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Episode 015: Fighting Period Poverty in Grand Rapids, Michigan with Christine Mwangi

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Christine Mwangi is a social change agent, global citizen and founder of Be A Rose, Inc.: a nonprofit tackling period poverty in Grand Rapids, MI. Be A Rose, Inc is on a mission to connect local women and girls with sustainable period products (including those made by DfG!) and health education at zero cost – through partnerships with local orgs, schools and more. They distribute around 60,000 pads per year, including 1,000-2,000 each month to underserved menstruators via food banks.

In this episode, Christine shares the joys and challenges of leaving the business world to tackle period poverty; what inspired her to fight for menstrual equity in Grand Rapids; the inspiration and impact of Be A Rose; and so much more!

Highlights:

  • What inspired Christine to leave her pharmacist career to start her nonprofit, Be A Rose, Inc.
  • Challenges faced by menstruators in Grand Rapids, MI, and what Be A Rose is Christine’s team is doing to address them
  • What it means to “be a Rose” – the inspiration behind the namesake
  • How Christine found the confidence, savvy and motivation to strike out on her own to help change the world
  • The importance of prioritizing eco-friendly menstrual solutions where possible, and why Be A Rose decided to “go green” this year by promoting environmentally conscious products

Connect:

Website: www.bearose.org

Instagram/Facebook: @bearosetoday

Bio:

Christine Mwangi is a change agent and global citizen who has utilized her entrepreneurial background to establish Be A Rose, Inc., a charitable organization helping educate hundreds of marginalized women on critical health matters. A global citizen who has lived, worked, and been educated in Africa, Europe and North America, she has a bachelor’s degree from Towson University and master of pharmacy from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.

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Transcript:

Jessica Wiliams 0:02
Welcome to the Days for Girls Podcast, a show about breaking barriers for women and girls around the world. I’m your host, Jessica Williams, Chief Communications Officer at Days for Girls International. At Days for Girls, we believe in a world where periods are never a problem. We are on a mission to shatter the stigma and limitations associated with menstruation by increasing access to sustainable period products and menstrual health education for all people with periods.

Today’s episode is with Christine Mwangi, a change agent and global citizen who has utilized her entrepreneurial background to establish Be A Rose Incorporated: a charitable organization helping to educate hundreds of marginalized women on critical health matters, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Christine is a global citizen who has lived, worked and been educated in Africa, Europe and North America. She has a bachelor’s degree from Towson University and a Master’s of Pharmacy from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. I just really enjoyed this conversation. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Now, let’s go on to the show. Christine, welcome to the Days for Girls Podcast. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

Christine Mwangi 1:19
Thank you so much for having me.

Jessica Williams 1:21
Well Christine, you’re doing some pretty incredible work. And I’m excited to have this conversation. You founded, Be A Rose, which is a 501(c)3 nonprofit and your singular purpose is to empower women. Can you tell us more about your mission at this organization?

Christine Mwangi 1:40
Yeah, absolutely. So Be A Rose was founded in response to my, I guess, a reawakening of the global issue of period poverty. I was not aware that this was such a pervasive issue, I was not aware that it not only affects people in developing countries, but also in western countries such as the US. And so I was very just overwhelmed with how devastating it can be, especially to people and girls who can’t afford this and who sometimes have to miss school, or suffer trauma as it pertains to how the management menstration due to lack of access to products. So yeah, I was just very touched and decided, hey, you know, let me look into ways that I can help alleviate this issue. And that’s what led me to starting a nonprofit organization that does this work.

Jessica Wiliams 2:43
Awesome. So tell us about your day job. What is it you do outside of this work? And and I guess, how does that relate to how you arrived at founding this organization?

Christine Mwangi 2:57
Absolutely. So I have a very unconventional, professional journey. I trained as a pharmacist. And at the time, when I learned about period poverty, I had just qualified as a pharmacist. And I essentially gave up my entire pharmaceutical career to go into the nonprofit world to start this nonprofit. And so as it goes, when you start a new nonprofit, you don’t always earn a wage from that work. So I had to develop my skill set and adapted into the nonprofit industry in order to make a living for myself. And so I have moved up and developed myself as a nonprofit leader, and fund development specialist. I currently work as the director of fund development for the [inaudible] district library. But I have always run bureaus on this side. And so along the way, I also did some work in social justice, social and racial justice, and just found a lot of intersections between social justice and period poverty, essentially, because period poverty is the topic usually under the umbrella of health equity. And so we’re looking at inclusion, inclusion and accessibility, which are big arms of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work. We find that period poverty is a really, really big topic under health equity, and it has been very rewarding to try and find solutions that are sustainable to address the issue.

Jessica Williams 4:39
Absolutely. So take me take me back to that time when you first discovered period poverty and you said you had kind of a reawakening. I know what you mean by that because I too, didn’t know this was an issue until I came on board at Days for Girls and I was kind of like, how did this miss my radar for 40 years, you know? And so I we’d love to hear your story of how this came to light for you.

