You Know Who Rules? is Broadly's December interview series highlighting women and non-binary people who accomplished incredible things during the dumpster fire of a year that was 2017.
Most college kids spend their free time studying, working, or partying, but 19-year-old Harvard sophomore Nadya Okamoto is fighting day and night for social justice and women’s rights. She’s been busy with many projects this year (and, yes, she’s also squeezed in some classes) but her biggest passion is PERIOD, her non-profit organization distributing menstrual products to those who don’t have access and shattering menstruation myths.
In addition to being a full-time student and running a national nonprofit, Okamoto ran for Cambridge City Council in 2017, focusing on the issue of affordable housing for students and low-income families. Though she lost her bid, she succeeded in her bigger goal of shining a spotlight on young people getting involved in local politics.
Okamoto tells Broadly why periods are still the leading cause of school absenteeism among teen girls in the US—and what we can do to change that.
BROADLY: What’s your proudest accomplishment of 2017?
NADYA OKAMOTO: There are three. First, I ran for office. Second, I signed my first book deal with Simon & Schuster. And finally, my organization PERIOD grew more than anyone could have imagined.
This summer, PERIOD opened our first headquarters in Portland and hired our first full-time staff person. As of the end of this year, we have addressed almost 200,000 periods since we were founded and registered 150 campus chapters of our organization around the U.S. and abroad.
Why do you focus on periods?
My passion comes from a personal place. My family experienced living without a home when I was a freshman and sophomore in high school. I was on scholarship at an exclusive private school, and me and my family were living with friends. I was lying to my classmates about my situation and I didn’t have an answer on forms asking for my permanent address.
During that time, I had a really long commute to school and I would see homeless women at the bus stops. We’d get to talking. They were in worse living situations than I was. And I found out they were using toilet paper, socks, paper bags, even cardboard, during their periods. It ignited something in me. It was a privilege check for me, and it came at a time when I was really desperate to feel like I had a voice and had something to offer.
At that time in my life, I was in an abusive relationship where I experienced sexual and physical assault. It made me question my self worth. I was struggling with anxiety and depression and self-harm. I really mean it when I can say founding PERIOD was a lifesaver for me. I needed to feel that I was making the world a better place in that moment.
What do you want people to know about periods?
I wish that people knew that it’s natural and normal to have a period. Also: menstrual hygiene access is a right, not a privilege. Women deserve to feel clean and capable on their periods.
So many humans experience it on a monthly basis, but even with that prevalence, when people hear about periods, they think, that’s gross. But in reality, human life exists because we have periods.
In 2017, we changed our name to PERIOD. The reason we changed it is to help mobilize young people to just talk openly about periods. To talk to their peers and their communities and just normalize the word. I think one of our jobs is just acknowledging that people menstruate, to bring it to people’s attention instead of treating it as taboo.
I also want people to know: Periods are still the leading cause of school absenteeism among teen girls in the United States. We’re in the 21st century and girls are missing school and dropping out of school around the world for this. And 37 states have a sales tax on menstrual products because they’re classified as a luxury item instead of necessity. Meanwhile, there’s no tax on Rogaine or Viagra.
What was it like to run for City Council at 19 years old?
I really wanted to show that young people can get involved in local politics and that we have good ideas. We deserve a seat at the table in a college town, and to have university representation. I thought there were perspectives that were missing: I’m a young person, a person of color, with a low income.
It was a crazy decision, and it was a big learning experience. There were so many people criticizing me, from the tone of my voice, to what I wear, to the proportion of my body parts. The only solution was to be unapologetically myself. I’m going to make people unhappy regardless of what I do, but to be productive I have to be myself and do what’s in my gut.
At the end of the day, [the campaign] made waves with student turnout. We doubled the turnout at MIT, and that was enough for me to celebrate.
How do you do all of this while being a full-time student?
My secret is that I love everything I do. I feel so grateful to be alive and to have the opportunity to share my mission. Everything I do I would be doing even if no one was paying and there was no recognition. It’s so rewarding and I’m having a lot of fun.
Of course, I also have to make a lot of sacrifices. I travel a lot for work and I don’t go out on weekends. I cut back on my social life more than most college students.
What are your goals for the coming year?
On a persona level, in 2018, I’m finishing my book, which is a manifesto for the menstrual movement for the younger generation. It’s meant to be a tangible tool for people to understand the stigma around periods, why we have it, and why we shouldn’t have it. It’s also about how young people can play a leading role as an activist around periods and make change toward period equity.
On an organizational level, we are planning two new full-time hires and opening offices in Boston and New York City. We’re also going to be getting more into policy stuff, like repealing the state-level sales tax on period products. This is work that matters and I’m going to stay with it.