REMARKS: How and Why I Built My Feminist Career

ms. magazine flyerThese remarks were delivered at Merrimack University on January 28, 2019. Women’s Studies and Communications students were there seeking an answer to a big question: What do I do next to land my dream job?

Hello! I’m Carmen Rios, and this is the story of my life. Just kidding, that’s the first draft. This is the story of how I built my feminist career and landed every single one of my feminist dream jobs.

And, like most of the stories I tell about myself, it starts with Hillary Clinton and my mom.

I was 17 when Hillary Clinton lost her first presidential race, conceding to Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. the summer before I went to college. I watched it on television. I was crying. And when I walked out of my bedroom and into the living room, my mother opened her door and met me in the middle. We collapsed into one another, and she whispered something I’ve never forgotten: “I don’t think we’ll see a female president in my lifetime.”

That was the year that my entire life changed. It was the year I applied early decision to American University, one of the dumbest and bravest decisions I had ever made. It was the year my single mom, who had no college degree, who raised two kids on credit cards, celebrated with me when I found out I’d been selected as a Bill Gates Millennium Scholar — and that the tuition I’d obligated myself to pay at a small liberal arts school would be covered, in full, in an effort to give me what the program’s officers referred to as an opportunity for working-class kids like me to finally live like everyone else. It was the year I harangued honors professors into letting me enroll in their advanced-level courses, wrote no less than one dozen papers on women in politics — even for classes in which that wasn’t on the syllabus — and dropped my business major for women’s studies.

It was the beginning of everything.

I chose American because I had that magic moment when I visited, that fuzzy feeling — and I found a table for a group on campus called Women’s Initiative. I decided I wanted to run it, and in my senior year, I did. At the first WI meeting I ever went to, I learned about a non-profit named the Feminist Majority Foundation, and the next semester I applied to intern there. I got selected for the program, assigned to work with the Feminist Campus organizers and alongside the web team. Five years later, I got my first big-girl 9 to 5 job there as a digital organizer for that campus program. Ten years later, I was invited to speak on this campus as the digital editor of Ms., the oldest feminist publication in the U.S. still printing, the magazine that gave voice to the movement beginning in 1972 when it was co-founded by Gloria Steinem, a magazine published by the FMF.

In the intervening years, I did more than I can remember. I interned with about a dozen non-profits and consulted on global feminist campaigns. I was the media organizer for DC’s inaugural SlutWalk. I became a contributor, then a contributing editor, then the feminism editor, then the community director at Autostraddle, the world’s most popular digital magazine for LGBTQ women, and a semi-freelance writer published in the likes of Bitch, Everyday Feminism, MEL, and Feministing.

And then, I quit that job. For no reason!  I walked away from FMF, but stayed on good terms with the feminists who had raised me. I used the money I had saved compulsively for three years, learned how to drive — at 25! — and bought a car in one month, and packed it up and moved across the country to Los Angeles, chasing that warm and fuzzy feeling again. And when I got there, I got a phone call: There was this job at Ms. Did I want it?

Now, most mornings, I wake up at 5 am. I make coffee, read magazines, pack a gym bag, and then I cross town. By nine, I’m at my desk, eating my usual breakfast, drinking more coffee. And by the time six o’clock rolls around, I’ve usually set free about five articles about feminism into cyberspace, scheduled a batch of posts to social media, created fundraising campaigns and social media actions, juggled about a million other tasks in the process, and ideally still arrived at inbox zero.

Here is where I acknowledge two parallel realities: One is that all of this is glorious, magnificent, wonderful. The other is that I never thought any of it was possible.

Here are the things that my resume doesn’t tell you: I’m a first-generation college student. I never left my time zone until I was 19. I didn’t learn how to drive until I was 25. I’ve lived on back porches and converted patios. There were time I slept on couches and stole string cheese from the grocery store and ate other people’s leftovers. There were summers I slept in rooms with no air conditioning, winters I walked the city in boots with torn soles.

When I took the internship at FMF, I had never ridden the Metro by myself. The next year, I stayed in DC for an internship that paid only 100 dollars a week, making ends meet by living on a ten-dollar a week budget using the last of my scholarship money for the semester, which I had saved up by cutting corners elsewhere. I resold textbooks to pay bills. When I came out in 2010, and posted emotionally about it from an airport on the Internet, and Riese from Autostraddle found me, even though I didn’t have a penny to spare, even though it meant coming home from a full-time job at a children’s center where I made twelve bucks an hour and doing more work, I wrote for her every single day, for free, just to save my life.

The day I graduated from AU, I didn’t let my mother take photos. I wept wildly. I was unemployed, and would not find a job in my field for a full year. I would watch kids, sell jewelry, and sleep in my friend’s living room instead. I was broke as a joke. But I refused to move home and give up. Instead, I watched those kids and counted change on the kitchen table, bought a bag of rice and ate only that for two weeks at a time, stole snacks from the cabinets at work when I got hungry, called home crying, fell asleep writing cover letters.