Christine Mwangi 5:04
Yeah, I am a first generation immigrant. And so I am originally from Kenya. And even back home in Kenya, I, you know, was born in a middle upper class family. And so in my family, my nuclear family, I wouldn’t have experienced period poverty. And so to be in the west for so long, and realize that it affects people, even where we had migrated, it was it was really touching, because it just goes to show that anybody can experience this. And by the way, when we talk of period poverty, it is essentially any time in a person’s life where they don’t have access or can afford traditional hygiene period products. And so they either make do with unconventional products, which are unsafe to their health, such as socks, paper, towels, toilet paper, newspaper, shoe, laces, pieces of cloth material. And so just thinking back to when I realized that people do experience that, whether it’s chronically or for short term time, short term periods, I just was very sad, but encouraged at the same time. I was sad, because I couldn’t think having to function be productive, go to work, go to school, or function outside of the home, while you have your period and can’t manage it.

And so, I also found it could be extremely devastating to parents who can’t afford those products for their children. So when I discussed it with my father, particularly, he told me, he remembered times when back when he was in grade school, that girls got teased if they had their period during school and didn’t have anything to use. And he hadn’t thought about it since then, until I brought it up in this context. And so, you know, he considered our family quite blessed that, you know, my sister, and I didn’t have to go through that. And our father did not have to go through that feeling of not being able to provide those products for us. So yeah, it was, it was a kind of full circle moment, even talking about it with somebody like my father, who is from a different generation. So yeah.

Jessica Wiliams 7:27
I get that. So it’s really interesting, because, you know, a lot of the work that Days for Girls does is with women and girls in underdeveloped countries, but a lot of people don’t realize that we’re very active in the United States. And one of the things I love about your work is that you are working locally in Grand Rapids. So can you talk about who was affected by period poverty in your community? And what are some of the solutions you’re taking to solve that problem?

Christine Mwangi 7:57
Yeah, absolutely. Um, we have found that there is a large, large community that is affected. And it’s been hard to pinpoint who is affected, because like I mentioned, anyone can be affected. The best we have been able to do as far as data is collect zip codes of where people travel to access the products we provide through our partner organizations. So what that allows us is the information to see how far are people traveling, not just to get period products, but to get free period products. And so there isn’t another organization solely dedicated to this work, as far as I know. And the closest one is in Lansing as far as West Michigan is concerned, in Lansing, named helping women period. And so there are certain – because when I started this work, and we were writing the content for even our websites, we were saying: hey, we’re here to help marginalized communities. And then, over the years since 2016, the definition of who is considered marginalized has changed so much. Even, you know, post COVID now, more people are experiencing period poverty for the first time in their life than ever before, just like other issues have has have spiked, such as homelessness and food insecurity and things like that.

And so a community that I found particularly that needed a lot of advocacy, and awareness driven work directed to their needs, are the LGBTQ community. Specifically, the fact that not everybody who identifies as female are the only ones exclusively having a period and all. Also, not everybody that identifies as female is having a period either. So even learning how to shift our language to be gender neutral, for both of those reasons, has identified, you know, sub community that I believe is very affected because they don’t have as much advocacy and awareness driven work that supports their identities. And so it’s a journey, Jessica. And yeah, the answer to that is actually, unfortunately, it’s complicated. Because when I think of who could use free period products, the average working woman could use free period products, and I’m encouraged to see other countries making these products, you know, free to all, not just if you meet this standard, if you are declared to be poor, if you’re living under this poverty line, if you are eligible for food stamps, if you are on Medicaid. Those are add additional barriers to the accessibility issue. And so you know, that we need we need essentially for these products to be free one day.

Jessica Wiliams 11:15
It’s a basic human right.

Christine Mwangi 11:18
Absolutely.

Jessica Wiliams 11:20
Yeah, it fascinates me actually, that now we are able to get free birth control through, you know, your insurance or, you know, through Planned Parenthood, but period products are still not free in the United States.

Christine Mwangi 11:36
I mean, since I started this work, the most forward moving mobility I’ve seen in this direction is these products being included as items one can purchase using their HSA and FSA funds. You know, previously, you couldn’t even do that. So, yeah.

Jessica Wiliams 11:58
Huh. So tell me about your grandmother, you say on your website that she inspired you. And she was your inspiration for the name of the organization. So can you talk about why you admire her so much?

