Posted on: 13 February 2018
Nadya Okamoto is the founder of the youth-led non-profit organisation Period. Period’s mission is ‘to celebrate periods and provide products to those in need’; they do this by providing period packs to homeless women, educating young people in schools to break down the stigma surrounding menstruation, and by political advocacy, running campaigns and events to draw attention to discriminatory legislature. Period is not just providing period care products to some of the most vulnerable women in society (it has so far served 202,700 periods!), it is also creating a Menstrual Movement- empowering young people to talk about the natural monthly cycle without shame.
The idea for Period first came about when Nadya’s family were made homeless. Speaking to women in shelters, it became clear that one of the biggest problems homeless women were facing was the one barely spoken about- that of period care. This is something that many of us take for granted- and is something that also inspired Freda’s founder, Affi, to look at the situation for refugee women and decide that something had to be done.
Nadya is now studying at Harvard- aside from founding Period and getting an undergraduate degree, she is also currently writing a book about her work, the Menstrual Movement, and youth activism (which we cannot wait to read). She ran for office in 2017 for Cambridge City Council, and her campaign made waves in terms of youth turnout. Check out her TED talk in April 2016; it’s amazing. Freda was lucky enough to have a conversation with Nadya about Period, and what we can all be doing to break down the stigmatisation of periods and to ensure that we all have access to safe period care products.
Hey Nadya, it’s so great to speak to you! How did you first realise what a huge problem access to period care products is for homeless women?
I first realised this undiscovered natural need of menstrual hygiene for myself when I was around 15 and 16 years old, and my passion for periods comes from a really personal place. When I was in the spring of my freshman year in high school, my mum parted ways with her job and we entered a time when we didn’t have a home of our own and we were experiencing legal homelessness. It was at this time that I started getting into conversations with women who were in much worse living situations than I was; it was these homeless women that told me that they were using toilet paper, socks, brown paper grocery bags, even cardboard to absorb their menstrual blood and maintain their period.
That was the wake-up call, realising these women were using trash and were scared to ask for period products from male authorities at homeless shelters. It’s such a basic need, and yet these women were telling me how not having period products was affecting them; their confidence, their capabilities, their feeling of being clean- I think that’s what really spurred me to want to get involved. It was that mobilisation and passion, coupled with doing general Google searches, and learning that periods are the number one reason why girls miss school in developing countries, the single event that leads to them dropping out of school, getting married early, undergoing female genital mutilation. Learning that, at the time, 40 states in the US had a sales tax on period products, now its 37, but it was 40 states then. Realising like Rogaine and Viagra didn’t have that luxury tax and so I guess I just felt like mad that the US government was telling me that old man hair growth and erections were more important and more of a necessity than women feeling clean on their period.
I think it was also realising that there were populations where periods were even more stigmatised, so I try to veer away from being gender exclusive with my language. This is because we acknowledge that not all people that menstruate are women; some transgender men and people who are non-binary also get their periods.
How did you go about channelling this into making tangible, positive change with Period?
I went about making this tangible, positive change by creating an organisation because I didn’t know what else to do with those emotions. I was feeling so emotional about it, and so angry- like more than I ever have before about anything, not being able to sleep, not being able to concentrate in school, because I was always thinking about this. And so I think it wasn’t really a conscious process of ‘I am going to make change now’, it was more like I need to do something to get this off my mind, like I need to put this into action.
I think at the same time on a personal level I was really looking for a way to channel my efforts to do something really empowering for myself because at sixteen I found myself in a pretty abusive relationship where I felt pretty voiceless and powerless. I found myself really craving this way to feel more empowered, if that makes sense- and I found that through public service and through finding my voice as a young leader.
What are the biggest challenges that you experience with the work that you do and how do you combat these?
I think our biggest challenge that we experience with working in the field of menstrual health is working across lines. Whether that be political lines, where people think differently and disagree with us, disagree with the language that we use, and across boundaries, with people thinking that we are too young, too naïve, too inexperienced to do the work that we do. And it’s that doubt that crowds into my personal self-doubt as a leader that is the biggest challenge. It’s realising that when I hit these boundaries that really need to be broken because I truly believe in what we are fighting for sometimes what is said on the other side infiltrates my mind and my own self-doubt.
I also think I still very much struggle with impostor syndrome- it’s hard to get so much push-back and to still maintain confidence in my abilities. This is something that I am fighting for all the time, especially on the campaign trail.
How do you think the shame and stigma around menstruation can be tackled?
I think that the way that the shame stigma around menstruation can be tackled is simply by talking about it and changing the way that we talk about it. So, talking about it in a normalised and even celebratory way, and even talking about it in the first place! Taboo quite literally means not being able to talk about periods, and we’re changing that.
That’s why we changed our name, originally our organisation was called Camions of Care, because camions was another word for trucks that I discovered, but then we changed it to Period, so people would just say it even when they were talking about the organisation.
Do you have any practical advice for aspiring young activists?
