If you want to buy shampoo, toothpaste or deodorant in the United States, there’s no sales tax. Not so for menstrual products. In 37 of 50 states they have what’s known as the tampon tax. “This blew my mind,” says bubbly 14-year-old WE Schools Chicago Youth Council member Maggie Swanson. “Why should there be a tax on something that’s a necessity to half the population?”
This got Maggie researching the issue further, and the more layers she peeled back the more she realized its importance. Still, she admits her new passion caught some people off-guard.
“People are kind of thrown off, until you explain the problem of access,” she says.
She learned that access to menstrual products is uneven around the world and that, in many developing communities, girls and young women miss days of school every month, forced to stay home for want of pads or tampons.
Feminine hygiene products are also among the most requested but least-donated objects at homeless shelters in Chicago and across the U.S. The choice for some is between eating or buying menstrual products, so many women are forced to rely on old socks, rags or clothes.
“The more I researched, the more I learned. I thought, ‘This is a huge deal,’” she says.
So, she took the issue to the Youth Council, and got help with ideas for her new project, determined to collect products to donate to Chicago-area shelters. The other members of the council were eager to help, but feminine hygiene products aren’t like books or tins of food. “There’s a taboo around this topic, still today. You can’t just set up a bin for donations at school or at a grocery store,” says Maggie. “It was a roadblock.”
To overcome this hurdle, Maggie had to do what so few others were willing to do: she had to talk openly about menstrual products. Not an easy task or topic for any teen. But that’s where the Youth Council was able to help.
The council was set up by WE to help young people with projects they are passionate about, and to give them the tools they need to make a difference. It operates under the WE mantra: Gift + Issue = Change.
“Maggie’s gift is advocacy,” says Reggie Bates, a WE outreach speaker and mentor to the council. “She’s an awesome speaker for her age.”
Reggie and the rest of the council encouraged Maggie’s existing skills and passion, and helped her shape a campaign called Plenti-FEM. Together they created a list of possible donors, reached out to local shelters to gauge the need, assisted with research and helped Maggie practise her public speaking.
Those skills came in handy when Maggie, along with other members of the Youth Council, were invited to share their projects to a room full of WE friends and donors. In a conference room in downtown Chicago, Maggie put her months of research and planning to use, telling business leaders and philanthropists about the hidden crisis of access to feminine hygiene products.
Before the night was over, an executive from Walgreens committed to donating to Maggie’s cause. A few weeks later, Maggie got a text with a picture of the boxes waiting to be picked up from WE’s Chicago offices. She had expected two or three boxes that she could carry home after school. There were 20 boxes, with more than 13,000 tampons and pads in all.
Those menstrual products—which have since found their way to Sarah’s Circle, a Chicago-area shelter—are proof for Maggie that the first step to creating change is raising awareness. That awareness started with WE and led Maggie to develop new skillsets.
“WE opened my eyes to a lot of different issues in my community and globally,” she says. “It’s changed me in so many ways. I’ve gotten better at public speaking and I feel like I can make a difference.”
Jesse Mintz is a lifelong learner and believer in the power of stories to educate and inspire. He knows everyone has an interesting story—it’s just a matter of asking the right questions.