Did I want it? My career is defined by an otherworldly certainty I’ve never felt about any other aspect of my life. Yes. I want this. I want all of this. I want the struggle and the salvation. I want the fulfillment and the frustration. And that meant striving until I could thrive. It meant juggling a lot of work, whether it was paid or unpaid, with responsibilities that, despite the urgency of the movement to end gender inequality, required my obligation. It meant juggling feminism with full-time work that was not only unfulfilling, but treacherous and exhausting.

In my second year at AU, I met someone named Charlotte. I kept thinking about her on the way over here, this girl from Topanga Canyon who literally twirled into my life when I was a sophomore. Charlotte makes so much sense to me now that I live in Southern California where she grew up, in a town that honestly still sounds like folklore, where people live in treehouses and she learned to walk barefoot around the city. Charlotte was always talking about the universe, how badly she wanted to trust it and how much she did. I was a lapsed Catholic from New Jersey, so I didn’t believe in any of it. I believed in bootstraps and hard work and good grades.

Ten years later, in a rented car, on my drive from Smith to Merrimack, I realized that in reality I found myself by taking the road somewhere in the middle, somewhere more ambiguous. When I was thinking about what to say to all of you today, I looked back and realized that when it comes to what I’ve done and where I ended up, everything makes sense and nothing makes sense.

In retrospect, I realize I was aware of where I wanted to be, but it didn’t feel that way. (On a side note, I’m now almost thirty, the age where I imagined human beings wake up completely certain of something, and I’m still not always completely sure of anything.) In my twenties, what I did was Marie Kondo the hell out of my life, even though I rolled my eyes at the idea that people should chase joy and not common sense. I followed the universe by accident, and Charlotte was right — it listened to me. I also pulled up my bootstraps so hard I needed to get them resewn.

Throughout my decade in digital feminist media and movement-building, I pursued things that mattered to me. Not because I had a five-year plan, but because I thought the work was important. Not because they were going to help me make ends meet, but because they were going to change the world. I arrived on campus concerned about the sexism in politics that twice now has defeated Hillary Clinton. I arrived on campus concerned about women’s control of their bodies. I arrived on campus angry about rape culture and how small it made us feel. I arrived on campus absolutely enraged about the ways in which women’s stories and voices have been, and still are, erased and destroyed.

So whenever I had the chance to turn my inner monologue about inequality into a scream, I shouted. Whenever I was given a microphone with which to declare war on patriarchy, I said what had to be said and then dropped it. Feminism didn’t give me a voice — I’m a loudmouth, and I always have been — but it gave me good reason to use it. It reminded me that my voice mattered. It made space for people to hear it.

I am a mixed-race queer woman raised by a working-class single mom. I did not choose activism. I did not discover inequality. It just simply doesn’t feel possible to wake up without worrying about the ways in which our society is lopsided, without raising my voice for women around the world who face oppression and violence. In a world where discrimination against women and girls is so rampant that it’s seen as natural, normal, common, typical, absolutely completely expectable, and, cherry on top, unabashed, explicit, and done to great fanfare and reward, it didn’t feel fair to be asked to spend my waking hours working toward anything else but building a different reality.

I also knew that just as much as I needed this movement, it needed me, too. I knew that my perspective as someone who knew economic hardship, who had a complicated relationship with her heritage, who stumbled into her identity as a queer person, was important. I knew that I needed to take the chance to sound off on the issues that mattered to women like me because of all of the women like me who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, or who needed a little extra amplification.

And so, during the day, I did what I had to do to do what I wanted to do. I designed marketing materials for my campus career center. I worked with children. I sold jewelry online — I am serious.

And at night, I leaned in to what I loved.

It began earnestly: I asked everyone I met, everyone who gave me five minutes of their time, if they needed my help, and when they said yes, I said yes back, no pause, no thinking about it, no worries that it only paid in solidarity. I took volunteer non-profit internships every single semester, instead of paid part-time jobs, just to immerse myself in the movement. There were times where I balanced an internship with a full rack of classes with a side job and writing for multiple websites — but I never saw what I did — living double lives, juggling jobs, writing for twelve websites at once, crying while I shuffled my tax forms around — as a sacrifice. I just saw it as a circumstance. I saw it as the beginning of something bigger, that thing I wanted, this manifest destiny like a gold rush. I saw it as the price I paid for being who I was in this world full of unfair realities and lopsided possibilities.

And I was never afraid to throw things at the wall to see what stuck, not even my own future. I took jobs that weren’t quite in line with what I thought, at the time, I’d want ten years later, but I figured I’d gain insight and connections and grow from being in community regardless. And I also took jobs I called dream jobs — including the first two positions I had at FMF — and then one day, in both of those lives, woke up and realized I was wrong. But that was okay.

