Nadya Okamoto, Founder of PERIOD
While struggling with homelessness as a teen, Nadya Okamoto discovered the biggest challenge of their living situations: "The unaddressed natural need of periods." That’s why Okamoto started PERIOD.org, a nonprofit that gives women access to the period products they need to feel confident and clean every menstruation cycle, no matter their income. Now, it’s the largest youth-run nonprofit in women’s health.
NADYA OKAMOTO: When I talked to other women about it, I was afraid to say the word period. Like, we would like look around nervously and be like, oh, let's talk about periods. I was born in New York City. My father was rather abusive to my mom, and my sisters, and I. My memories from childhood actually are taking my sisters and hiding under my mom's desk when my dad would get really mad. My first experience with other kids was always this very contentious, very much a leader, but not a great way. Looking back on it, I think a lot of it was because at home, my role in the house was the big sister who needed to protect my sisters. I think my mom really felt that enough is enough and she gave up basically, everything she had for sole custody of my sisters and I. My mom taught me so much about what it meant to be a strong woman with a voice. My commute to school turned from about 12 minutes to over two hours long. Where I would change buses was in an area where there were like, 10 homeless shelters and a two block radius. And I would regularly see these homeless women. In talking to them, I sort of found this fascination of hearing stories of hardship, because I think I was trying to distract myself from what my family was going through, but also, better understand it. And would literally ask them questions like, how they got there, and what do you find most challenging about your living situation. Hearing those stories of using toilet paper, and socks, and brown paper grocery bags, and cardboard to make makeshift pads and take care of their periods actually sparked me to just pick up the phone and call shelters. Even in this time when my family was legally homeless and trying to make ends meet, I never had to use trash to take care of my periods. It was very emotional, actually. Like, when I would hand them a pad or a tampon, you could see just like, weight lift off their shoulders, but also, they would open up to me even more. And it was through those conversations that I heard for the first time about growing up with abuse. I was coming to terms and realizing that I grew up with sex abuse and physical abuse with my dad, and I think I comprehended it as, I deserve this. I always get emotional talking about this. But I think generally being confused that my worth came from something beyond my body. Yeah. That was my first insight beyond my family experience that like, I had power in my voice. Even when I started this organization, I was scared to talk about periods publicly. My first step was just like, how can I practice this pitch, and try to push myself to talk about tampons and pads, and access to period products. So I started going into staff meetings of like any company who would take me from like, Jiffy Lube auto mechanic store, all the way to Fidelity Insurance. When I would say periods really upfront, especially talking to the auto mechanic crowd, they would drop their sandwiches in disgust. I can make them so uncomfortable by saying menstruation, and in five minutes, convince them to care about period poverty. I think the solution is rather simple. Just talk periods, right? And normalize the normal. And I think the only way we can achieve that is by changing culture. And that comes down to just telling the world that menstrual hygiene is not a luxury, it's a right. It comes from this fundamental belief that it is a human right to be able to reach your full potential regardless of a natural need, and what could be more natural than menstruation?