Removing Stigmas, with Chelsea VonChaz
Episode 113: Removing Stigmas, with Chelsea VonChaz
When Chelsea VonChaz was walking the streets of Los Angeles, she saw a homeless (or “houseless” as she calls it) woman having her period with no proper menstrual hygiene products. The woman’s blood stained undergarments were a sign for Chelsea to take action, so she did some research and started a nonprofit, #HappyPeriod, that soon became a nationwide movement. In this episode, Chelsea talks about the stigma surrounding menstruation, lack of access to proper menstrual hygiene products among certain populations, and The Pink Tax. Tune in to hear all about how Chelsea works to remove stigmas and how she turned her passion and dedication into a movement affecting hundreds of thousands of women.
00:10 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate Podcast. This is your host, Kristy Wallace, with my co-host Maricella Herrera. Hi Maricella, how's it going today?
00:22 Maricella Herrera: Hi, Kristy, it's going great, it's going great.
00:25 KW: We're countdown to Ellevate Summit time, which is a very exciting time here at the Ellevate Network offices. It's one... We do over 800 events a year, so wherever you are, check it out, check out Ellevate. We are likely in your area. We do some great events every year, but this Action Summit is our hallmark event that we do in New York City, June 21st. Do not fret if you do not live in New York City, or will not be in town on the 21st, or maybe you have to work as many of us do, because it will be live streamed, and you can watch it from anywhere. So check out ellevatenetwork.com to learn more about signing up for the live stream. It's free to sign up but you should do it now. It'll help remind you of what's upcoming? And we've got lots of great insights and tidbits on that page, so check out the live stream for the Ellevate Action Summit where you will hear from Chelsea, who is our guest today.
01:23 MH: Yup. Chelsea VonChaz is a founder of Happy Period she'll be part of our advocacy panel the day of the summit with other really great people who are creating change around the world through either starting a non-profit like Chelsea did, or by being an advocate for an issue they care about. We have, for example, KR Liu, who is the Congressional Awardee Advocate for people with hearing disabilities.
01:51 KW: Yes.
01:52 MH: So we have some great people who will be on stage talking about how you can create change in the world and how you can further the cause of gender equality wherever you are.
02:01 KW: And Chelsea... Katharine, I'm looking at Katharine our producer right now because when Chelsea was telling us her story and that moment, that really sparked the idea of creating Happy Period and the impact she wanted to have, we were both in tears. I mean, it's just such a powerful story and I think powerful because we're oftentimes in situations in our daily lives when something happens and you may be really personally affected, it may make you sad, it may make you angry, but the actions we take against those emotions typically don't extend past the end of the day, right? And that's not... That's just life is busy and we've got a million things going on and we understand that. But here with Chelsea, she saw something and she did something about it and I was incredibly inspired by her conversation and just her passion for what she's doing. And knowledge about the ways that she is effecting change in this world.
03:03 MH: I am so excited to meet all these awesome people, to be honest, I can't wait.
03:08 KW: Yeah. So are you... Talking about Maricella now, how are you feeling because you're driving a huge impact through the work you're doing on the Ellevate Summit, and I know it's a big undertaking, but you look like you're ready?
03:23 MH: I'm surviving... I don't know, I think we're in a good spot. I'm surviving the amount of gummy bears I've eaten to this point might be scary to count. But it's...
03:32 KW: Are gummy bears what your...
03:34 MH: It's anxiety food.
03:38 KW: I mean, at least it's that... I'm wine so I guess that's...
03:42 MH: Well, well, well. It's great, I'm excited. It's been a lot of work. The team has put in tons of hours and hours and hours, but it's really good to see when you really are so proud and so passionate to build something and really make it different. I think when I see our speaker page and if you go to ellevatenetwork.com, and check out Mobilize Women Summit and look at the speakers on that page, you'll see that there is a very different feeling than the one you get when you see other conferences and other activities of the sort. We have been very intentional in getting people who don't usually speak about these topics. We've been very intentional in getting diverse voices from every single background, every single ethnicity, ages, stages in their careers, things that they do. And it's really inspiring to see them all come together. And then we do have some other really cool stuff happening at the summit like our first ever International Women of Change Award, which is you know the first time we actually took the initiative of honoring someone for the work they do and for using their voice to create change. And using their privilege to create change.
