Harvard student hopes to empower youth through political leadership


At 19 years old, Nadya Okamoto has already founded an international organization that supports women’s menstruation health and a nonpartisan civic engagement platform for youth in the United States. A freshman at Harvard, she is interested in focusing on government and women and gender studies. Her latest foray is running for Cambridge City Council in Massachusetts.

Okamoto was born in New York to a Shin-Issei father from Fukuoka, Japan and a second-generation Taiwanese American mother. She and her two sisters moved to Portland, Ore. with their mother after her parents separated and spent a few months not living in a permanent home when her mother lost her job.

While she had described herself as “homeless” at the time, she said she has since stopped using that term since her circumstances were different from how most people might see as homelessness. While her family did not lose their apartment, they moved out during her freshman year of high school to sub-lease it and live off of that income.

It was during this time she met and interacted with other homeless women in much more dire situations and learned about how they used unsanitary methods to care for their menstrual health, inspiring her to start her nonprofit PERIOD, formerly Camions of Care, after she moved back into her home in 2014 as a high school sophomore.

“I was at a place in my life when I needed to feel empowered … ” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly in a phone interview. “I was in a really abusive relationship with someone who was older than me. I was sexually assaulted for the first time. I was struggling with self-harm and depression, and I just felt not very confident in the potential I had in my voice.”

PERIOD, she said, has since become one of the largest youth-run nonprofits in the world, having served some 80,000 periods for women. It now has more than 60 registered high school and college campus chapters. Okamoto, however, said serving products to women in need is only a stop-gap measure.

“Working in a nonprofit space, you realize that the only thing that can lead to a systemic effect and an efficient change is by writing it in policy,” she said. “I can distribute as many products as I want, but at the end of the day, if there’s still a sales tax on menstrual products in 37 states in the U.S. and if food stamps do not cover menstrual products, then I am making no long lasting difference.”

Similarly, Okamoto felt she needed to make a systemic difference for the city of Cambridge, where she now lives and attends school. “I fell in love with Cambridge. My godparents are here, so I’ve been in and out of the city since I was a very young age. In the fall, I became obsessed with income inequality here,” she said.

According to the Boston Globe, the median price for a single-family home in Cambridge was $1.675 million in the first four months of 2016, while the city reports that more than 45 percent of the city’s public school students in the 2013 school year received reduced or free school lunches. “Things like that aggravated and activated me to think about solutions,” she said.

When Okamoto complained to a friend about how the city could be doing better, she was asked why she was not running for office herself. Okamoto’s only reason why she hadn’t considered running was because she was “too young,” which she found hypocritical, given she had been advocating for youth to take political action herself. Since the November 2016 election, Okamoto co-founded E Pluribus, a “post-partisan media platform” for youth to discuss political thought and translate it to action. Each article on her organization’s site discusses a political issue and links to an organization working to address it so readers can find out more or take further action.

As an Asian American, Okamoto said her race influenced her understanding of white privilege and history, but deciding to run for office has led her to be especially aware of her racial identity. Her campaign staff, made up of her friends, are “all, unintentionally, people of color.”

“I have a very strong interest in empowering people of color,” she said. “Especially in this time with our current presidential administration.”

While she is running a campaign and attending school, Okamoto said she works multiple jobs to support herself while attending college. Aside from running PERIOD and volunteering to run E Pluribus, she said she previously worked as a research assistant at her school’s musicology department, and currently works as a ghostwriter, as well as at a yoga studio and occasionally travels as a speaker. She is also working on a memoir.

“These are the ones that I am paid for consistently,” she said. “The projects that I am working on that are volunteer are E Pluribus and my book.”

Okamoto said part of her drive to work so hard comes from her mother, a Harvard and Columbia Law School graduate. “My mom is the reason education was held at such a high value in my family,” she said. “She always worked and sacrificed to make sure we had access to education regardless of what challenges my family was facing.”

She recognizes that her mother has afforded her the privilege of higher education, and Okamoto said she intends to give to her community by doing what she can now.

“I really do believe that my way of reconciling the privilege that I have — and going to Harvard is one of the biggest privileges anyone can have or having a college education in general — … is by giving back now,” she said.

Okamoto is currently among 19 candidates vying for nine seats in the city council. If elected on Nov. 7, she would be the second Asian American elected city councillor in the city’s history, following current councillor Leland Chung, the city’s historical commission said.

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