Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't.
Dear Ms. Opinionated,
I'm *the* liberal, lesbian, feminist living in a small town in Pennsylvania. I recently turned 18 and I'll be graduating soon. I've had kind of a rough time in life so far, with anxiety issues taking me out of public school and living in an emotionally abusive household for pretty much my whole life. I've tried to come up with something I can do after school, but it's hard when you don't really have anyone to talk about things with. I have a crappy fast food job, trying to save money, I wanted to move to Portland, hoping for a fresh start. I also have come to the realization that my purpose in life is to help the world. I'm very interested in politics and social issues, and I want to make a living as an activist. Maybe feminism, gay rights, or environmental. But I've been told I can't make a living doing that, I don't know where to begin, and I'm also scared to leave my family to move across the country. Could anyone offer me advice on moving, about Portland and on me wanting to work as an activist? I'm a very kind hearted, friendly, somewhat awkward girl but I think I could make it with a little help right?
As a one-time small town girl myself, I know from experience how hard it can feel just making it out of your adolescent years. I know, especially as a teenager, that it can seem like everyone else understands something you don't, and that being a feminist and/or a lesbian and/or a liberal in a small town that doesn't like one or all of those things can feel really difficult. And I know that having a difficult home life and a shitty job can compound all of those feelings of isolation and awkwardness and make everything you want to do that much harder.
So you're just about to come out the other side, and you feel the need to GTFO. I totally get that—I won't pretend that every decision I made from the age of 13 through 18 was specifically designed to make sure I got out of my home town and didn't have to go back... but I can admit that I was an extremely goal-oriented youngster and really wanted out and I picked a path out and worked at it. That, unfortunately, is what you need to do now.
Small towns can be like black holes: the gravitational forces to which they subject residents means that you have to get a lot of force behind you to escape permanently, and that's not easy. Especially if you'll be operating without a safety net provided by a supportive family, you need to build that force that gets (and keeps) you out, and it might not be something you can pull together by graduation day. So, you need to think about your goals not as something to do all at once right away, but as things to work toward. It's helpful to establish some intermediate goals, like having a certain amount of money that will allow you to even get to Portland and establish a stable housing situation, or about finding work or other opportunities that are more fulfilling than working the fryer.
Now, first, you say that you have anxiety issues that are or were so severe that you weren't able to finish at your public school. If you're setting off on your own, you need to make sure that you not only have them under control now but that you have a plan for dealing with them (be it access to medication, access to someone who can write you prescriptions and/or access to ongoing therapy) when you are no longer in your current living situation. There are some medications that you cannot simply stop taking without suffering ill effects, and, depending on your diagnosis, you may never be able to just stop taking your medication. If you're about to go solo, which would be hard for anyone, you need to make sure first and foremost that you have a plan to deal with your health issues.
Second, you need to evaluate your current living situation. Obviously, it's not good to be in an emotionally abusive household, but it is potentially cheaper than striking out on your own, and you've noted that you're trying to save money. Rent is much cheaper in small town Pennsylvania than it is in Portland, and where you are now, people likely also own or rent houses with spare rooms for visiting family or friends in need. Only you can evaluate what works for your budget and your mental and physical health, but if you really want to move across the country where you don't know anyone, you're going to need a decent amount of money just to get there and to find a safe place to lay your head—and you need the place you're laying your head now to be safe, too.
Yes, you want to get out of your town, but some short-term financial trade-offs, like paying rent somewhere, might be better than having the money sooner. Third, you need to start paying attention to a budget, and plan for what you want to do. Let's say it'll cost you $300 for a bus ticket to Portland (a Greyhound ticket from Philly or Pittsburgh to Portland starts at $270 and the bus will take approximately 3 days), plus you'll need food for the trip, which if you budget wisely and buy at a grocery store could be another $75. Assuming you don't have friends with whom you can crash, and say you're comfortable living in a hostel for a bit, and aren't picky about which one. a quick web search shows you could get one for about $20 a night. Give yourself a month where you might have to look for work without landing a job, and that's about $625 (though you might be able to find a sublet with roommates cheaper, you might not be able to arrange it before you get there and/or have employment). You'll need to get around on public transportation, and it's $100 for a monthly pass or $2.50 a ride, plus you'll need to eat which, if you stick to getting groceries rather than eating out, you can probably do for $200 (at least until or if you qualify for food stamps). So just to get to Portland to look for a job, avoid sleeping at a homeless shelter, get around and feed yourself you'll need to have about $1,500 saved up (it's always good to have a small emergency fund). At minimum wage after taxes, that's nearly 300 hours of work if you don't spend money on anything else. If you're only working part time, this will take you a while.
