require great discipline. The President-elect’s daily tweets can and will distract us. Therefore, the Communications Department will now assume responsibility for monitoring his Twitter whirlwind. If Trump tweets about rounding up immigrants, we will respond. However, if he tweets about SNL and Broadway plays, we will ignore them. If the Comms determines a tweet deserves a response, it will provide one. Otherwise, we will ignore the distraction. As usual, the Program Department will respond to policy proposals affecting our mission. Please give our colleagues some extra love for taking on this onerous task.

Third, we will need to work closely with our allies to combat the worst this administration has to offer. Therefore, we will seek mutual support in our hours of need.

Fourth, we will keep our messaging short and pithy. In the past, we’ve often over-explained our programs. The President-elect successfully connected with voters with his short, sharp messages. Though we loathe the paucity of facts and the outright lies, we should examine his form. I don’t advocate dumbing down our messages, just making them concise.

Finally, we need to stay in shape for the next four years. We need to nurture each other and ourselves. Let’s keep our minds alert and our bodies active: by holding walking meetings, working at a standing desk, resting, staying hydrated and clear minded. Let’s commit to eating lunch together weekly while talking about non-work topics.

Remember, this ain’t no 5k race or even a marathon. It’s an ultra-marathon combined with an Ironman triathlon. Let’s make sure we’re physically and mentally ready to face the struggles ahead. We can assume this will be a time of unprecedented assault on our values, therefore, we must remain vigilant to protect our rights, our planet and our democracy.



Am I Ready?

imgres    by Karen Topakian

When my partner Peg and I were hunting for a house in 2001, I announced we needed one with a secret hiding place for Jewish people, god forbid. Peg pointed out that the people who might need hiding would be us, lesbians.

At times, I have wished I had lived during those ugly, dangerous Holocaust years so I could test my commitment to nonviolence, my values and my inner strength. To see where I stood in the face of fascism. I questioned whether I would have summoned up the courage required to protect and defend Jewish people, gypsies, queer people, people of color, leftists and many others targeted by their government.

I have frequently read about the people who reached out during those harrowing times to help those scorned, harassed, targeted, rounded up and killed by their government, despite the great personal risk. Often, they didn’t hold important or powerful jobs, but they felt the moral imperative to act. I asked myself, would I have risked my life for others?

My better self answered, Yes!

I also wondered how good people could do nothing to stop the attacks? How could they stand by? How could they let it happen?

Up until November 8, these questions lived in the theoretical world. But no longer. Now I believe we stand on the cusp of that exact time. I see it on the horizon – the need to personally protect and defend people of the Muslim and Jewish faith, undocumented immigrants, people of color and other groups singled out by the President-elect. I ask myself, am I ready?

Am I ready to stand up, take on and resist the President-elect’s plans for incarcerations, deportations and roundups?

Am I ready to march, sit down, lockdown against threats, intimidation, increased bullying and intolerance toward the people vilified by the President-elect and his supporters?

The answer is Yes.

I’ve spent the last three decades protesting against war, nuclear weapons and environmental threats to the planet without incurring serious threats to my health and well-being. But the current climate may require a whole new commitment level. Because the ominous tone will increase once he’s in office.

Now I feel the urgency to commit myself to acting with greater fortitude.

I ask myself how much am I willing to risk? My livelihood. My home. My freedom. My life…

How will I know when to take those risks?

If I act too soon will I make myself an unnecessary target? If I wait too long will I miss the opportunity to stop the President-elect’s actions?

What do I need to do to protect others at risk? Do I even know how?

Am I ready to wear a headscarf in solidarity with Muslim women? Even though I loathe religious customs that control women’s appearances.

Am I ready to oppose the threatened Muslim registry, by registering as one, even though I’m an atheist?

Am I ready to chain myself to the railroad tracks or trucks or lie in the road to block deportations?

Am I ready to stand up to the face of fascism with all my might?

Will my actions be enough?

Am I ready?

I’m Not There Yet


by Karen Topakian

In the week since the US Presidential election, I received several FB messages from friends and read many blog posts urging me to reach across the aisle to understand why people voted for the President-elect. I’ve been asked to put my feelings of despair and anger aside and listen with an open heart and mind to supporters of the President-elect who proposes racist, bigoted, anti-Semitic, xenophobic and homophobic policies. I’m not there yet.

I’m not ready to reach out to ask why they voted for a person endorsed by the Klan.

I’m not ready to sit across the table from someone who thinks discussions about sexually assaulting women are common among men and only “talk.”

