For many people, getting one’s period is simply a monthly annoyance that requires remembering to pack a tampon or two for the day. But for homeless people who can’t afford pads, tampons, or menstrual cups, it’s a monthly challenge. Nadya Okamoto, 19, is trying to change that. In 2014, Okamoto founded the non-profit PERIOD, and it’s since helped distribute menstrual hygiene products to homeless people across the globe. The organization says it’s served over 80,000 periods. And now, as a freshman at Harvard, Okamoto’s running for Cambridge City Council to keep empowering and serving those who need support.
“I think my work with PERIOD has given me the experience and the confidence to say that we need young people in office,” Okamoto tells SELF. “I realized the power of politics as the most effective and efficient way to make change.”
Okamoto’s work as an activist and advocate began when she was 16 and her family—made up of her mom and two younger sisters—had to move out of their apartment. They rented their home for income to compensate for their mother’s unemployment and stayed with friends. ”I was going to an exclusive private school on scholarship with friends who had multiple houses,” she says. “Meanwhile I looked at my life and was like, ‘Do I have a house?'”
Though it was a confusing time for the then-high school freshman, Okamoto says she found perspective during her commute to school. When she transferred buses in downtown Portland, she’d see homeless women waiting outside women’s shelters. “Talking to them made me realize how privileged I was,” she says. “I have a family, I have educational opportunity, I have a support system that believes in me.”
The interactions got Okamoto thinking about one of the biggest challenges homeless women told her they faced: dealing with their periods. She heard stories from one woman after another about how they used wads of stolen toilet paper, socks, and, most commonly, recycled brown paper grocery bags to absorb their menstrual blood. The makeshift hygiene products caused irritation and rashes, the women told her. “Some of them said they’d literally just sit in one place just to wait it out because it was so uncomfortable,” she says. “I’d never thought about it before.”
Okamoto’s family got their apartment back her sophomore year of high school, and a few months later she started her non-profit. The mission: to deliver “period packs” filled with menstrual hygiene products to those without resources. Within two months, the organization grew from local to national, with PERIOD chapters forming across the country. Today, there are 60 PERIOD chapters across the world that host fundraisers and distribute period products in their communities. And this year, Okamoto secured headquarters space for PERIOD in Portland and hired its first full-time staff. “I never dreamed that this would be a thing,” Okamoto says. The mission of the org has expanded, too, and PERIOD is now working to eliminate the stigma surrounding menstruation and to make menstrual hygiene a right for all.
“In 37 states in the U.S. there’s a sales tax on menstrual products because they’re not considered a necessity—they’re considered a ‘luxury item,'” Okamoto says. “And the fact that food stamps don’t cover menstrual products, but they cover other hygiene materials—that’s absurd. We’re trying to change the narrative around periods and how having your period is not a ‘luxury’ and menstrual hygiene is not a privilege—it’s a right. We really embody a movement, and we call it a ‘menstrual movement.'”
Since PERIOD has taken off, Okamoto’s become a face of that “menstrual movement,” taking the stage at TEDxPortland and gaining recognition as a 2016 L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth honoree (nominations for their 2017 class are now open). And the activist isn’t slowing down. She recently co-founded a youth-led media platform called E Pluribus. And a month ago, she decided to run for Cambridge City Council to take her advocacy work to the next level. Her decision came after closely following the 2016 presidential election—she even shadowed former Texas Senator Wendy Davis at the Democratic National Convention—and after hearing numerous post-election calls to action, including the outgoing words of President Barack Obama. “His final words as president were all about young people and youth engagement and youth empowerment—it was just these calls to action everywhere,” she says.
Her platform focuses on affordable housing as well as educational inequity and youth engagement. If she wins a seat in the November election, she says she’ll be the youngest person ever to sit on the Cambridge City Council and the first Harvard student to do so.
Her advice to other people who want to take action: Just do it—and make sure you’re passionate about it.
“I start sounding like a Nike ad, but the real authentic advice I can give is just to do it,” she says. “There are so many young people who want to start non-profits… but make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons and make sure you’re not just creating another competitor—you’re either working with another non-profit or starting your own thing because you don’t see a service happening. PERIOD was literally a missing component to addressing menstrual equity, and we were the first ones there. Now, it’s a mainstream media topic.”
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