Christine Mwangi 12:15
Yeah, absolutely. So my grandmother, Rose ,is my paternal grandmother. And when I was thinking about naming this organization, I asked myself, you know, what, essentially, do we want to accomplish with this organization, and the first idea that came to mind was that we are looking to empower and uplift women. And so I thought to myself, who has empowered and uplifted me the most, and I thought of my grandmother Rose, and I thought, okay, then what I want to do is to be a Rose to others. And so that is how the name was essentially coined. It’s funny, because the first time I went to visit her after I started the organization, I took her a T shirt, a Be A Rose t- shirt, and I wanted to surprise her and tell her that I named an organization after her. She absolutely did not care. She’s said that, I don’t care if you named it after me, or the lady that lives next door to me. As long as you’re helping people and you’re doing God’s work. I don’t – I could have cared less. Long as you named it after a good thing, and you’re helping people. And you’re doing God’s – and she didn’t even take the T shirt. She was like, I’m not wearing this. I wear blouses. That was like me. And so I had bought her a hand cream from like a duty free shop in one of the airports. And she was like, yeah, I’ll use the hand cream. But next time buy me a blouse, not a T shirt. So anyway, yeah.

Jessica Williams 13:54
Oh, that’s so sweet. And it’s so true. And so I’m curious. You know, a lot of people they feel inspired to go out in the world and make a difference. And I don’t know that everybody has the courage has the resources, the knowledge, the motivation, the drive to really work through the challenges that you encounter when you’re when you’re starting your own business, when you’re starting your own nonprofit. So I’m interested in what that was like for you. How did you? How did you get that momentum and drive to to really move forward and start your own nonprofit?

Christine Mwangi 14:38
Yeah, I think that’s an excellent question, Jessica. Because really, I think it depends on the journey somebody has traveled and what their lived experience is that can contribute a lot to somebodies confidence, resources and ability to pursue certain endeavors. So in my particular case, I come from a small business background, so we were raised in my father’s businesses. And so growing up, I remember as young as I would say, probably eight…my father’s office was a home office before all this social distancing and working from home was a thing. And I remember after hours, my sister would go and sit at his secretary’s desk and type him letters through the typewriter, and he’d let us sit there and type little things to him on the typewriter, but I’m really dating myself. So I think being raised in various businesses and my father educating us about how to run a business. It gave me a lot of confidence that I could start something from the grassroot, I could imagine something and started… not to say that there were no resources that were invested. My father was essentially my first donor, he helped with the funds required to file our 501(c)3. And yeah, he was actually my first donor, now that I remember, I was going through some accounting with a new accountant of ours, and she asked me about a certain deposit in our bank account, it was the first deposit. And, you know, she was asking if I could give details about that deposit. And I said, uh, that’s just my daddy’s money to start the nonprofit, I don’t know what else to tell you, I have no records, I don’t have a check. I don’t have, you know, a receipt. But you know, you do need some some capital to an extent. And as you grow, you can start to justify certain costs of the business.

And I think one thing I have found, that was interesting to me, but I don’t mind it is that coming from the for-profit to the nonprofit world, I was using certain buzz terms that are not usually associated with charity work, such as return on investment, such as profit and loss. Such as, you know, investors and all these things. But essentially, to me, I looked at it as a business, like anything you want to get out to more than you put in, if possible, because that, you know, defines a profit. And so if I could use as many of my skill sets to offset where we would normally hire somebody to do something, I was willing to do that. And so it takes a lot of time. But that’s not the only way that you can serve. There are so many other avenues that people can can use not just to be an you know, a founder of a nonprofit, you can serve on boards, you can serve on executive committees, you can serve on sub committees, you can volunteer, you can be an advisor, there are so many ways that one can contribute to a mission that is near and dear to them. You can be an ambassador who simply rallies people to donate and help fund the initiatives that that nonprofit is having. And so I think there are so so many ways, and in probably doing that, you get to meet a lot of mentors, and and learn a lot of shortcuts and easier ways to start a nonprofit. But certainly, I would look into some that already exists, see if you can serve because the last thing you also want to do is reinvent the wheel.

Jessica Williams 18:27
Absolutely. So tell me about the impact that you’ve made in Grand Rapids. Through your work, you know, you can look on your website, it’s obvious that you get donations and you give out free period products to people in your community. But can you tell me about the number of people that you’ve served, and some of the impact that you’ve been able to make in your community?

Christine Mwangi 18:55
Absolutely. So we have served a lot of people. I will start on a macro level and then get more in detail. So we currently have I think a little over 20 active community partner organizations. These are organizations that receive period products from us. Some regularly some not as regularly. It really depends on how they are receiving period products from other sources, be it their current donor base or just through other initiatives. We also support food pantries right now and we’re starting to mobilize product through little free libraries. And just even by way of raising awareness, we have impacted a lot of individual donors to bypass us as a nonprofit and go directly to places they know that these products are needed. So we are not able to to capture all the data of the extent of our impact. However, I will say that in every food pantry, we distribute to between 1000-2000 pads per month. For most of our partners, we distribute annually a minimum of 60,000 pads, which we get through our partnership with the Alliance for Period Supplies. And so those are just the ones that we can record.

