When Sarah “Mili” Milianta-Laffin, BA’06, was a political science student at IU, she interned at the Indiana Statehouse. More than a decade later—now a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) educator in Hawaii—she dusted off her legislative knowledge to help students advocate for a menstrual-equity bill.
Milianta-Laffin’s students, alongside local advocacy organizations, pushed for a measure ensuring all Hawaii public school students have access to free period products. After roughly four years and three legislative sessions, Senate Bill 2821 was signed by the governor in 2022.
“Kids … especially middle schoolers, they’re wired for social justice,” says Milianta-Laffin, who teaches at Ilima Intermediate School. “They want to take care of their friends.”
Nearly 25 percent of students nationwide struggle to afford period products, according to a 2021 “State of the Period” report by Thinx. Students of color, lower-income students, and rural-living students are disproportionately affected. Milianta-Laffin first learned about menstrual-equity issues while working at Middle Way House in Bloomington. Pads and tampons were always in short supply and rarely donated—just like at schools, she says.
When one of her students was bullied for bleeding through their pants during the school day, the student’s peers asked Milianta-Laffin how they could help. This led to a “menstruation station,” where students could acquire free hygiene products, often accompanied by an encouraging note. Messages said things like: “You’re amazing!” and “You’re doing great!”
“If my kids come into my class without a pencil, I give them a pencil so they can learn,” Milianta-Laffin says. “Period products really need to be viewed as the same thing. [Those products] allow a child to stay in school and learn.”
Milianta-Laffin is a faculty sponsor of her school’s Genders-Sexualities Alliance (GSA) club. Seeing the success of the menstruation station, her GSA students started to think bigger. They wanted every student in Hawaii to have access to the supplies they needed, so they aimed to pass what would eventually be Senate Bill 2821.
In 2019, Milianta-Laffin and her students worked with state Rep. Amy Perruso to write a bill for the 2020 session, but the bill died when the COVID-19 pandemic closed the legislature. In 2021, the group brought the bill back with state Sen. Laura Acasio, but it didn’t get a hearing in committee.
Finally, in June 2022, thanks in part to Ma’i Movement’s collection of local data about period poverty, the bill, introduced by state Sen. Michelle Kidani, was signed into law. By that time, 45 of Milianta-Laffin’s GSA students had contributed to the work.
The final bill appropriated about $2 million for the Department of Education to provide menstrual pads and tampons in Hawaii public schools.
“I have never been as proud as I was at that bill signing,” Milianta-Laffin says. “My job as a public school teacher was to get them into the spaces where they deserve to be already. We often tell kids to be small and [to] be seen and not heard. [I always told them]: ‘You’re going to take space because you’re a citizen of this state, and you deserve to.’”
Milianta-Laffin says she shies away from language indicating she “gave” her students a voice.
“They had the voice already. I just amplified their voice and got them into the space where it deserved to be heard,” she says. “We have to be careful with that, especially in education—that white savior narrative. These kids already understood what they were encountering, and they were already ready to fight back. They just needed the right people to listen.”
Since the passing of Senate Bill 2821, connections through the National Education Association have reached out about addressing period poverty in their schools in states including Nevada and Idaho, Milianta-Laffin shares.
And as for her students, they’re setting their sights on resolving a clean water issue. In 2021, a Navy fuel storage facility leak contaminated the water system serving many of their peers on Oahu.
“If you would’ve told me in 2006 [that] this is what I would be doing, I would’ve laughed at you,” Milianta-Laffin says. “This was not on the menu. But it’s been a beautiful ride [up to] this point.”