Do it. I don’t care if you don’t feel if you know what you’re doing. I always feel like I don’t know what I’m doing! I am always scared, I always feel like I am doing something wrong, or that I am making a mistake or that too many people are mad at me, but I think that the difference between me and other potential young activists is that I am actually doing it. No matter how I feel, no matter how doubts I have- I just push myself to go for it and take advantage of it. And I think that really comes from these experiences when I didn’t feel that I had the power to speak up, or to take action on something that I am really passionate about- and now I do, and that’s why I think I’m so addicted to it, and why I am so committed to my work, and so active in what I do as well.
So, I think my practical advice is to literally just go for it, ignore the self- doubt, ignore the people who say that you can’t do it or that you’re not good enough. You’re good enough. If you have Google and social media- that’s all you need to start a movement.
You ran for office last year as a first time candidate for Cambridge City Council, and your election was historic in terms of student and youth turnout- first of all, congratulations! What is the biggest thing that you learned from this experience?
Yeah, I ran for office as a first-time candidate; I did not win, but we made historic waves in student and youth turn out. I’m super, super still happy to just be done with campaigning because it was one of the most exhausting and terrifying experiences of my life.
I think there’s two major things that I learned: one, that politics is personal. I think from talking to other candidates, people who are elected, literally from just knocking on doors for 4-6 hours a day, you learn that politics is personal, and that people are involved in politics for very personal reasons.
Another side on a personal level, I learned to be unapologetically myself, because for the first time I was receiving more hate, push back and people questioning my abilities- whether they be peers, friends, family, the KKK, white supremacists, older people, people who were also running for office at the time, and even political consultants trying to help me! Everything I did didn’t feel right at some point, whether it was my hair, what I dressed like, what I look like, how I carried myself, how I walked, how I answered questions, what I believed, how I answered the question, ‘do I believe in God?’- like, everything felt wrong at a certain point. The way I learned to cope with it was to be unapologetically myself, which was a pretty big message.
Part of that was also to embrace my Asian identity, which I’ve been writing about- I wrote about that in NextShark and I just did a KBU radio segment on it aswell, talking about receiving more racism than I ever have before in a very blatant way is what has really pushed me to embrace my Asian identity. I grew up feeling pretty ashamed of my racial identity, just from growing up in white dominated cities and experiencing racism and a lot of micro-aggressions growing up.
How do you balance being a student, activist and author?
Ummm… I’m still learning this! It’s currently 2:30am and I’m about to go to the gym, I’ve just finished going through my emails, I have a big conference tomorrow. Trying to balance school; I just chose my classes, I’m kind of tired and jet lagged because I got back from Singapore last weekend. Yeah, so, honestly I don’t know.
I hang out with my friends, I love to dance, I dance like 10 hours a week, I go to the gym every single day, it’s my self-care thing- I love the gym. I listen to music. Those are my self-care things. I think my secret is everything I do outside of school I love- I really, really love. I love Period, I love what I am writing about, I love being able to meet new people and to travel- I get to travel the world now, and speak, and it’s such a dream come true and I feel so honoured to be able to do it and I am genuinely passionate about the causes I’m fighting for… Yeah, I genuinely love everything that I do. I’m doing Period (Period.org), and then I run this organisation called NextFellows (nextfellows.org) and I’m really excited to keep launching that, as well.
How do we make period care something that is not only accessible to all but also sustainable?
I think how we make period care accessible and sustainable is first of all talking about periods and breaking stigma; so, we can first talk about the solutions to period care, and then talk about what period care options there are. Talking about facts like how tampons and pads that are disposable aren’t always the best option for the earth, for your body, for your bank account; the fact that it takes five to eight centuries for a pad to decompose- you know facts like that. Also acknowledging that not everybody can use something like a menstrual cup or a cloth pad, but really acknowledging that there are different solutions out there that work for different people, and that some of these are more beneficial than others.
On a sustainable level, in a systemic way, I think that this is achieved through changing policy, so that we can have services providing period care products to people who need them all the time.
Late last year, you received funding from TOMS for being a young female entrepreneur, what are your plans with this?
Yeah, I received funding from TOMS last year, and it’s coming in later this year in 2018, all this is going to go to Period to keep growing our work. We hired full time staff last year, we’re growing our team this year, opening new offices, and TOMS is going to help us to do that a little bit more.
Finally, how can we get involved in the amazing work that Period is doing?
You can get involved with Period through our website, Period.org. If you’re a young person on a campus, whether it be at high school or college, or even middle school, go to period.org and see if there’s a chapter at your school, if not start a chapter! We have a full time programmes team that will help you and guide you. We are always looking for new jobs and new interns, and all that information is on our website as well. If you want a partner, reach out to me, my email in nadya at period.org, although the best way to reach out to me is actually through Instagram, my name is @nadyaokamoto. So yeah super excited to connect, thanks!
Thank you so much Nadya! Get involved with Period, and join the Menstrual Movement!