Delivering to our partners, it’s not to say that our ability to raise awareness about period poverty has not resulted in greater distributions and people extending their help to organizations or individuals that need this help. We have also partnered with teachers, sometimes teachers reach out to us and say, hey, I really could use a supply of pads this year to support my students. And so that is another avenue of an area that we have also supported. So yeah, just to give an idea, and by the way, we we barely meet the need and demand for greater Grand Rapids, the need is so great. And we haven’t, we have never been able to keep up as far as the demand. So my hope is that we can expand our grant writing efforts to continue to expand, but I know based on the the distances that people are traveling, just to say they access to free period products that we are not meeting the need.

Jessica Williams 21:43
You know, my collague Gina mentioned that you were you had a theme this year around going green and honoring the environment. Would you be able to talk about that?

Christine Mwangi 21:52
Yes, absolutely. So in the past, we have, like I mentioned, have been distributing a lot of product that we know is not biodegradable, and we have also been packaging that product in ziploc bags that are not biodegradable. And so I just looked at the environmental impact that our mission was having in our community. And I thought to myself, you know, I wonder if there are some alternatives in the past as far as product is concerned, we have been huge ambassadors of the Diva Cup, we have an existing partnership with Diva Cup International. And we have partnered in the past as well with local seamstresses and with Days for Girls to procure cloth pads. And so I just thought to myself, how can we continue to promote reusable, eco-friendly and cost saving product, but also make sure that even if we are distributing disposable product, that we are at least distributing it in eco-friendly packaging. And so we have made intentional steps we have phased out or we are very close, we have probably one month of pad distribution away from phasing out our non biodegradable packaging, and being an exclusively bio degradable or eco conscious organization as it pertains to our packaging, and then continue to advocate for reusable product again. Period management is a sensitive issue. At the end of the day, we want people to use the products that they are most comfortable with, and that they have the most confidence in. And so it’s not always an easy sell to ask of somebody who, for example, has exclusively used pads to overnight switch to a menstrual cup. It’s a very, it can be a long journey for some and we extend a lot of grace with that. But our hope is through education, and through positive discussions around the benefits of some of these products, that we can inspire some people in our community to consider using eco- friendly, reusable products.

Jessica Wiliams 24:21
Wonderful. I’m so glad that you’re you’re moving in that direction. That’s really great. So if people want to get involved with your organization and support you and connect with you and learn more about your work, where can they find you?

Christine Mwangi 24:35
Yeah, and we have various ways in which people can contact us. Our most straightforward and most informative platform is our website and that is www.bearose.org. There you will find our story, our mission, you will see information about the members of our team, our board and most importantly, there is a button on every web page that says “take action.” And that will take you to our donor landing page, on which you will find various opportunities in which you can connect with our mission. You can do so by volunteering you can donate financially, you can even set up your donation to be a recurring donation. You can also use our Amazon wishlist to shop online for products that we need and you can also buy them wholesale from our wholesaler and that information is all detailed there. In addition, if you would prefer a more passive way to receive updates, you can follow us on social media on both Instagram and Facebook. Our handles are @bearosetoday. And you can also sign up for our newsletter, which is distributed every month. It gives mission updates on what we’ve been up to, it highlights a story of somebody local or international and how they are interfacing with an issue related to menstruation. We usually have an international global highlight on there. And most importantly, we have information on our blog. Our blog is very informative. It’s published monthly and always covers our relevant topic related to menstruation.

Wonderful. And we will put those links in the show notes for everyone to find. Thank you so much, Christine, for coming on the Days for Girls Podcast today. It’s been a pleasure to meet you.

Thank you so much for having me. Thank you to all your listeners. And I appreciate so much the mission of Days for Girls. And thanks so much for having us and featuring bureaus today.

Jessica Wiliams 26:44
Absolutely. And you keep keep up the great work. You’re doing some really powerful stuff and I’m glad you’re out there.

Christine Mwangi 26:50
Thank you so much. I don’t do it alone, so shout out to all the Be A Rose volunteers and our board of directors.

Jessica Wiliams 26:57
Awesome. Great. Thank you so much. The Days for Girls Podcast is produced by Days for Girls International. For shownotes and resources mentioned in this episode, visit daysforgirls.org/podcast. If you’d like to support the work we do on the show, leave a rating or a review wherever you listen, subscribe to the show, and share our episodes on social media with your friends. To learn more about Days for Girls, and to join our global movement, please visit daysforgirls.org. Thank you for listening. See you next time.

 

Jessica Williams
Jessica Williams is Chief Communications Officer of Days for Girls International. She is also the host of The Days for Girls Podcast. Jessica holds a Bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest University in Communications and a Master’s degree in Strategic Communications from The University of Oregon. She is also an adjunct instructor for the University of Portland’s Pamplin School of Business Nonprofit MBA program.