I know that this is probably depressing (budgeting like this never makes anyone happy, believe me), but it's why you need to think long and hard about your current living situation as well as how much money you're saving vs. spending in order to make the jump to Portland. When it comes to where you live, it's worth thinking about whether you want to have an intermediate step between your home town and Portland. Obviously, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are on either ends of your state, and though it's likely more expensive to live in either than where you live now, it's probably also easier to find roommate situations and a community that accepts you (and even an activist community in which you could get involved, if not paid). There's also places like State College, Harrisburg, and Wilkes Barre-Scranton that aren't exactly booming metropolises but also aren't small towns where you will automatically feel ostracized, where the cost of living isn't going to be totally out of your range and where you can probably find work with a high school education. Those are all places where you might be able to go to get away from where you grew up without spending a ton of money and while still saving up for your ultimate goal of moving to Portland.
Another thing to think about is your current job: one assumes the fast food place is a national one, but it's hard to tell whether you're working for a franchisee or a company store. Working for a franchisee means the owner probably has no connection to a franchisee in Portland, but if you work at a company store at a place like Starbucks or Home Deport (just to pick two you probably have around), it's possible to, if not transfer to another store, at least have a better shot of getting a job at the company when you arrive in Portland if your previous work history with them is solid. If there are other opportunities that more naturally lend themselves toward supporting yourself in Portland, maybe it's worth looking at a new-albeit-menial job to help save that money.
And now, onto the career goals. Yes, some people—a small number, to be sure—make their living working as activists (depending on how you define it). Other people make livings and do activist work. There's no one specific path to changing the world, nor to making a living at it. But at least for people starting in, activist work is often poorly paid, so it can be hard to keep one's budget balanced while doing it, as some people have suggested to you. (Though, I'd say that if you can put together $1500 to move across the country and find a place to live while working at a fast food place in small town Pennsylvania, I'd bet you could creatively make ends meet even if you weren't getting paid well. Budgeting is not only an important skill, but strict budgeting becomes a way of t hinking about money and how you spend it that doesn't go away once you have money.)
But I'd also think about what you mean when you say "activist." Do you want to work in a non-profit? There are a lot of jobs in non-profits that don't involve knocking on doors or chanting during protests, from administrative work that supports those people to IT support and beyond—and all of those people are working to help the organizations meet their world-changing goals. Do you want to be an online organizer, which is essentially consciousness-raising work? Are you planning on running an organization one day? There's a lot of different ways to go about meeting that goal you set for yourself, and you really have to think through what it is, concretely, that you want to do and look for people doing it (and supporting themselves at it) to emulate or job descriptions that fit what you have in your head. And if you don't find either, maybe consider becoming involved in a cause because it's important to you but finding some other work that can pay the bills.
Finally, there's one thing you didn't mention but I feel I should. A lot of young people are taking a bridge year between high school and college to figure things out and polish their applications, and college admissions increasingly look at non-traditional students as a boon to their institutions. One other option to get you to Portland is to take a year, work to save money, use the time to get involved in the activism work you like, and then use some of your money to apply for colleges and scholarships to go to school in Portland—Portland State University and Portland Community College, for instance, are both public institutions with scholarships, and there's also Reed College and Lewis and Clark. Another option in that vein is to look at some education as part of the stepping stone for getting to Portland and getting paid as an activist. I'm sure you know that a lot of jobs, even administrative ones at non-profits, often expect or require candidates to have at least two-year degrees. Yes, some people get great jobs with only a high school diploma, but the sad reality is that lots of people don't, so even if you're not ready to consider a full-time four-year degree, it's worth thinking about taking a class, or looking into two-year degree programs. Staying in Pennsylvania allows you to maintain your residency and qualify for in-state tuition, even for a class here and there—and there are plenty of state universities and community colleges where that would make a difference. (It will take you a full twelve months to establish Oregon residency for qualify for lower tuition rates, which is also an option if you can save the money to get there and make the work-life situation work for you.)
I know you want to do everything right now—I'm pretty sure I did at 18, too—but part of being an adult, sadly, is figuring out the steps to achieve your long term goals and sacrificing to achieve them. Like a lot of people, it sounds like you're going to be working without a net as you enter into adulthood, and that doesn't make achieving your goals any easier. But if you start to map out what you really want and realistic strategies for how to get that, you can absolutely achieve the things you want to achieve. But when there is no net to catch you, it's really important to take some time and calculate what exactly you need to make a big leap. Hopefully this helps you get a start.