Ugh–middle school! The awkward years, where insecurity and self-consciousness run head first into popularity, complicated by more difficult academics, and all mixed up with adolescence and puberty…and then there’s that movie–the one they make you watch with everyone else, the one about… you know…

Now imagine the courage and power it took for five Middlebrook students to stand up in front of their class last May, to announce the topic they’d chosen as their end-of-year Capstone project:  menstrual equity. 

One could bet there are some adults reading this now who don’t really know what the phrase ‘menstrual equity’ even means, let alone who may be uncomfortable even reading the words. It’s hardly a topic written about much in news media, let alone in the 8th grade.

But that’s just what those five 8th graders did, studying women’s health and hygiene–specifically women’s access to menstrual products–for their Capstone project. The Capstone assignment is to dig deep into researching a question from a multi-disciplinary perspective to gain deeper understanding of the topic.

Acknowledging how much of a stigma there is to even say the word ‘period’ in public, it was clear to the girls how the concept of discussing the inequity of how periods can impact a student’s access to education was something that has been hardly considered.

“I wanted to do something that I thought was really unique, and that I knew no one would think of. No one would really say, ‘menstrual equity’,” says Tiffany Ling, of the group’s initial choice to research the topic.

Group member Joy Ren agrees. “We made sure to choose a topic that was very near and dear to us. It was something personal, and something that no one talks about in the media. So it’s really important to take a topic like that and then create something out of it.”

That first time saying what they’d be focusing on in front of their peers was a little nerve-wracking.

“At first we were kind of all, like, nudging each other and getting each other like, ‘Oh, who’s going to say it? Who’s going to say it?’ So I ended up saying it and the room went dead silent. And then [our teacher] Mr. Bulenzi said, ‘Oh. Okay.’,” recalls Joy.

Part of the Capstone project is to do outreach to the wider community outside of school. They connected with an official at a shelter in Norwalk, got form letter responses from some elected officials, and also emailed Connecticut’s Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz.

Their teacher, Simon Bulenzi, warned them not to expect answers right away, if at all. “I told them, ‘You probably won’t get a response until like freshman year or over the summer.’ And we got a response I think the day after.”

Bringing the Menstrual Equity Topic to Hartford

Bysiewicz responded immediately, inviting Joy and Tiffany (who are both now 9th graders at Wilton High School) to Hartford to present their project to the Governor’s Council on Women and Girls–Health and Safety Subcommittee at the state capitol. 

“When you get that reply, it’s almost euphoric, because you think that all your work and collaborating with your group, it’s gone to that,” says Tiffany. “When we went to the legislative office building for the first time this summer, it was amazing because if we hadn’t done the capstone project, if we hadn’t reached out to her, we never would have been there and actually been able to make a change.”

Tiffany and Joy spoke to legislators and public health officials at an August subcommittee meeting, testifying about how the issue of access to feminine hygiene products can impact girls in schools all over Connecticut.

In her Hartford presentation Joy explained that ‘equity’ and ‘equality’ aren’t the same thing. While equality means giving everyone the same portion or opportunity, regardless of what their individual needs are, equity is providing everyone with their personal needs in order for everyone to succeed. 

At the heart of the problem, they explained, was the difficulty for some girls to access period products, and how that might impact their access to education and their health.

“No one talks about it. Girls are missing days of school and that should not be something they have to deal with. The fact that people can’t afford or they can’t get access to these period products, it shouldn’t be detrimental to their education,” says Joy, who made a convincing argument in her speech in front of the subcommittee:

“Women and girls without access to clean feminine hygiene products have no choice but to rely on what they already have in order to keep their clothes from being soiled. They might have to use a dirty rag or even reuse products, despite how contaminated and unclean they are. When women are exposed to these bacterias for a certain time period during their menstrual cycles, it may lead to vaginal infections and weakening of the immune system… without these products, young girls are missing out on education opportunities. … When girls are frequently missing out on school, their quality of education and performance are heavily affected. But more importantly, their futures are affected. Feminine hygiene products should not be considered a “luxury” only the “fortunate” can afford, but an essential necessity accessible to all.”

Not only did they present to the subcommittee but Tiffany and Joy got to participate too, and help craft state policy.

“The cool thing was we actually ended up voting on their target areas for a future woman’s rights [as part of] the next steps discussion. We generated more ideas and then we got to vote on new areas of focus for the subcommittee to work on,” explains Tiffany.

Afterward, they were invited to join a student coalition with teens from around CT advocating to pass legislation making free period products available in CT schools for grades 6-12, and to make menstrual equity part of the statewide health curriculum. Here in Wilton, the duo is working with school district administrators to get free-vend feminine hygiene product dispensers installed.

The Capstone project is something that all students at Middlebrook do in 8th grade. As the girls’ on-team advisor, Mr. Bulenzi, explains, the project opens up students’ minds to something they’ve never really explored before, to find out more about it and see how it impacts them and the people around them.

“It’s a really good opportunity for them to look for topics and issues that are in the world outside of their little comfort zone, something that they would never be able to do in English class or French class. So it’s opening their minds to what’s out there,” he says.

Middlebrook health teacher Jessica Zarnik was with the girls in Hartford when they presented. She’s thrilled that an area of public health she’s so passionate about–recognizing the different abilities of people to be able to access healthcare–was something that the students championed, and was even more thrilled to see how the adults took the girls seriously.

“For the kids, being able to have connections on a global, national and then down to a local level about human health disparities around the world is just priceless. And it helps us to open our eyes and our hearts to making connections to others. These young ladies taking on this project was absolutely amazing and very courageous and it’s just spectacular to be part of the day we were at the legislative building, you could hear a pin drop.”

Middlebrook principal Lauren Feltz says that the Capstone project channels what students have learned not just from 8th grade, but from all they’ve learned in their lives thus far.

“I think about how our mission statement is really for kids to be able to contribute to a rapidly changing world. The Capstone is really about kids proving to themselves that, in fact they have the power to do that. That they can follow a passion of their own makes it much more inspiring, and that they are required to collaborate with peers. There are a lot of facets to that process that makes it more meaningful than a casual observer might even realize,” says Feltz.

Clearly, that’s a lesson well learned in this case, as Joy explains:

“Ever since we were small, our teachers tell us, ‘You can do anything you put your mind to. If you keep on working towards your goals, you’ll be able to reach them.’ And I think that Capstone, if you really put your effort in, you can achieve anything you put your mind to.”

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