By Kelley Bruss, Furman University
It started out as homework. But sometimes an idea demands more than a grade. This one called for action.
Thanks to changemakers at Sullivan Foundation partner school Furman University, Periods2Progress will provide free, organic period products in more than 50 bathrooms across campus beginning this summer.
“It’s about time,” said Olivia Glad, a post-baccalaureate fellow for the women’s, gender and sexuality studies program at Furman.
The project came to life through extensive collaboration: academics, facilities, an internship, a fellowship, grants and budgets. Morgan Abell, a Furman senior who partnered with Glad on the project, said it would have been easy for the different entities to be unaware of the ways their ideas and funding might align. “At Furman, we made that connection,” she said.
The initial concept was drafted by some of Savita Nair’s students. Nair is a professor of history and Asian studies and director of women’s, gender and sexuality studies.
Nair’s Issues in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies class ends with an advocacy project in which groups of students develop ideas, usually campus-based, and write hypothetical implementation plans. In 2016, one of those projects explored providing free period products on campus. The supplies are costly on their own and taxed like luxuries, Nair said, when, in fact, they’re medical necessities.
“There are students for whom it is prohibitively expensive,” she said.
Nair received approval for a post-baccalaureate fellow in the WGSS program and hired Glad. When they began to brainstorm ways to serve students’ needs, work toward equity and grow visibility for the program, Nair remembered that class assignment from several years back.
Glad loved it. She wrote a grant application and submitted it to Furman’s diversity, equity and inclusion office. The $900 grant would serve as seed money but wasn’t enough to sustain long-term change.
But the facilities department was ready to join the effort. Custodial manager Jim Benes knew it was a great idea when he first talked with Nair. With the support of Rick Schosky, director of facility services, he agreed to put the ongoing costs into his budget.
Furman is “a family,” Benes said. “And once we put our mind to something, we agree on it. We just get it done.”
Through an alumni connection, Benes knew of a Boston-based company, TOP The Organic Project, and suggested they might make a good partner. TOP supplies eco-friendly, organic cotton period products with plant-based applicators.
Abell connected with Nair and Glad last winter and interned with TOP during the spring semester. In addition to her work as a research and data analyst for TOP, she helped coordinate Periods2Progress.
The Shi Institute for Sustainable Communities co-sponsored the Earth Day launch and provided reusable menstrual cups for distribution alongside TOP’s sample packs of tampons and pads.
Admittedly, “period products” wasn’t a great opening line at the table outside the library. “We got them in with, ‘You want free stickers? You want free pins?’” Glad said, laughing.
But there was genuine interest once they got beyond freebies and into conversation. Abell was especially surprised by how many students took a menstrual cup. They had heard of them but had been hesitant to invest without knowing how they’d work.
The launch also included a display of the dispensers, which were donated by TOP. They are going into every female and gender-neutral bathroom in academic buildings and the dining hall.
Periods2Progress will probably mostly help those who are caught off guard by a period or who forgot to throw products in their bags in the morning. But Abell said she hopes it won’t be long before someone goes further, “getting to the issue of period product insecurity.”
She would love to see free packs available for students to pick up as needed.
Glad is finishing her fellowship this spring and a new fellow, Riley Hughes, will come on board for 2022-23. But Glad hopes Periods2Progress is just the beginning. She wants more visibility for issues related to women’s health.
“I just hope this is something people will continue to see the value in,” she said.
This article has been slightly edited from the original version appearing on the Furman University website.