04:55 KW: Are we sharing who our international change agent is or is this top secret?
05:01 MH: We've been sharing it, so it's Debra Messing. If you haven't heard she'll be there. She'll join us for the summit, and we're very excited about that. I can't wait.
05:14 KW: Yeah, I cannot either as... And we hope that you can't, our lovely listeners. So go to ellevatenetwork.com, you sign up for the live stream and join us on June 21st to hear from Debra Messing, to hear from Chelsea, and to hear from all of the phenomenal speakers. They'll be joining us that day and having real conversations about creating change.
05:42 KW: Chelsea, thanks so much for joining us today on the Ellevate Podcast.
05:51 Chelsea VonChaz: Thank you for having me.
05:53 KW: Yeah, we are so excited to have you here to talk about something very important to me and many of us [chuckle] which is your period. So you're the founder of Happy Period. And I know the story of how you founded this company is just inspiring on many levels, and I would love for you to share it with our audience today.
06:18 CV: Sure, of course, so about three years ago I was working still as a stylist doing wardrobe and I was on my way to a gig, and I was driving in Hollywood and I saw this homeless woman crossing the street, and she really didn't have on any clothes. She had on like a really thin tank top, almost like a cami, and some pajama bottoms that looked like they were really thin, but I noticed that when she crossed the street, 'cause I'm at a red light like the first car at a red light in my lane. She crossed the street and I noticed she had... Well her bottoms were stained in blood, she had the infamous spotty period stain that all of us girls know about and all of us experience. So that really took me back because I can tell she was homeless and she was kind of out of it as far as her body language and what she was doing, 'cause I watched her cross the street. And in LA we have a really huge problem when it comes to the chronically homeless or houseless, that's really the term I prefer to use, situation. And there's a stigma unfortunately on them as well, because we see homeless people all the time and then we don't say anything, we don't do anything, we just kind of turn our heads or walk away or so...
07:51 CV: But for me at that time, it was very symbolic and moving because I was on my period that day. I felt like crap and I just had so many questions after seeing her cross the street so immediately I was thinking when you're homeless, "What do you do when you get your period and what are your options?" They may or may not have the same options as I do and the privilege that I have to just go in a store and get whatever I wanna use for my period, but that's not the case for them. So initially that's how the idea was planted in my mind to start Happy Period.
08:36 CV: As far as the model that we created or the other reasons behind that, after I talked to... If you... Oh, one particular representative of a shelter, because I went home and I researched the topic and contacted a few shelters, women-centered shelters whether it was a transition home from being houseless to getting back on your feet, whether it's domestic violence, or just overall shelters in Los Angeles, 'cause we have so many, but one of the reps contacted me and thanking me for my inquiry, but I asked her so many questions. And the main thing I asked her is, "Well, what do you do? What do you ladies do when there is someone who is out in the open, and they're free bleeding, and they come to you?" And she said, "Well, I mean legally, we're not required to have this in our budget, so we are not required to just purchase pads, tampons, or whatever, and we rely on donations just like any other non-profit shelters especially." And she talked about as far as what is received. When they do receive donations they only get a certain amount of items, and it's always geared towards men, it's never anything specific to the women.
10:04 CV: But the last thing she said to me was, that they are more likely to get donations of toothbrush, toothpaste, and even razor blades for the men to shave with than pads and tampons. People just don't donate menstrual products because... Well, I know for sure in my experience because there's a stigma on menstruation and people don't talk about periods let alone think about periods and we have totally removed ourselves from the houseless experience and thinking about it to the point where we are putting men and women in the same box. So therefore, her needs are not considered at all especially if she is houseless or homeless.
10:50 CV: So that's pretty much the story. I mean, after that I reached out to all my girlfriends and told them what I saw. I told them I didn't wanna give the shelter any money because I've definitely lost my faith in the shelters because they... That particular one, they're actually government funded so they get federal funds, but yet, they have not made any changes to what they would purchase. They just rely on the donations and they hire someone who reaches out to companies, people, other organizations to receive donations instead of just purchasing some basic pads or something on their own. So my whole idea was to pretty much take care of that situation because it's definitely a void that I was trying to fulfill and I knew for a fact that there are a lot of women who are homeless, and they are on the street and shelters can hold only so many people and there are way more individuals who are out on the street than inside of the shelter and they find, they make a home in a tent on a corner, a bus stop, or train station that is their space, that's their home.