I’m not ready to inquire without judgment about how someone could support a candidate who relentlessly and without foundation questioned the birthright of the president because he is Black.

I’m not ready to offer an olive branch to someone who chose a candidate who threatens unconstitutionally to ban people of a particular religion from entry into the United States.

I’m not ready to hold hands with someone who elected a candidate who wants to punish/jail women who seek abortions.

I’m not ready to break bread with someone who voted for a candidate that proposes limits on a free press.

I’m not ready to sing Kumbaya with someone who undermined our electoral process by charging that the election was rigged, until he won.

I’m not ready to listen to someone tell me that they too found these statements troubling and disturbing but voted for him anyway because he’s a good businessman or because he promised their job back or because they hate Washington.

My Christian upbringing, upon which I rarely rely, urges me to do just this – turn the other cheek as Jesus did. But I ain’t no Jesus.

The Bible also tells me not to judge or I will be judged. But I’ve already been judged as “less than” by his voters who don’t value and respect women’s lives or choices.

My deep belief in the power of nonviolence suggests I practice compassion with my adversaries. I’m not there yet. I don’t feel compassion for people who prefer a bigot. For people who chose a demagogue.

The possibility that all of his supporters don’t feel this way doesn’t trump my fear of loss that everything I work so hard to create – a just, equitable and peaceful planet – can and will be undone by a few strokes of his pen or by votes in a one party Congress or by the soon-to-be conservative Supreme Court.

I’m not looking for revenge; I don’t wish his voters and supporters ill will. I just don’t want to talk to them. And I don’t want to understand their decision. I don’t want to feel their pain. Not yet. Because mine is too deep.

Election Disaster Preparedness


by Karen Topakian

The Red Cross advises families to make a plan to prepare and respond to all types of emergencies from flood to flu to landslides. Unfortunately, they don’t tell you how to prepare for the disaster wafting our way on January 20, 2017 and ending on January 19, 2021.

So I will.

                                                                  MAKE A PLAN

Create an emergency plan so your family will know what to do in the crisis.

  1. Discuss how to prepare and respond to the types of emergencies that will most likely happen where you live, learn, work and play.
  • Identify people of color, Muslims, immigrants, women and LGBT type people in your household and in your workplace.
  • Decide on a course of action if assaulted or harassed. For example, enlist a straight male Caucasian friend, preferably Republican or from the alt-right to help you, go into hiding, lighten your skin, convert to an “acceptable” religion, a.k.a. Christian, try to act straight, hire a civil rights attorney to accompany you 24/7
  • Purchase a Presidential Disaster insurance plan, which will cover loss of access to abortion, a free press and sanity. Add-on miscarriage of justice insurance and former homeowners policies.
  1. Develop an action plan and assign tasks. Remember to work together as a team. Responsibilities may include:
  • Monitoring the news to see which way the political winds are blowing
  • Making protest signs
  • Stashing bail money
  • Disguising your home as a Trumpian refuge if under attack, i.e. display white nationalist banners
  • Updating passports
  • Keeping social media accounts on high alert
  • Filling up gas tanks
  • Hiding undocumented immigrants, people of color, Muslims, women and queer folks
  • Packing do-it-yourself surgical kits for the inevitable loss of access to health care
  • Digging a hole in the backyard big enough for your whole family
  • Resupplying your bomb shelter
  1. Stockpile basic disaster supplies.
  • Loose fitting clothing and running shoes required for long marches and fast getaways
  • Extra underwear and a toiletry kit in case of a round up
  • Involuntary-change-of-address cards
  • Blankets, sleeping bags and tents packed up to serve as an emergency home
  • A battery-powered radio tuned to the easy listening channel to avoid adding stress
  • Cash, cash, cash – US and Canadian dollars, Euros, Rubles and Pesos
  • American flags and extra matches
  • SPF 1,000 to protect against the inevitable rise in global temperature
  • Snorkels, fins and oxygen tanks, for coastal residents. Oh heck, even for folks in the Mid-West.
  • Anti-pollution masks
  • Fire extinguishers to douse cross burnings
  • Coat hangars to help women in need
  • Bullet proof vests, particularly for young men of color
  • Cases of Xanax, Valium, Zoloft and Prozac. In extreme circumstances, a do-it-yourself lobotomy kit

Why Women Didn’t Serve as Jesus’ Disciples

imgres  by Karen Topakian

Pope Francis recently re-affirmed the Church’s position on not ordaining women as priests. According to the Pope, since Jesus chose only men to serve as his apostles, the Church cannot ordain women.

