Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Girls show off their “first period packs” at a Morse School period party June 1. (Photo: Mpower.)

Erin Dullea noticed that conversations about menstruation in her daughter’s Cambridge elementary school were just as taboo as when she was in school.

Dullea wants to change that.

“We really haven’t come far in terms of helping support and change the narrative around periods,” said Dullea, who has four kids in Cambridge Public Schools. “There still tends to be a lack of education and preparation prior to menstruating age.”

Seventy percent of students say the school environment “makes them especially self-conscious of their periods” and 76 percent say there is a “negative association that periods are gross and unsanitary,” according to a 2021 report commissioned by Thinx, a seller of period underwear, and Period, a nonprofit.

Girls sign up with Mpower. at the Morse School period party. (Photo: Mpower.)

With this in mind, Dullea founded Mpower. (the name is stylized with a period) with Liz Stott in 2020. The Cambridge-based project aims to destigmatize periods by supporting and educating elementary-aged students on menstruation issues.

Mpower provides “first period packs” containing menstrual supplies, stickers, lollipops and chocolate to eight Cambridge public schools.

The packs, co-designed by students at the Baldwin School, are made for students who get their first period unexpectedly during the school day.

Dullea also hosts “period parties” where students create their own period packs, hear from a period empowerment speaker and learn about school resources.

Danielle Card-Howe, Mpower’s lead volunteer ambassador and a Cambridge health and wellness teacher, said parties serve as an “intervention” and “safe space.”

“Students feel that they can come and celebrate, learn and build community together,” Card-Howe said.

C.A. Webb, a Baldwin School parent, said her daughter’s period party took place on a Tuesday evening in the garden behind the elementary school. Students gathered inside a tent adorned with red decorations as pizza and cupcakes were served and music played.

“The thing that just really struck me is how light and joyful it all felt,” Webb said. “It was very much a party atmosphere.”

Change in tone

Speaking with other onlooking parents at the party, Webb said Mpower’s work is a “180 degree difference” from the way they “encountered the topic of menstruation.”

“All of the mothers were expressing so much gratitude that we’re raising our girls in such different times,” she said. Webb said her third-grade daughter carries her period pack in her backpack daily.

Webb said she hopes the period parties create more confidence among girls moving into puberty. “That dwelling in darkness and secrecy all too often ends up shrouded in shame and misinformation,” Webb said. “That’s not what we want when we’re talking about our children and their health and well-being.”

Dullea said ideally schools would supply students with free access to basic period products and organizations such as Mpower would provide additional materials, such as backup leggings.

“It makes all the sense in the world to me that schools would provide free period products,” Webb said. “I think the normalizing that can come from them just being around and available … is a really important counterbalance to the inequitable ways girls and women have been treated for so long.”

Other initiatives

Calls for schools to provide free sanitary hygiene products are not new.

In Cambridge, a 2016 initiative by students and former School Committee vice chair Manikka Bowman expanded access to period products in the district, and the Period Equity Bank, launched in 2021, provides menstrual products for Cambridge Public Schools students to take home.

Mass Now and a state Menstruation Coalition are advocating for passage of the I Am bill, which would provide menstrual products in schools statewide.

The I Am bill – inspired by a New York City law requiring schools, prisons and shelters to provide free period supplies – was heard in the Joint Committee of Public Health at the State House on June 6.

Sasha Goodfriend, executive director of Mass Now, said she believes the I Am bill would increase economic, health and education equity for students.

“We have the opportunity to set the record for the rest of the country in terms of what feminist policy can look like,” Goodfriend said.