Seeing Tomorrow in Today

Greenpeace leader Karen Topakian writing on the activist life

by Karen Topakian

September 14, 2021

Only through collective action coupled with a commitment to nonviolence, creativity, facts and sometimes humor will we create the transformational change we desperately need.

In 1987, when the nuclear disarmament campaigner position opened at Greenpeace USA in San Francisco, I jumped at the chance to work for an organization whose mission and goals matched mine perfectly – a commitment to nuclear abolition coupled with the Quaker concept of nonviolence and bearing witness. 

I already had years of anti-nuclear organizing experience in Rhode Island and Connecticut with Mobilization for Survival and the Atlantic Life Community, led by the Berrigan brothers and Liz McAllister where we focused our nonviolent protests against Electric Boat – producers and launchers of Trident nuclear-weaponed submarines. 

At Greenpeace, I worked on the Nuclear Free Seas international campaign, with a team of activists from around the world committed to stopping nuclear weapons testing and ridding the world of naval nuclear weapons possessed by the then five nuclear nations – the US, the UK, France, Russia and China. 

As an international team, we planned, set and implemented Greenpeace’s anti-nuclear strategies, including organizing nonviolent direct actions. 

Greenpeace Inc. Board Chairwoman Karen Topakian works her phone with media while sitting on the tower of the crane used to hang a “resist” banner near the White House in Washington. A crew of seven activists hoisted the banner on the crane.

During my three-plus years as a campaigner, I not only expanded my organizing skills, but I learned how to create and implement a successful communications strategy, designed to win the hearts and minds of leaders and the public. 

For example, when my campaign wrote reports exposing naval nuclear weapons accidents formerly kept secret, I helped implement the communications plans to release the reports in California. These reports revealed that our world was in greater danger of a nuclear accident than we had ever known. 

When Greenpeace UK women activists occupied the Nuclear Weapons Test Site in Nevada to stop their country from testing nuclear weapons, I shared their story with national and international news outlets. 

On other occasions, I supplemented and supported Greenpeace’s media team on its anti-oil drilling campaigns and participated in direct actions. In 1990, I spent more than 48 hours in a large metal box bolted to a railroad track to stop the flow of CFCs, an ozone depleting gas manufactured at Dupont in Antioch, California. 

My campaign work always included national and international colleagues and often ally organizations focused on the same goal, the same outcome – a nuclear free planet. 

These collaborations taught me about the necessity of working globally on a global issue.

When I look at the youth-led climate movements of today, I recognize the urgency that this generation feels as the ones I felt in the early 1970s and 80s about nuclear disarmament.

I never supported half-way arms control measures such as a nuclear freeze or a limit on the number of nuclear weapons, because what we needed was complete and total nuclear abolition. 

I believe my colleagues in their 20s and 30s feel the same way about climate change. Only a complete moratorium on pipelines, fracking, drilling and permits will suffice.

People sit in in support of the Standing Rock Nation on Market Street. The protest was one of many in a global day of action against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) calling on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to cancel the permit for the project. Karen Topakian, chair of the Greenpeace USA Board of Directors, stands with hands folded together at center.

Over the years, my role with Greenpeace USA has changed. Since 1994, I have served at the governance level as a Greenpeace board member, board chair and trustee to Greenpeace International. Despite the role change, I remain committed to Greenpeace’s goals and founding principle based in the practice of nonviolence.

I continue to commit acts of civil disobedience with others at the gates of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to stop the development of nuclear weapons, in front of banks that fund pipelines and at US federal buildings against war and in January 2017 on a crane behind the White House to send a message to Resist.

Greenpeace has played a pivotal role in my development, growth and maturation as a communications consultant and as an activist. It has been my organizational home for more than 30 years and will remain so even after I complete my board term at the end of this year.

We need each other more than ever to work together towards global solutions that will enable future generations to succeed and thrive on our planet. Only through collective action coupled with a commitment to nonviolence, creativity, facts and sometimes humor will we create the people power necessary to affect the transformational change we desperately need.

This essay is part of our Perspectives: Our Next Fifty Years series, in which we reflect briefly on our first fifty years, but more importantly, we lay out the future we are building together—collaborative, ambitious, and intersectional. The work ahead won’t be easy, but we’ve never shied away from hard work. We continue to push for policies that recognize the contributions and leadership of marginalized groups, and we amplify their voices, looking to their wisdom to show us the way. We hold corporations accountable, demanding real action that puts people ahead of profit. We work each day with our partners to co-create green, safe planet for all beings. We recognize that equality is not necessarily justice. We demand more from our leaders, from our colleagues, and from ourselves. A green and peaceful world isn’t just a slogan—it is our mission, and it takes each one of us to get there.

Karen Topakian

By Karen Topakian

Karen Topakian, owner of Topakian Communications, is a writer, speaker, communications consultant and activist. Karen worked for more than 40 years in the nonprofit world, including 16 years, as the executive director at the Agape Foundation-Fund for Nonviolent Social Change. She served as board chair for Greenpeace, Inc from 2010-2018.

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