12:06 CV: So we definitely wanted to do something where we include street distribution, meaning we literally go out to people who live in these public places and hook them up with donations of whatever it is they want. So yeah, the very first Happy Period volunteer event was exactly one week after I saw the girl crossing the street.
12:32 KW: I mean, I love that story in so many ways because we oftentimes, if we're paying attention and watching, right? How often are we just going through life in our own minds and distracted by other things? But if we're paying attention to what's happening around us and then we see something and you take action, right? And there was a story, some, I think, a news channel did it or some social experiment, where it was a staged physical contact between a man and a woman in a park. And they wanted to see if the people around would do anything. Would you take action, would you intervene and stop it? And for the most part people didn't. It was like embarrassed, you don't know how to handle it, you don't know what to do and your instinct is to try to get away. Obviously, you yourself feel uncomfortable or threatened, but your story about you see something and it just creates this spark to take action to make something happen is something we can all learn from and hopefully myself included, and our listeners will be inspired to make that change within their communities as well.
13:53 CV: Right, absolutely, and I tell people all the time. For me, it was very emotional because I was angry. I was mad because it was broad daylight and it was in Hollywood, and right at La Brea and Third and there's all of these mansions and homes and shacks that are a million dollars. And a lot of people in this very high traffic area, and we see this woman, in a very vulnerable state, and we're just... It's okay and it's acceptable to just turn away and keep it going. But for me, since I had so many questions and I was in that space, we were synced up and I had so many reasons to why I wanted to figure out something especially in answer to my question like, "Well, what do you do, where do you go? Why is this okay? Is it okay? Who's responsible for this?" And it just really made me mad, so I was very emotional, and I just used that emotion turned it into passion behind it because that's the reason why I just kept going with it. So yeah, it does take some bravery to actually move forward with your idea or your thought because we get so caught up in what we're doing and this journey called life, and there's all these basics and principles and jobs that we have and responsibilities that we have so we don't really take time to just really breathe in something when it's happening and living in the moment I think that's really important for people to be able to do and that takes a lot.
15:37 KW: Well and it's also you know to dig deeper into some of the underlying concerns, issues, problems here. It's around women's bodies and our health, right? And so there's so often this... It's okay to see a woman maybe scantily dressed in a major ad but yet when we're talking about periods and menstruating, it's like taboo and no one wants to see it. And I loved it when Kiran Gandhi ran the marathon, the London marathon and she was bleeding, and it was the first day of her period, and it created such this media uproar, but it's life and it's life that industries are built around capitalizing, and the thing tax and everything, selling products to women. But then here we have a whole part of our society, a whole group of individuals that don't have access to that. And so how does that disconnect happen?
16:45 CV: Right, and I think, you know what, I talked to Kiran about the marathon sometime last month, 'cause we talk quite often and we never really talk about that in particular. I mean it did happen a little while ago, but she's aware, obviously that a lot of people were really engaged with that, whether it was a negative or a positive. But she mentioned, I remember she said, she didn't... She wasn't trying to make it a thing, she wasn't trying to create news or go viral, that wasn't her goal, she was running the marathon for a cause, and she had this goal in mind as far as to complete that. And she knew her period was coming. Like a lot of us women, we track our periods and we are connected to our periods in a way, where we know our bodies and when the cramping's gonna start, how many days we're gonna bleed and all that. So there is a huge disconnection, I think. Men need to be part of the conversation, especially the ones who are ignorant to a woman's body, especially when it comes to her cycle. And I think it's mainly because people have a negative connotation with it, and they don't have the education behind it.
