Meet the 21-year-old activist leading the fight against period poverty

At just 21 years old, Nadya Okamoto is leading the fight against period poverty and ending stigmas surrounding menstruation. 

When she was 16 years old, Okamoto founded her nonprofit PERIOD. While the then-teenager was in high school, her mom had lost her job and her family had had to move two hours away from where her school was. During her long commutes, Okamoto would meet and talk with homeless women who were in worse situations than she was.

Okamoto noticed that the conversations would repeatedly circle back to hygiene. The women had to come up with creative ways to deal with their periods and that's when Okamoto realized she could help.

"Unlike most poverty-related issues, it is solvable," Okamoto told In The Know.

She started out small and organized a group to pass out tampons and sanitary pads in downtown Portland. The reactions were emotional — some of the women hadn't had access to period products in years, Okamoto said.

"We were onto something that was much bigger than we could have anticipated," she said. "Within a few months, we were registering chapters nationally and then globally by the end of our first year."

According to their site, PERIOD is present on over 600 college campuses and has addressed over 850,000 periods through product distribution. 

But the movement was not simply passing out products to women who needed it. Okamoto recognized that it was not sustainable to make a long-term impact this way — these same women would need new products every month. That's when Okamoto and the rest of her team decided to take on Washington, D.C.

"Slowly but surely we started mobilizing our chapters all around the country to explore policy change," said Okamoto. "We've passed about 12 pieces of legislation in the last three months, and we just took down the tampon tax in Ohio."

The tampon tax — also referred to as the pink tax or period tax — refers to the sales tax people have to pay for various period products. Ten states prior to Ohio have ended the tax: Minnesota, Illinois, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Nevada. Oregon, Montana, Alaska, Delaware and New Hampshire don't have a general sales tax, so menstrual products are not taxed in those states either. 

"It was this realization to me that my voice meant something," Okamoto said. "I am addicted to this impact, activist work because I think it has helped me heal in so many ways. It helped find my voice. And I think because of that, I love what I do."

Watch the full episode of In The Know: Next Gen to learn more about Nadya Okamoto, the amazing work she's done so far and what she plans to take on next.

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