Inspiring Real-Life Karens
Meet Karens who are making a difference in the world
"I believe it is possible to end torture in my lifetime," says TED speaker and International Bridges to Justice founder Karen Tse. Karen, a lawyer, Unitarian Universalist minister and winner of the International Human Rights Award, built International Bridges after her legal work took her into Southeast Asian prisons, where she saw refugees held without trial and tortured to obtain false confessions. A Chinese-American, Karen began by working with the governments of China, Vietnam and Cambodian governments to build new systems that respect individual rights and her organization now leads reform work in sixteen countries, including Rwanda, Burundi and India. She has been a Skoll, Ashoka and Echoing Green fellow, a United Nations Judicial Mentor and winner of the WIN Inspiring Women Worldwide Award.
Serial Social Entrepreneur
Karen Kalish introduces herself as a serial social entrepreneur. The St. Louis philanthropist, who started her career as an elementary school teacher and then TV reporter, went on to start and run three nonprofits and a program that work in the intersection of literacy, ending racism, and youth voice. Among them is Books and Badges, started in the early 2000s to bridge educational gaps in low-income communities by recruiting police officers and others to volunteer as reading mentors in schools, and Home Works which trains and pays teachers to help low-income families support their children in education. Karen lives by the motto “stand up, speak up and take action.” “I take the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, repair of the world, as my responsibility,” Karen states. “When I see the need, I’ve just got to grab an ally or two, roll up my sleeves and get to work.”
“My focus has been on doing everything I could to make our nation a more perfect union, especially for the people who are most marginal…That is what I have done for almost 50 years of my life.” Karen Bass, US Representative from California who serves on the Justice Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, started working for social justice as a campaign volunteer at age 14. Serving in the state legislature after working as a physician’s assistant and community organizer, she earned the title of first-ever African-American woman to serve as Speaker of any state legislature. Upon arriving at Congress, Chairwoman Bass, herself a parent, founded the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth. She is known as a political bridge-builder and has told the New York Times she is pleased a colleague once called her “nice.” Still, she says, “Nice doesn’t mean I wouldn’t fight.”
Disability Role Model
“Anyone meeting Karen will postpone resigning from the human race,” marveled the Saturday Review. It was the 1950s, and disability was expected to be hidden away, a subject of shame not talked about. But Karen, born prematurely with cerebral palsy, would not let that stop her. Her mother shared the story of Karen’s indominable spirit and optimism with the world in two bestselling books, Karen and With Love From Karen, and Karen became a role model so universally beloved that the USPS once delivered her a letter from overseas addressed simply to “Karen, United States.” When Karen died in 2020 at age 80, she had for decades worked as a receptionist and dog trainer, lived independently, met the Pope twice, and forever altered the world’s understanding of disability.
Karen: A True Story Told By Her Mother (Amazon book link)
With Love From Karen (Amazon book link)
LGBT Activist, Devoted Partner
In 1986, 36-year old Minnesotan Karen Thompson was in a committed relationship with life partner Sharon Kowalski when Sharon was badly injured in a car accident. Initially denied the ability to see or care for Sharon, Karen battled through the U.S. court system for five years to triumph in the case that determined that a homosexual partner could hold the equivalent of spousal rights. Karen and Sharon together received the Woman of Courage Award from National Organization for Women, the Feminist of the Year Award from Feminist Majority Foundation, and a Creating Change Award from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, among other awards. The case continues to raise awareness and change through Karen’s public speaking, three plays and a documentary film.
Why Can't Sharon Kowalski Come Home? (Amazon book link)
Singer, Actor, Artist, Activist
Karen Mok released her first album, Karen, at age 23 in 1993. Since then, she has gained international stardom, releasing 17 solo studio albums, starring in 40+ movies, performing for theater and TV, designing lines of perfume and lingerie, and earning three Golden Melody awards and a Guinness World Record. In her music, Karen unites Eastern and Western traditions in new artistic ways: for example, a jazz cover of a Beatles song covered on a traditional Chinese guzheng; in her acting Karen is best known for action films. Karen uses her international renown to advocate for moon bears and other animals, children, the environment, and an end to human traffic and malaria.
Children's Author, Philanthropist
Newbury Prize author Karen Cushman specializes in historical and contemporary writing for children that encourages them to speak their own voices. Cushman, whose first career was as a museum administrator, wrote from the time she was a child, yet lacked the confidence to think of herself as a writer until age 53, when she wrote and sold her first children's book, Catherine, Called Birdy. To encourage others, and because she says "older writers, especially women, often are not taken seriously," Karen and her husband established the Karen and Philip Cushman Late Bloomer Award for outstanding writers of children’s literature over the age of fifty whose work has not yet been published.
