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.

Three for the Price of Two


Nana – Sarah Asadorian


Grampa Charlie – Charlie Asadorian


by Karen Topakian

One Friday night in the 1960’s, my maternal grandparents (Charlie and Sarah) invited my family for dinner to their home a few blocks away from ours in Cranston, RI. A common occurrence. Conversation at dinner usually ranged from news about the Armenian Church, the family or the costume jewelry industry.

Because both sides of my family worked in costume jewelry.

My father, Armen, his brother Ted and their mother owned an electroplating business in Providence, RI on Richmond Street, officially called General Plating, which we all referred to as, “the shop.” They employed a cast of interesting characters including the long-standing Al and Jenny.

My grandfather had owned a jewelry manufacturing and sales business with his brothers. When it closed, he started a small jewelry sales business, which he ran from a small office in his basement. He installed a rudimentary desk probably from my father’s stash of salvaged wood, plugged in a desk lamp and stored his jewelry in a floor to ceiling safe. The only missing item – a telephone.

During the 1960’s, AT&T was THE phone company. And they owned your phones. You paid your bill based on the number of phones in your home or business. My grandfather already paid for two in his modest ranch house and didn’t install a third because he thought paying for three was extravagant. Grampa Charlie didn’t like to spend money foolishly. Paying for another phone seemed foolish.

My father’s family business operated under a similar mentality. General Plating ran on sweat, grit and hard physical work. My father said their motto was, “Why buy it, when you can make it.” It should have been, “Why buy it, when you can scavenge it.”

“Charlie, guess what Al and I picked up today from a business that just moved out of Richmond Street?” asked my father grinning.

Whenever a tenant moved out of their building, my father and Al hightailed it to the newly vacated space, looking for items left behind. They were quite adept at moving and removing anything they could use – desks, chairs, file cabinets…

“What?” asked my grandfather, a man who loved hearing General Plating stories.

“We picked up a few telephones to use down the shop. We’ve got an extra one,” said my father. “Let me know if you can use it.”

The vacating business had left the phones behind because they belonged to the phone company but that didn’t deter my father.

The wheels in my grandfather’s head started turning.

”I need a phone in my office” said my grandfather, finally finding a solution to his problem. “But I don’t want to pay for it.”

“I’ll bring it by tomorrow,“ said my father.

Both men were pleased with themselves for finding a thrifty solution.

The next day, my father rigged up the illegal phone by dropping phone wire from the bedroom phone to the basement and hooking it up to the newly pilfered one on my grandfather’s desk.

A few slaps on the back and everybody was happy.

A few months later, on a Friday night in the 1960’s, Charlie and Sarah again invited my family for dinner.

Earlier that day, an AT&T employee had come to the house in response to a complaint from my grandparents about their phone service.

“How many phones do you have?” asked the repairman when he first arrived.

“Two,” said my grandfather quickly without looking at Nana.

“Two,” repeated the repairman. “Where are they?”

My Nana showed him the black phone in the kitchen and then led him to the powder blue princess phone in their bedroom.

Nana returned to the kitchen where my grandfather sat at the table reading the newspaper.

After a few minutes, the repairman walked back and asked if they had a basement. Nana said yes as she opened the door to the stairs and flicked on the light.

Now my grandfather could only stare at the newspaper too nervous to concentrate.

In what seemed an eternity, the repairman ascended the cellar stairs back to the kitchen,

“Did you know there’s another phone in the basement?” asked the repairman.

“I don’t know how it got there,” said Nana as she chopped parsley for dinner.

“We hardly ever use it,” said my grandfather with his eyes fixated on the newspaper.

“You have three phones and you’re only paying for two. I’m going to have to charge you.”

Nana didn’t like the sound of this and she knew my grandfather didn’t either. She needed a solution, quick.

“Do you know Harry Vartanian? He works for the phone company, too,” asked Nana. “His mother is my cousin.”

“No,” answered the repairman. “Lady, a lot of people work for the phone company.”

Nana glanced up at the clock as she continued chopping. “It’s almost five o’clock. Would you like something to eat?” Nana believed she could solve all problems with food. “You must be hungry after a long day. Why don’t you have a little something to eat?”

When he didn’t respond immediately, she opened the refrigerator and said, “Let’s see. I have cooked chicken, a big piece of apple pie, homemade yogurt, orange Jello, a few slices of pot roast. I could make you a nice sandwich.”

The repairman began to smile. And she smiled back.

“Charlie, move your paper. Make room for this nice man.”






God Bless the ACLU

by Karen Topakian

My hometown school committee, voted 4 to 3 to keep a prayer posted on the wall of the auditorium intact, despite its violation of the First Amendment.

The prayer, Our Heavenly Father, written by a student in the class of 1963 was a gift to the succeeding classes. I must have sat in that auditorium hundreds of times. But I have no memory of it.

According to an article in the Providence Journal, 4,000 people signed a petition to keep the prayer intact.

The ACLU received a complaint last July and gave the school committee eight months to resolve it. The Committee resolved it by deciding against removing it. Now the ACLU will file a lawsuit to have it removed.

I hate to say it but the handwriting was literally on the wall.

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.

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.

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.