When I moved across the country, I had a mantra I would murmur to myself: you can always turn around. You can always go home. I never saw an end to the road, just a detour. I never saw failure, only experimentation. I just figured it was all a pit stop on the way to figuring everything out.

I did what I had to do to be who I wanted to be. I snatched up every messy, wonderful, trying, challenging and invigorating thing that fell into my lap, and I asked for things without worrying that the answer might be no. I rerouted and started over. I reinvented myself and, at times, I mourned myself.

Throughout this experience, many people told me that I was pigeonholing myself, that I’d never get a real job. My secret weapon was that I was young and I didn’t have the capacity to really recognize what they were telling me. My secret weapon was that I was working-class, and I didn’t realize there were people who didn’t live on ramen or sleep on friend’s couches while they were chasing their North Star. I never stopped to ask if there was an alternative, and I knew I didn’t want the life they were worried I wouldn’t have. I didn’t want to sit in a cubicle and crunch numbers, or make ads that made women feel bad about themselves with my creative brain, or write for a newspaper where I had to pretend there was a “debate” about whether or not equality was common sense, or women were people.

When I called my mother from AU to tell her I was dropping my business major and becoming a women’s studies major, she asked me if I was worried I would never get a job. I told her I was worried about being a capitalist cog in a machine that would eat me alive. When people ask me why I don’t work at a glossy magazine or marvel to me about the ways in which even now, even in what feels like a prime, there is hardship built into the career I deigned to dream of, I say the truth: I don’t know another way. I would rather struggle than stop struggling to make something happen. I would rather work and work and work and work some more than rest knowing I could’ve made the world better.

I was raised a feminist, and I only know how to live as one. I only know how to labor and work and organize as one.

Working in feminism does mean a recalibration, a sort of second assessment of our priorities. It means taking an unusual and less-traveled path, or forging one on your own altogether. But I didn’t see that as a choice. I saw that as the only path that empowered me, as the only way through this fresh hell. I woke up every morning determined to prove my mother wrong — to build a world where women were equal, were thriving, were leaders, could win.

Last year, I was on a call with a woman named Val, who has launched a program centered on Latina self-love, and she said something that stuck with me: That we are our mothers’ greatest fantasies. That we live out their dreams. Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms., once famously remarked that feminism empowered women to be the men they wanted to marry. I’d rather live in a world where women can build the lives we’ve been told we’re not allowed to imagine.

Ambition has also been a powerful force in my life. I’ve always been a dreamer, someone with big aspirations and an ego that matches. I’ve had moments of doubt, of fear, I’ve felt like an imposter, but I’ve never stopped wishing I could get the stuff I wanted. And I’ve also always known that I wanted to have an impact, to be public-facing, to be a part of something bigger than myself. (This is code for saying: I always knew I wanted to be famous.) But I never sat down and made a game plan and plotted my points to my dream job, not consciously. And today, I’m astounded by how well younger Carmen can make space for the Carmen that’s still growing.

So many times in the last ten years, I have been given the chance to be in community, and in this movement. Saying yes wasn’t always the obvious or easy choice. Often, it meant writing for free, organizing late at night, waking up early to make calls and send emails, flying on red-eyes, and — yep — eating ramen. A lot of ramen. It meant striving instead of thriving. It meant choosing the struggle instead of choosing the straightforward path toward someone else’s idea of success. But every single time I chose the work, I was forging a path toward a career that allowed me to be loud, to be fulfilled, to be myself. To bring my entire self to my desk. To spend my mornings rifling through feminist words and spend my afternoons interviewing feminist luminaries. To be surrounded with accomplices, allies and sisters.

To be right here.

To have the ultimate luxury — of being able to do what I love and love what I do.

The perks of working in feminist media aren’t the kinds of perks you see in Mad Men — there isn’t a lot of glitz and glam, there are no bonuses or expense accounts. But there is free coffee in the copy room and an office full of women who stand alongside each other and stand for something together. There are friends and mentors, accomplices and allies. There are days where I go to a protest and that’s my job. There are days where I go to conferences and that’s my job. I get to throw things at the wall, experiment, build community, be in community, and that’s my job. I get to sit in the same room as the women who made it possible for me to pull up chairs in other rooms. And I get to be here.

People will tell you that to work in this space is to be forever underpaid and overworked, that to pursue what you care about is foolish or reckless. They will trick you into thinking that the life you want isn’t possible. What they mean, by extension, is that the world people like us deign to build will never be constructed. What they’re trying to say is that being hopelessly fucking devoted to the things we believe in is not valuable, manageable, or worthwhile unless it is profitable. What they’re telling you is that things that are messy are not meant to be chased.

Every day, I revel in proving those people wrong.

My advice? You can, too. And I think you should.

Watch the remarks in full with the Q&A via my Facebook.