18:09 CV: A lot of men don't even know what a menstrual cycle is. If you tell them like, "Oh there's actually four phases, not one and they're like, "What?" Well, I mean, what else happens and it's surprising that they come from a menstruating woman, and they can make a female with their sperm but yet there's this huge disconnection with us, and periods, and bleeding. And there is a lack of compassion that's there and it's created so many issues and it has happened. It's been going on for generations, decades, centuries where in biblical... Even in the Bible and the Koran and all of this information as far as a woman is dirty, and a woman is not clean, unclean during menstruation. Don't touch a menstruating woman. Don't lie with a menstruating woman. Don't have sex with a menstruating woman.
19:14 CV: So it's like all of this has been embedded into our culture and it creates this really huge taboo, which the taboo still lives on today, and it still affects women in a lot of negative ways. From being a part of tradition and just the socialization of menstruating to the point where it's like we have girls that live in India, women and girls that are exiled to a hut where they bleed there and they're away from everything, they're away from the cattle, they're away from their families and they have to stay in there until their period comes off because of the taboo around that and it's a cultural custom or tradition for women who when they're menstruating to not be around anybody. They can't touch anything, can't cook anything because it's considered that you are unclean and if you do, the cow would die. The food that you cook on your period, somebody's gonna get sick and die from it.
20:19 CV: It's a curse, it's a bad, it's a negative thing, and people laugh because they think it's crazy. That's a stupid superstition about... And I'm like, "Well, girls die in those huts all the time, because they're really endangered." They're sexually assaulted. Some of them die from dehydration, and the heat. Some of them die from snake bites. And they are women and girls, super young and that's just what they're told. But this is going on in 2018 and then yeah, we have places... Women here in the United States, which is considered to be this very high standard country with a lot of economical promises and things that happen. However a lot of things are happening in our very own backyard that people don't know about or even talk about especially when it deals with menstruation. Yeah, I feel like it's definitely, it's completely backwards. It's so backwards and it really doesn't make any sense.
21:23 KW: So how do we change this? How do I, our listeners take action and support all women, but change this and change the conversation. You talked about talking with men about this, what do we do?
21:37 RG: Yeah, exactly, I think conversation is the start. I'm more about action if you haven't been able to tell already. I'm more about action as far as you getting off your butt and really using whatever platform you have, your resources to actually make something happen, because the cool thing about in this day, in this age of social media that even a tweet or a post or a re-post can make a difference, especially when it's about education. And yeah, I talk about including men in the conversation all the time. I talk about teaching.
22:14 RG: I highly encourage... I don't have children, however, my friends, who are mothers already, I encourage them to talk to their daughters, and their sons about periods and for them to talk to them equally as far as not just talk to the girl about her period but also talk to the little boys about girls and mommies and aunties and their sisters having a period, so they don't grow up being afraid of blood, and they don't grow up being a douche bag to someone just because they have this special gift to create life. And they don't grow up dumbing down the experiences and the powers that women have, which is to be able to bleed every month, and not die, to go through PMS and the pains and be able to live their lives and get through it and to be able to create life and actually give birth.
23:14 CV: And also to get past that phase, the menstrual phase and get to menopause, and be able to survive that. So that is the start as far as the conversation and including everyone in that. And it also can be someone who's an advocate for periods and menstruation, whether it's just based on the stigma or even just the accessibility for women and girls to be able to have menstrual care and good menstrual health because that's something that a lot of people don't... I think a lot of people actually are unaware that there's so many women here who have low income. In America they have low income and they may not be houseless, but they have to choose between food for their kids and diapers for their babies or a box of pads or tampons, or they're not buying... They're not really able to buy the good stuff that they want or they may not be able to afford a menstrual cup or whatever it is, or they may not even have access to running water, clean water. I think that's something we also have to bring forth to the table, because a lot of people don't even know that these things are happening. Even in schools, there are girls in America that miss school because they don't have pads and tampons.
24:35 CV: There are some schools. I remember I received an email from a school in New York, I believe, it's in New York and one of the administrators talked about how they were really threatening to take away certain things because of a budget cut. And the nurse lost her job and everything that was in the nurse's office including the pads that the girls can come in and ask for, all of that was gone. So now they're relying on donations. These things are actually happening in this country and very similar issues that are also happening in other countries, but I think people just have no idea what is really going on especially when it comes to their period and not to mention the tampon tax or just the menstrual equity problem that we have, where we're essentially being taxed for having working uteruses. It's not fair. Yes, it makes money, yes, it's a billion dollar industry.