Catherine, Called Birdy (Amazon book link)
The Midwife's Apprentice (Amazon book link)
Karen Hastie Williams
Attorney and Trailblazer
When Karen Hastie Williams passed away in 2021, the DC Bar wrote that she left “a legacy of shattered glass ceilings and generations of women and African American attorneys inspired by her trailblazing career.” The first African American woman to clerk for the U.S. Supreme Court, Karen also held key public service leadership positions in the Carter and Bush administrations. With her passion for lifting others, she served on the board of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and as a mentor. One mentee remembered: “Karen was an example and, particularly for me, a role model of someone who succeeded while being gracious, kind, and generous.”
Karen Wazen Bakhazi
Influencer, Fashion Designer
Karen Wazen Bakhazi created her blog Karen’s Choice in 2016 to share her personal experiences as a new mother in Dubai, and boy did it resonate. According to one author, “Karen Wazen is redefining the modern Arab working mother.” In 2019 Entrepreneur Magazine named her ‘Influencer of the Year.’ She has used her platform, with 4.2 million followers, to launch a designer sunglasses brand, Karen Wazen eyewear – and to highlight the plight of refugees with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
In 1972, young single mother Karen Silkwood joined the Kerr-McGee corporation, which manufactured nuclear fuel rods out of plutonium. Unwilling to ignore the unsafe conditions in which she and her coworkers toiled daily, she identified and documented plant conditions and policies that were endangering workers’ lives. Working closely with the all-male workers’ union, she testified before the federal Atomic Energy Commission and was preparing to provide evidence to the New York Times when she was allegedly deliberately poisoned with radiation, then killed under mysterious circumstances. Her story is told in the Oscar-nominated movie Silkwood starring Meryl Streep.
Silkwood (Amazon video link)
The Killing of Karen Silkwood: The Story Behind the Kerr-McGee Plutonium Case (Amazon book link)
Actor, Director, Fiber Artist
Perhaps best known for the fiery resourcefulness she brought to Raiders of the Lost Ark as its female lead, Karen Allen began her acting career on stage. One of the most in-demand actresses of the 70s and 80s, when she became a mother in 1990, Karen stepped back from acting so much. She began directing and returned to her lifelong love of fabric arts by launching her own textile company, Karen Allen Fiber Arts, that features her coveted knit pieces. She is active on the boards of her local film festivals and museums.
Olympic Athlete, Advocate
South African athlete Karen Hultzer doesn’t fit the stereotype of an Olympic athlete, and she famously used the platform of the 2012 Olympics to challenge the limitations of stereotypes. “I am an archer, middle-aged and a lesbian. I am also cranky before my first cup of coffee. None of these aspects define who I am, they are simply part of me.” The then-47-year-old - who took up archery at age 42, taught herself via Youtube videos, and trained 6 hours a day while running a landscaping business - told reporters, “I look forward to the day when [my sexual orientation] is a non-issue and as relevant as my eye color or favorite sushi.” Today she describes herself on her Twitter page as “Just a girl who decided to go for it.”
First Lady of Ballet
Karen Kain's impact on dance has stretched far beyond her native Canada. From 2005-2021, Karen was the artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, turning it into one of the world’s finest dance companies. But her grace, athleticism, artistic decisions and passion began transforming ballet as soon as she joined the National Ballet as a dancer at age 19. Dolce Magazine credits Karen for single-handedly puncturing the elitist image of ballet and bringing it into popular culture. An auspicious legacy for someone who at eight years old, wrote in her diary: “I am going to be a ballerina…I hope to be a nice person all my life.”
Movement Never Lies: Karen Kain Autobiography (Amazon Book Link)
Karen L. Graham
Journalist & New Media Visionary
It all started with a spare time sign language course. Next came learning about deaf culture, then leading her church’s deaf ministry - and then discovering her true calling. In 2016, the popular and renowned co-host of Good Day Atlanta left her high-profile job to start Sign1News, the first and only news network produced in American Sign Language by and for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. A CNN and Google partner, Sign1 provides over a million viewers per month from 45 countries with custom-formatted, world-class coverage they can’t get elsewhere.
Sign1News' Award-Winning Chosen Adoption Initiative
Animal Welfare Gamechanger
“Don’t Shoot The Dog,” Karen Pryor titled her book in 1984, and with it she helped spark a worldwide revolution in the way man’s best friend is treated. Karen popularized the concept of force-free training – changing dog’s behavior through practice and rewards rather than through punishment. It’s a kindness-based system she pioneered working with dolphins, and some readers say it works on people too! The author of six books, Karen has taught her methods to scientists, zoos, aquariums, private trainers, and human surgeons, and improved the lives of animals and people everywhere.
