Born in 1954 and raised in Rhode Island, Karen Topakian graduated with a BA degree in sociology & theater from Clark University in 1976. She then studied film making at the University of Rhode Island from 1981-83, and went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1987.
After completing her formal education, Topakian worked from 1978-80 as a community organizer with the Providence, Rhode Island-based organization, People Acting Through Community Effort. From 1981-83, she managed a food co-op in Wakefield, Rhode Island and directed the University of Rhode Island’s Women’s Center.
A passionate advocate of nonviolent direct actions for peace and nuclear abolition, Topakian in 1982 traveled to New York City to participate in the largest anti-nuclear demonstration ever held; one of the event’s key organizers was Cora Weiss of the Institute for Policy Studies.
From 1987-91, Topakian served as a disarmament campaigner for Greenpeace‘s Nuclear-Free Seas initiative, whose mission was to help rid the world of naval nuclear weapons and to ban below-ground nuclear-weapons testing. She also served on Greenpeace’s Pacific campaign and was a member of the organization’s national and international policy and strategic-planning groups.
From 1991-2001, Topakian was a board member with the Western States Legal Foundation. From 1993-96, she sat on the board of the Women’s AIDS Network. From July 1993 to March 2009, she served as executive director of the Agape Foundation Fund for Nonviolent Social Change. From 1993-2012 she was a contributing writer to the Noe Valley Voice, where she developed and wrote stories about local issues in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco. And from 1994-2010, she was a part-time board member of the Greenpeace Fund.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Topakian characterized the United States as a nation rife with bigotry and injustice against people of Middle Eastern extraction. She complained, for instance, that Muslims and Arabs who had “worked hard and played by the rules” were now being unjustifiably “suspected of all kinds of nefarious acts just because of the religion [they] practice, the country where [they] were born, or the kind of company that [they] keep.”
Strongly opposed to the post-9/11 U.S. military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, Topakian traced the origins of those conflicts to America’s allegedly unquenchable “addiction to oil,” which she blamed, in turn, for having created unacceptable levels of “air pollution,” massive numbers car accidents, and an unsustainable “dependence on fossil fuels.”
Also during the early 2000s, Topakian was a supporter of a Berkeley, California tax-resistance movement, whose participants withheld portions of their income taxes from the U.S. government as a means of registering their opposition to what they viewed as America’s excessive military spending.
From November 2010 to December 2018, Topakian served as board chair of Greenpeace.
In 2010 she founded Topakian Communications, a freelance-writing and communications consulting firm based in San Francisco, where she continues to serve as the company’s owner and communications manager.
From March 2014 through June 2016, Topakian was the communications manager of California CASA, an Oakland-based group serving children in the foster care system.
Over the course of her long activist career, Topakian has been arrested dozens of times for her participation in protests that violated various ordinances. One particularly notable arrest occurred on January 25, 2017, when she and other Greenpeace demonstrators hung a “Resist” banner on a crane near the White House, to protest the allegedly dangerous agendas of newly elected President Donald Trump.
Over the years, Topakian has written op-eds and articles that have appeared in such publications as the Oakland Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Grassroots Fundraising Journal, as well as in books and blogs published by the Foundation Center. Topakian also maintains a personal blog site, titled Tour de Farce.
In addition to her many other activities, Topakian has served on the screening committees for several film festivals, including the San Francisco Green Film Festival.