Here’s an example of why women might not have served.

Bartholomew, a fisherman, walked quickly through his small courtyard toward the gate.

Sapphira, his wife, hung a wet sheet onto the clothesline, while watching him steal past his fishnets.

“Aren’t you going fishing today?”

“I’m going to hear the prophet, Jesus,” answered Bartholomew.


“Come listen. You’ll like him.”

“What about all this work?” asked Sapphira, waving at a pile of wet laundry, a young child wheezing and a stack of encrusted bowls. “And don’t give me that ‘god will provide’ business.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“But you did the last time a prophet sailed through Nazareth. I had to stay up all night cooking and cleaning.”

He shrugged.

“I don’t think your friends Mark, Luke and John want women around. When my friend Mary went, they sneered at her, ‘Show us your ankles.’ Others called her a whore.”

“What do you expect men to do when she cinches her robe so tight.”

“A woman at the well told me she believed in Jesus and wanted to follow him but your buddies wouldn’t allow her near him. She couldn’t break through the stucco ceiling.”

“Again, with the ceiling?”

Bartholomew put his arm around her and pulled her close to him. “I really think he’s the one.”

“The one, what?” she responded wriggling herself free from his grasp.

“The Messiah,” answered Bartholomew beaming.

“Is he? Probably promising he’ll make Galilee Great Again! If he says he can perform miracles, why doesn’t he get us a new oil lamp…that doesn’t leak?”

He looked at her crestfallen.

Sapphira reached for her husband’s hand. “What’s the matter with our religion? I thought you liked Judaism. What, you don’t like Rabbi Jacob?”

“I like Rabbi Jacob but how many times is he going to read from Leviticus? All those rules!”

“He’s reminding us how to live our faith.”

“Enough already about avoiding the cloven hooves and the unclean. I get it.”

Saphhira dropped his hand and resumed hanging up the wet laundry.

“You’ve changed. I remember when you enjoyed fishing, repairing your nets and teaching our children,” exclaimed Saphhira. “Now it’s Jesus this and Jesus that.”

“He says things I’ve never heard before,” confessed Bartholomew.

“You want to hear things you’ve never heard before? You’re a lousy husband. There I’ve said it. I guess my mother was right.”

“His words stir my heart.”

“I’ll give you something to stir, “ said Saphhira pointing to a pail of milk and a butter churner.

“He’s promising us a better life.”

“What’s he going to do, put food on our table, clothe us, keep us warm? You’re supposed to do that, you big lug. Because that’s your job as a husband and a father.”

Bartholomew shook his head, saddened by his wife’s negativity and walked out.

Sapphira pulled another sheet out of the pile and shook it within an inch of its life.

“What’s this one promising, the keys to heaven?”









Gropers Poke Trump




by Karen Topakian

In a rare public statement, the Gropers Really Are Brazen (GRAB) officially denounced Donald Trump and withdrew his longstanding membership from this international clandestine group.

According to GRAB’s CEO, Fred Feelgood, GRAB members wanted the world to know that Mr. Trump did not “speak for them.” Its public announcement included the following statements:

Mr. Trump’s potty mouth deeply offended our members’ delicate sensibilities. We may touch, fondle, grab, prod, maul, squeeze, pinch, grasp, feel, clutch, thumb, paw and poke “lady parts” but we never say the p-word.

We remain committed to groping in public but not talking about it in public. We only retain members who can remain tight-lipped about their achievements, conquests and dalliances.

GRAB’s bylaws require its members to publicly deny their own behavior vociferously and to seek immediate protection from the organization’s rich and famous like-minded friends. Mr. Trump’s 2005 statements made public on October 7 required us to remove him immediately from the membership roster.

The group called an emergency meeting when the videotapes became public. “Our members dropped everything to attend,” declared Mr. Feelgood. “We have a brand to protect. Sure, we like to grope as much as the next guy, but we don’t boast about it. We’ve learned to zip it up.”

Mr. Feelgood noted that this incident wasn’t Mr. Trump’s first offense as a GRAB member. “When Ivana charged him with rape we put his membership on probation.” Feelgood noted that the bylaws clearly do not allow members to rape. “We reinstated him when she encased the word rape in quotes.”

According to Feelgood, the Groper-American community likes to seize life by the throat, though usually lower. As loyal Americans, they exercise their right to peacefully assemble – very, very closely together.

He uttered their motto, “You only go around once in life, so you’ve got to grab for all the gusto you can,” with a nod and a wink.