Don't Shoot The Dog! (Amazon book link)
Reaching the Animal Mind (Amazon book link)
Working Women's Champion
"Karen was a little scary," her friend Ellen Cassedy chuckles, describing Karen’s laser-like intellect and idealism in the documentary 9to5: Story of a Movement. Chafing at the sexist expectations and restrictions for working women in the 1960s, the two recent college students started handing out fliers to female clerical workers and ended up founding 9to5: The National Association of Working Women, the organization that revolutionized how employers treated women workers (and inspired the beloved Jane Fonda/Dolly Parton movie!) Nussbaum has gone on to head the federal Women’s Bureau and launch Working America, the political organizing arm of the AFL-CIO.
Olympic Figure Skater, Student
“I wish I could remember the first time I laced up a pair of skating boots and slid out onto that big, frozen circle,” Karen wrote in her memoir aimed at young adults. “After all, who wouldn’t want to remember the moment they fell in love?” The young skater known for her footwork and artistry mastered her first triple jump at age 11. 2022 marks her second time in the Olympics. Despite her youth and shyness, Karen told NBC and Cosmo magazine she calls herself the "quiet assassin" when she's on the ice. "…Yeah, sure,” she said, “I’m quiet. But when I’m out there on the ice by myself, I’m fearless, and I’m not scared to attack whatever I’m going to do."
Finding the Edge: My Life on the Ice (Amazon book link)
Former First Lady
You could say Karen Pence knows how to create a buzz. To draw attention to the critical disappearance of wild bee habitat, she installed the first-ever hive in the Vice Presidential residence. This former teacher is a “prayer warrior” (as former Vice President Mike Pence fondly calls his wife.) She is well known for her advocacy around children, the military, and, controversially, abortion. But her official cause as Second Lady was Healing with the HeART, a three pronged initiative to promote art therapy by educating people about the profession; to make people who have suffered aware of what it can offer. Why? Karen, herself an artist, says, “Art therapy is changing lives and it is saving lives.”
Karen van den Oever
World Cave Diving Champion
In 2001, Karen van den Oever took an oceanside vacation that would change her life. Falling in love with scuba diving, she made sharing that love her life’s work. Then, two decades after her first dive, the South African smashed the world record for women cave divers.
Karen set her sights on breaking a record in 2005, then spent the next 15 years assembling the skills, experience and support team she’d need to succeed. On March 26, 2021 at 7:10 am, Karen began her record-breaking descent into one of the deepest freshwater caves, the Boesmansgat in Northern Cape, South Africa. The effort was fraught with peril, including flooding, illness, and life-threatening mechanical failures. 770 feet under water, first her buoyancy gear failed; then her legs became enmeshed in a piece of twine. “At one point I thought, this is it, and I was ok with it, I guess. I knew this was going to be dangerous,” Karen told an interviewer. “Then I thought, I didn’t come here to NOT make it back from this dive, so let’s reevaluate this situation.” Seven hours and 18 minutes after she entered the water, Karen emerged with a new world record.
Divers Alert Network South Africa - blog article
Pioneering President, Advocate and Grandmother
When the fledgling Haskell Indian Nations University needed a leader with the vision and skills to spearhead the transformation of the century-old boarding and vocational school into the United States’ premiere tribal university, they didn’t have far to look! With a doctoral degree in Educational Administration, Dr. Karen Gayton-Comeau had already earned national recognition from numerous indigenous educators’ organizations for her leadership of Haskell's teacher education program.
Born and raised on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, Karen was named the University’s first female president in 1999. The former teacher and elementary school principal used the platform not only to multiply college opportunities for indigenous people, but to reshape the nation’s understanding of native people’s ownership of their stories and educational self-determination. She published articles and served on President George W. Bush’s Board of Advisors on Tribal Colleges and Universities. At her retirement party, she was hailed for both the academic strides she led and the tone of kindness and civility she set for the campus, now inextricably "woven into the fabric of daily practices at Haskell."
Haskell Indian Nations University
Actor, Educator and Disability Advocate
Many people today owe their names to TV’s Karen Pendleton, the youngest Mouseketeer. Karen was discovered in 1955 when Walt Disney toured dance studios and tapped young actors to don iconic ears for the Mickey Mouse Club. Karen grew up as generations watched, famous for her bubbly personality and smile. When Mouseketeers ended, she left show business and returned to private life. Decades later, as a young mother she would became paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident. From her wheelchair, she earned a bachelors and master’s degree in psychology and became a school counselor and a lifelong advocate for the disabled and battered women.
Californians for Disability Rights
Karen H. Gibson
National Security Lead, Parent, Cancer Survivor
In the days immediately after the 2021 insurrection, it was clear that the next Sergeant of Arms of the U.S. Senate would need nerves of steel, extreme intelligence, integrity and grit. Enter Karen Gibson.
A retired military Liutenant General with 33 years’ international experience in the US Army capped by a miltary intelligence career, Karen became the Senate’s top security official, entrusted with the physical and technological safety of the US governing body. She is the second woman and the head of the first-ever all-women triad to lead Senate security in 242 years.
