Content warning: This article discusses physical abuse and sexual assault.
Nadya Okamoto is a sophomore at Harvard, works full-time running two non-profits, recently wrapped up a City Council bid, and has two months to write her first book.
Okamoto was spread thin but filled with excitement on an afternoon in late November. Her chapter deadlines were competing with her schoolwork for her attention, and by noon she’d already made hours of phone calls for some her five jobs.
The 19-year-old made waves in Cambridge with her City Council attempt, receiving both hate mail and admiration from across the country. Her platform centered on giving young people a voice in a city brimming with college students.
In high school, Okamoto co-founded PERIOD, a nonprofit that provides period products to women in need. The organization has helped people with over 190,000 periods since its founding in late 2014, with over 120 campus chapters across the globe. Okamoto started a second nonprofit, E Pluribus, on the night of the 2016 presidential election to empower young people to get engaged in politics. She was just named one of Teen Vogue’s 21 Under 21.
Okamoto’s first book, which will be about the movement that PERIOD is pushing forward, is scheduled to be published by Simon & Schuster next fall.
Okamoto spoke to Scout about her life up to Harvard, her experience running for City Council, and her upcoming book.
Scout: Tell us about why and how you started PERIOD.
Okamoto: I went through experiences when I was around the age of 16 where I was starting to realize I was being abused by my dad and also stuck in a really abusive relationship where I was sexually assaulted and physically assaulted regularly. It was an experience where I didn’t feel like I had very much of a voice, and it was a time where I always felt like I had something to say but not the power to say it. It took me a while to heal from that, but what helped me heal was that a few months after I got out of that I started PERIOD, and I really think of that as a lifesaver.
I grew up in a family where we talked about bodies very regularly. My mom taught me what sex was before anyone else in my grade knew what it was, in like kindergarten. And I remember getting sent to the the principal’s office for educating my friends on what sex and bodies were.
Periods were always an open topic for me, but at the same time I never really thought about what it would be like to have your period if you didn’t have period products. That’s a big privilege check for me and a big privilege check for a lot of people.
Spring in my freshman year of high school, my mom parted ways with her job and we entered what I call our time of transition, which was several months of couch surfing with our closest friends, and it was during that time that we were legally homeless. I started interacting with homeless women I would regularly see who were in much worse living situations than I was, and then also talking to them while volunteering at a local homeless shelter. I would write down their stories in my journal, and I remember I opened my journal and read through all of them and realized that almost all of the stories I’d collected were stories about periods—homeless women women using toilet paper, socks, brown paper grocery bags, and even cardboard.
Scout: What led up to you deciding to run for City Council?
Okamoto: I had no intention of running, at all. It really started with caring about this city. You can see the gentrification happening if you walk like a mile [from Harvard], you see the faces of the people are suddenly a different color and all of a sudden the houses all look different, the amount of parks, the quality of the streets. I started going to meetings, just because I was interested.
I downloaded every publicly accessible report I could find on income inequality, affordable housing, Envision Cambridge, the demographic information. I actually started meeting with a few city councilors and it sort of became “Oh, if you have so many ideas why don’t you run yourself?” because I had made this 80-page Word document of the different policy ideas I had or what I thought City Council could be doing better. Nadeem Mazen, one of the councilors, actually sat me down and he was like, “What’s holding you back?” And I realized my only answer was “I’m 19.”
I was getting hate messages nationally for being an Asian candidate and a young candidate, but also support nationally for being Asian and young. One of the biggest takeaways, on a personal level, was actually being proud of being Asian. I was getting death threats for being the start of some sort of “Asian invasion,” and it was like a whole new level of “Oh my gosh, running is a small part of this larger movement for young people of color in politics.”
Scout: How did you get to the point of having a book deal? Tell us about that journey.
Okamoto: I signed with my literary agent. I originally got signed to write a memoir about the first 18 years of my life, kind of about healing from adversity and youth activism, but it was actually kind of crazy because while I started writing that book I just didn’t feel very right about it, I didn’t feel ready. So we ended up transitioning the book to what I love to talk about—periods. The period book is now like a manifesto for the menstrual movement. I was really inspired to write it after The Redstockings Manifesto of the 1960s second-wave feminism.
Scout: Do you ever see yourself running for office again?
Okamoto: I don’t know. I really want to hold myself to not being a career politician. It’s hard, because it is a really cool career to aspire to, but I’m really trying to hold myself to I’m going to do it for the right reasons, I’m going to run not because I want to be a politician, I’m going to run because I wholeheartedly believe in the issues and the cause and the solutions and think I can offer something unique.
The reason I felt so at peace with the election results was I had accomplished what I really wanted to. We skyrocketed student turnout numbers, we showed people that a young person can run—nationally—and we brought a really progressive platform to the stage.