GRAB’s members include all racial, ethnic, age and religious groups but currently only men. Several years ago, a handful of women joined GRAB committed to groping men but the membership found the mere mention of such behavior repugnant, demeaning, offensive, distasteful, objectionable, dehumanizing, repulsive and possibly illegal. They quickly amended the bylaws disallowing it.

According to Feelgood, women may join if they agree only to grope other women.

“We’re not sexist because anyone can join,” reported Feelgood. “We even reached out to the lesbian community, assuming they might share our common interests in groping women, but our friendly overtures were met with vulgarity.”

Individuals may join GRAB by invitation only. “We can’t just let anyone in willy-nilly,” said Mr. Feelgood. “Certainly not pedophiles, exhibitionists and necrophilias. Those people are perverts.”

This century’s old secretive group, founded by men lurking in and slinking around crowded busses, trains and elevators, prefers to conduct its business behind closed doors and in the dark. Throughout the year, GRAB sponsors public events at a variety of locations, i.e. Black Friday waiting lines at Wal-Mart, tree-lighting at Rockefeller Center, Super Bowl entry gates, Penn Station, TSA lines…

“Trump’s lowered our standards,” announced Feelgood. “And we certainly never kiss. That’s ticky-tacky.”

How Hard Could It Be?

imgresby Karen Topakian

Several years ago Harvard University needed to replace its president, Lawrence Summers, who resigned after making this controversial statement, “the under-representation of female scientists at elite universities may stem in part from ‘innate’ differences between men and women.”

This Ivy League school had never selected a women president, the timing seemed right. Why not apply? But was I qualified?

A Harvard Business Review article said, “men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them.” And who gets the jobs? Men!

I certainly possess 60% of the qualifications. Honestly, how hard could it be to serve as Harvard’s President?

First, Harvard draws on the greatest minds of people in numerous fields and I would access everyone of them to help me schedule meetings, make travel plans, draft speeches, disparage Yale, return overdue library books… I wouldn’t even need to learn how to pronounce Hav-vad like a local. Remember, I’m from Rhode Island!

Second, I would only have to manage the university’s finances, fundraise, lead meetings, represent the University in public affairs, report to the governing bodies and develop big-ass visions.

A piece of cake.

My credentials and qualifications would make the job a snap.

On the finance front, numbers don’t scare me. Armed only with a calculator, a yellow pad and a Number 2 pencil, I can attack any financial statement. When the numbers get too big, I just kick off my stilettos and use my toes.

Trust me, I know how to ask people for money. Just ask my mother about my teenage tantrums whining and begging for extra cash. While in graduate school at the San Francisco Art Institute, I worked In the Admissions and Financial Aid offices, where I learned how to sell big-ticket tuition costs to parents who foolishly questioned the “value of a fine arts education.“ Plus I’ve honed the science of glad-handing, schmoozing and chit chatting while balancing a plate of crudités on my knee.

Fundraising also involves relating to all kinds of people. My multi-discipline business experience makes it easy to relate to the titans of industry. While working summers in a mind-numbing dead end job at the family business, General Plating, I experienced what kind of careers awaited me with only a high school degree. During my days working at a noted RI clothing store, I mastered the art of customer relations by politely telling men that I couldn’t model the lingerie they contemplated buying for their wives.

Leading meetings only requires a few skills – standing up and out yelling the other losers at the table. And when that doesn’t work, banging my shoe on the table.

Representing the University in public affairs means wearing the right garb for the right crowd – LL Bean for the New Englanders and Chanel for the sophisticates. Plus I expertly dress up any outfit with jewelry.

I also have good elective skills. While serving as the first director of the University of Rhode Island’s first Women’s Center, situated directly across from the rifle range and the turf farms, I learned to dodge speeding bullets and mastered the art of watching grass grow.

Finally, Harvard is practically my alma mater. My partner’s father graduated from Harvard Law School during the Truman Administration. In the early 1970s, I occasionally studied at the Widener library during the brief hours it allowed access to women.

In closing, I think it would be fun to serve as Harvard’s president. I could organize events and research on topics of my choosing. For example, I could invite Madonna and the Pope to speak at a symposium about religious icons in the 21st century. They would have to attend. Or authorize scientific research on the curative digestive powers of klushab, an old Armenian recipe of stewed prunes and raisins. And what about the benefits of free parking in Cambridge?

I still believe the job wouldn’t be that hard. Certainly not as hard as the US Presidency and now there’s a woman running for that.