Bravery is a theme that runs throughout Karen’s life. Preparing to face death in combat in Baghdad in 2007, Karen suddenly found herself facing down breast cancer instead. “I once read that crisis reveals our true character, much as strong winds expose a tree’s shape by removing its leaves,” Karen told a military publication in 2019. “I still can’t say I’m glad I had cancer, but the experience clearly influenced who I am today.” She credits her military background for her “Warrior Ethos”: “I will never accept defeat, I will never quit.”
The tropical climate of Thailand may not immediately call to mind cross-country skiing, but thanks to Karen Chanloung (and her brother Mark), Thailand was well represented on the snow at the 2022 Olympics.
Karen first followed her expatriate father onto the slopes of Italy on alpine skis at age three; by age 25, she was competing in her third Winter Olympics, She also served as a flagbearer in the Olympic Opening Ceremonies, fulfilling a lifelong dream.
Back in Thailand, Karen helped establish a foundation to support Thai youth engaging in winter sports through activities like roller skiing. “I’m glad to inspire young people,” the young woman of Thai and Italian descent told Bangkok Local. “Maybe in the future we will have more Thai athletes at the Winter Olympic Games.”
Karen Muriel Cecile Gibson MBE
Choir Conductor, Artist
In retrospect, it was a lucky layoff. London native Karen Muriel Cecile Gibson MBE had worked in IT for eleven years, but used her sudden freedom to find her way back to music. Two decades later, Karen and The Kingdom Choir she’d founded would enchant the world with their soulful gospel rendition of Stand by Me at the British royal wedding – and set a milestone with the royal recognition of Black artistic leadership.
Insiders say that Karen’s musical success lies in her extraordinary ability to bring people together. “There is nothing like the sound of voices joined in singing to me,” Karen told an interviewer. “It’s a very spiritual experience in the broader sense of the word. The best choirs will always say that they are like family, and I believe that it is togetherness and connection that actually impacts the sound a choir makes.”
“It’s not all about the singing, actually — it’s about spirit. Not everyone has the same voice but the wonderful thing is that while one person might crumble, in a team everyone can sound like a genius. Some girls would cry to sing a solo, but they can sing out loud as part of the choir, because they have their sisters with them. It’s not about reaching the top. Life is a journey and, if you’re smart, you never stop learning.”
Brazilian Soccer Pioneer
In Brazil, elite soccer players are often recognized by first name alone, and “Karen” unmistakably means Karen Aline Peliçari. Famous for her technique in free kicks, the surefooted 5’3’’ forward and midfielder was just a teenager when she competed in the FIFA Under-20 Women's World Cup. A few years later, she overcame the abrupt closure of Santos' women’s division to continue her rise both in national and continental competitions and as a sub competing internationally on Brazil Women's National Football Team. Just a few years younger, another Brazilian soccer star, Karen Xavier Hipolito, is affectionately known as KaKa.
Until 1979, it was illegal for girls and women to play soccer in Brazil, even for fun. The Guirreiras Project uses football as a tool to promote gender justice and create possibilities for more equal opportunities.
Karen Nyberg, PhD
Engineer, Astronaut, Artist, Mom
When you’re living in the International Space Station, how do you stay connected to Earth? For astronaut and engineer Karen Nyberg, it was her love of sewing. She used needles and thread she’d brought to craft a stuffed dinosaur out of recycled materials for her 3-year-old son – not an easy project when your materials are floating without gravity – and then called on earthbound stitchers to participate in a global quilting bee. Volunteers from around the world sent NASA 2400 “space squares” adorned with stars and together with the one she hand-sewed in space, they were compiled into 28 quilts that Karen says “represent a truly interconnected world.” Since retiring from NASA, Karen is focusing on conservation and sustainability. She serves as an advisor to the nonprofit Creature Hero Foundation for wildlife conservation.
Karen Chin. PhD
World-Renowned Paleontologist, Professor
“I am happy to demonstrate that paleontologists can come in all colors and flavors,” says Karen Chin, a Black Chinese American paleontologist and taphonomist. Her professional fascination in solving the mystery of fossilized “blobs” led her to become one of the world’s leading experts on coprolites - fossilized feces - providing unique insight into the behavior of ancient ecosystems and creatures. A lifelong scientist and professor at the University of Colorado, and the curator of paleotology for the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History Museum, she has even co-authored a book, Dino Dung, to kindle childrens’ passion for dinosaurs and poop into a love of reading, and is the subject of another kids' book, Daring to Dig.
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Karen Hultzer, https://www.pride.com/sports/2012/07/31/south-african-olympic-archer-karen-hultzer-comes-out-lesbian
Karen Mok, Jaeljojo at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons