Karen grew up in Iowa, along the beautiful Cedar River (pictured above), a place to which she frequently returns. She spent her career in electoral politics, government, public policy, philanthropy, and academia. While Karen’s life took her in many different directions, the thread that proved constant was the desire to reflect on her experience through writing.
After a year of college in Iowa, Karen enrolled at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and graduated with a B.A, a M.A. in International Relations, and a Ph.D. in American government. During her undergraduate years, she worked for the student government association, got married, had her first child, and, while spending a year in Washington, D.C., had a memorable encounter with the Central Intelligence Agency. Decades later, the episode led to writing Patriotic Betrayal.
After the year in D.C., Karen returned to Boulder and to the University. At age 26, and while still a graduate student, she won a seat on the Boulder City Council in the tumultuous 1971 elections that brought civil rights, feminist, anti-war, and environmental issues into local politics. When Karen won re-election, her colleagues chose her to be Deputy Mayor, serving alongside the first African-American Mayor in Boulder’s history. These experiences broadened her understanding of politics and led to a fascination with how social and political change takes place. Not surprisingly, she re-focused her dissertation topic during this time to women and politics. Twenty years later, Karen would revisit the subject as a co-author of Running As a Woman: Gender and Power in American Politics, an analysis of women’s campaigns from 1920 to 1992.
While living overseas and teaching at the Western Australian Institute of Technology (today Curtin University) in the mid-70s, Karen began to pursue her passion for writing. Yet, upon her return to the U.S., she plunged back into the political world. During the Carter administration, she was appointed a regional director of the federal agency, ACTION (Vista, Peace Corps, and other federal volunteer programs), a forerunner of the National Service Corporation; a second appointment took her to Washington, D.C. as an administrator for the agency’s domestic programs. Demanding, exhausting, and exhilarating, the experience proved to be a crash course in the ways of Washington, and a corrective, if one was needed, to textbook versions of American politics.
After Carter’s defeat, Karen remained in Washington to direct a national foundation that supported community organizing. She spent the next few years working with philanthropists on environmental and civil rights issues, especially voter registration and campaign finance reform. In 1985, an appointment to the Institute of Politics at Harvard University as a fellow gave her the gift of time and the room for reflection.
Before becoming a full-time writer in the mid-90s, Karen took a position at the University of California, Office of the President, to direct a joint project with state government that provided policymakers with access to the university’s nine-campus research expertise. For a while, she combined writing with teaching at U. C. Berkeley and consulting on public policy with New York foundations. She simultaneously found a journalistic home with The American Prospect as a committed generalist. She drew on her years of experience in politics, and especially in Washington, for her articles on citizen organizing, philanthropy, fiscal policy, and gender politics.
In 1998, Karen won a generous fellowship from the Open Society Institute, which allowed her to embark on the project that eventually became Patriotic Betrayal, never dreaming that it would require more than fifteen years of effort. As it turned out, the desire to put her youthful encounter with the CIA in perspective led to the realization that, like herself, scores of American students had been deprived of their history.
Karen now lives in Emeryville, California, where she continues to write, pursue her love of travel, and enjoy her children and grandchildren.