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Period poverty, or the inability to afford basic menstrual products, is an issue affecting many menstruators in the United States — including college students. And college students are also helping to combat it.

Take Lena Vann, a 21-year-old senior at North Carolina A&T State University who has made it her mission to make menstrual products accessible for marginalized communities. She founded the Black Period Project in 2019 in hopes of creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for Black menstruators — starting with education and empowerment.

The project was influenced by Vann’s realization that period poverty was an issue affecting her peers, she said. Growing up in Fayetteville, N.C., Vann attended a Title 1, or low-income, school. That experience in particular fueled her understanding of the importance of organizations such as hers for young people in low-income areas, she said.

“Seeing what my peers were going through and what I was going through, once I got to college, I think that’s when poverty kind of shook me a little bit, how diverse it is in the sense that it’s not always about whether or not you can afford it. It’s also about is it accessible as well,” Vann said. In its two years of existence, the Black Period Project has provided hygiene kits for youth centers, schools and homeless shelters, and it is working toward creating school curriculums that highlight bodily autonomy and sex-positive education, Vann said.

In recent years, more people in the United States have become aware of the concept of menstrual justice — the belief that stigma around periods is harmful to those who menstruate. For Vann and other Black advocates, the issue is compounded for Black menstruators — existing at the intersection of racism, sexism and poverty. They said they believe that carving out spaces specifically for Black menstruators is crucial to bridging the gap.

That is especially true, Vann said, because menstruation within the Black community is typically surrounded by stigma and silence. She said she believes inclusivity is a key component to eliminating such stigma around periods and period products.

“Historically, Black women’s self-esteem was associated with the cleanliness of our physical appearance. And, well, blood is not clean. So the injustices that we face today kind of compounds that taboo that we see in the Black community,” Vann said.

Combined with poverty, this issue can end up becoming a burden on Black menstruators — in both physical and mental ways.

A study published earlier this year from George Mason University’s College of Health and Human Services found that 1 in 10 college students experience period poverty every month. This lack of access has important implications, according to the study: It can put people at greater risk of depression, anxiety and further financial barriers.

The study also found that Black women and Latinas reported the highest levels of period poverty.

“Period poverty is still commonly thought of something that only impacts women in low- and middle-income countries or women who are not housed. But it was also important to look at it in colleges’ populations because we know that food insecurity impacts college-aged populations and period poverty is also a very basic need,” said Jhumka Gupta, an associate professor at George Mason University and senior author of the study.

It is already well-documented that the stress induced by experiencing poverty can negatively impact a person’s ability to focus and participate in work, school and society, and period poverty is another aspect of that, Gupta’s research found. The effects of this lack of access are far-reaching and include emotional stress: Being unable to manage one’s period can contribute to higher levels of anxiety and depression.

Although the data in Gupta’s study was collected before the coronavirus pandemic, Gupta said she believes that the pandemic has only worsened the effects of period poverty because of exacerbated health inequities.

“The pandemic disproportionately impacted Brown and Black communities, and based on our study, it was those same communities that also reported higher levels of poverty,” Gupta said.

To continue serving the community during the coronavirus pandemic, Vann said, the Black Period Project had to get creative, including handing out menstrual products at North Carolina schools along with free lunches. The pairing was doubly effective, Vann said, because food insecurity and period poverty often go hand in hand.

“If I have to drive 15 minutes to Walmart to get groceries, then I also have to drive 15 minutes to go to Walmart to get period products,” she said. “Menstrual equity in the Black community would mean being able to have these resources readily available.”

Other organizers are similarly seeking to address systemic racism in the menstrual health space by amplifying the voices and experiences of Black menstruators. Take Lynette Medley, founder of the advocacy organization No More Secrets, who said that to combat period poverty, the Black community needs to be having more conversations about periods. Her organization is similar to Vann’s in that both are raising awareness around period disparities, as well as providing resources.

“We need to have a holistic approach to dealing with insecurities; giving a product is only one part of it,” said Medley, who opened the SPOT Period Menstrual Hub in Philadelphia. The center is the United States’ first menstrual hub, and it provides support, products and information and offers appointments that can be requested via an online form.

Along with providing weekly deliveries of menstrual products to those in need, SPOT also provides a physical space with offices, a computer room, storage space for menstrual supplies and a “Breonna Taylor” Safe Room.

Both Medley and Vann said they feel that their personal experiences have driven them to continue working in their communities and creating safe spaces for those in need to express their concerns and ask for help. “I think because it’s been my lived experience, my community talks to me a little differently,” Medley said.

Others are taking note. Vann recently won Victoria Secret’s Pink With Purpose competition, and she said she hopes to be able to expand the Black Period Project across North Carolina. One way she is planning to do so eventually is by stocking a vehicle with products and traveling around, she said.

Ultimately, Vann said, she wants all menstruators to feel empowered and confident in themselves. Periods aren’t “gross,” she said. “They’re not weird. I think the more that we as a community normalize the discussion around periods, that the sooner we can erase the stigma and raise awareness for poverty.”

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