"A basic human right": Ypsi organizations work to expand free access to menstrual products

The Ypsilanti District Library and Eastern Michigan University have both begun offering menstrual products in and around public bathrooms.
Until November 2021, the state of Michigan had imposed its 6% sales tax on menstrual products such as tampons and panty liners, creating an additional financial barrier to the essential items. Although Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a two-bill package which eliminated the tax on those items, accessibility to menstrual products continues to be a challenge for many.

In order to address that challenge as well as to educate, some Ypsilanti organizations have recently begun offering free menstrual products in all restrooms for individuals to take regardless of gender. One such initiative is at the Ypsilanti District Library (YDL), where all bathrooms are stocked monthly with period products for patrons to use. 

YDL Superior Branch Manager Mary Garboden says the pilot program comes as part of a partnership with The Dot, a University of Michigan student organization-turned-nonprofit. The Dot focuses on reducing stigma around menstruation and making menstruation products more accessible across Washtenaw County.

"We know that menstrual supplies are really expensive. Some people are in the position where they can't afford supplies, or [they] use them for longer than is healthy to do so," Garboden says. "We want our patrons to have access to these important resources and we're glad to provide a space that can facilitate that."
YDL Superior Branch Manager Mary Garboden.
The pilot began with a six-month trial at YDL's Michigan Avenue branch, and later expanded to YDL's Superior location due to positive feedback. Garboden sees this pilot program as an extension of some of the other free services and supplies the library provides its patrons, such as free COVID-19 test kits and KN95 masks.

"We try to offer all kinds of resources to our community," she says. "We can help with the normalization of menstruation, and this is a health measure we can take as well."

Garboden explains that having menstrual products available in all of the library's restrooms has provided an educational opportunity for library staff as well. Not only does the library provide response cards for patrons to fill out and answer questions such as how they feel about the presence of these products and how the program can be improved, but individuals have also approached library staff directly to ask questions on why products are available.

"I remember being a young person and I was terrified of buying menstrual supplies," Garboden says. "We want to help break down that stigmatization a bit so that young people don't experience that today."
A free menstrual product display at the YDL Superior Branch.
Members of The Dot approached YDL as part of an ongoing initiative to push their services into the greater Washtenaw County area after a few major wins for menstrual product accessibility in Ann Arbor. In 2021, Ann Arbor became the first U.S. city to require menstrual products in all public restrooms. And last year the University of Michigan (U-M) required free menstrual products to be available in "all academic and student-facing buildings on the Ann Arbor campus," including on-campus residence halls. Josh Kennedy, outreach director for The Dot, says he and other members of The Dot saw an opportunity in YDL, which he describes as The Dot's "cornerstone" in Ypsi.

The Dot also offered a product subscription service, where individuals could request up to 25 pads or tampons per month through The Dot's website. Products were available for pickup at the Michigan Avenue branch, which has since closed due to water damage. Kennedy says the group is currently working on solutions for recipients to pick up their products.

"We have the capacity for 30 subscribers, but we currently have one due to Michigan Avenue being closed," Kennedy says. "We want to keep our name out there while we figure out how to move that program forward."

YDL isn't the only place offering free period products in Ypsi. A major initiative at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) also is working to increase accessibility to menstrual products where and when they're needed. EMU's Changing the Cycle program has installed product dispensers in and around bathrooms in 37 buildings across campus, including all academic buildings as well as Rynearson Stadium.
Changing the Cycle Program Manager Jesse John.
Changing the Cycle Program Manager Jesse John says Changing the Cycle's primary goal is to "end period poverty," which the organization's website defines as "a lack of access to period products attributed to a lack of financial means, lack of transportation, and stigma."

"Not having access to the products you need can really impact your mental health," John says. "That's a big focus here. We want to instantly meet needs."

Changing the Cycle began as part of EMU's Swoop's Food Pantry and is now housed under EMU's Women's Resource Center. However, John says Changing the Cycle's work with Swoop's is ongoing. The organization will direct those needing an ongoing monthly supply of products to the food pantry. When Changing the Cycle began a pilot program providing menstrual products across campus in 2021, EMU's student government funded the purchase of dispensers and products. Since then, campus administration has begun to allot funding to Changing the Cycle in order to keep the program going.

"This is definitely a huge team effort," John says. "I'm very grateful for all of the support."

John says there's been a good amount of support from students, faculty, and staff, but reception for the program has been a "mixed bag" overall. However, John says that provides more opportunities to educate and advocate.
The Dot President Maddie Cutler.
"The way I explain it to people who maybe are confused or aren't open-minded is that even if the men in the men's room don't need products, they could have people in their lives that would," John says, also citing EMU's diverse student population as a reason for products being available in or nearby every bathroom. "It's important that they have access, if not for themselves but for the people around them."

John hopes to see EMU follow in U-M's footsteps and require menstrual products across campus. Changing the Cycle is beginning to explore ways to get dispensers into residence halls as well. 

"Outside of the physical material, we want students to have emotional support," John says. "It's really important that we talk about the stigma because nothing good will come out of being hush-hush about something that so many people deal with in their everyday lives."

Both Changing the Cycle and The Dot's efforts are made possible through community partnerships and donations. You can find donation information and other ways to support the organizations on their websites.

"This is a basic human right," John says. "Eventually, I'd like to work myself out of a job and have these products available no matter what."

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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