25:35 CV: However, you know we have toilet paper in every single bathroom for men and women bathrooms, family restrooms, there's toilet paper. So I really don't understand why there can't be... The pads can't be... And it's cool 'cause I've been in a few airports where it's actually free, the dispenser to give you a tampon or a pad is actually free. And I was like, "Wow, there's some progress." And I'm sure it took for that company, whoever owns the dispenser to actually educate themselves on this issue and they made a change. And it's probably it's easy as that. Just make the change and that should be it.
26:17 KW: Yeah, You may hear some noise in the background. I have as we're talking about menstrual cycles, and the power of... My little daughter's in the studio with us today, so...
26:29 CV: Oh, awesome.
26:30 KW: She's singing. So what's next for you? You've had so much impact and raised so much awareness in a very short period of time, but I'm sure it feels like there's still so much to do.
26:44 CV: Oh, yes.
26:44 KW: How are you making that happen?
26:48 CV: Well, for me, right now, yeah I have a lot on my plate and I love it. Doing this work, it actually does not feel like work at all. I'm truly happy with what I'm doing and what's happening and people connecting. Yeah, for me it's about really using my voice and the platform and the charity that I've created to bring women and actually not even just women to bring all people, especially people with periods together and really stand up and use their voices when it comes to this special gift, this special power that we have where we bleed every month. So I'm talking more about eliminating the stigma and that's so important. I always wanna tell people, it makes our job a little bit easier, especially when we have volunteer meetings, and volunteer events, and we're talking about periods, like the layers of shame and resistance, all of that just kind of peels away when we are together and we're openly talking about periods in a good or bad way, or good periods and bad periods or not so happy periods, but we're talking about it. There are a lot of women, a lot of girls that have never had these conversations with their girlfriends or their mom or whatever.
28:16 CV: So for me, yeah, it's all about continuing that. And it's about raising my voice to talk about a lot of things that have just occurred from doing this work and being on the streets and passing out menstrual products and in educating women about menstrual cups and sponges and the chemicals that are in some of the pads and the tampons. It's really rewarding to be around women and to hear them say thank you, and this is a little bit easier for me. This is super rough when your period comes, and you don't have... There are women, they don't have a heating pad or they don't have chocolate or Midol or anything like that, they just have to, they just really have to deal with it and they're always concerned about messing up their clothes.
29:09 CV: So it's always gonna be about educating people. I think that's the first thing, it's just always about educating people about what's going on and let them know how they can help. And when people ask me what they can do and how they can help, I always say just don't ask for permission to help someone or to get involved. Just get up and do it, be initiative, be passionate about whatever that it is and take action by submitting to do whatever it is, whether it's to start a petition, volunteer at a shelter, be an ambassador for Happy Period and talk about periods, and collect donations and drop donations off at a shelter once a month or a few times a year, whatever it is, based on your availability and your passion just really find that, do something.
29:58 KW: Wonderful, well, thank you so much for joining us today, Chelsea. It was great to chat with you on the Ellevate Podcast.
30:05 CV: Absolutely, yes.
30:06 KW: And thank you for the work that you're doing.
30:09 CV: Thank you.
30:09 KW: It's so important.
30:09 CV: Oh, I appreciate it. Thank you so so so so much. I will see you soon, yes?
30:14 KW: Absolutely.
30:15 CV: I believe so.
30:16 KW: Yes, and at the summit, right?
30:17 CV: Yes, I will be there. I'm really excited. Sounds like it's going to be a really fun time.
30:21 KW: It will be, and I think so much of what you have to say is completely aligned with... It's why we're doing the summit and the impact we have to have and the conversations we're gonna have. It's really raising awareness about all people and how we need to do more to create a more equal and just world.
30:41 CV: Absolutely, thank you so much. Okay?
30:44 KW: Thank you.
30:46 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out, subscribe to the Ellevate Podcast on iTunes, give us five stars and share your review. Also don't forget to follow us on Twitter at Ellevate NTWK, that's Ellevate Network, and become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website, www.ellevatenetwork.com. That's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E Network.com. And special thanks to our producer, Katharine Heller, she rocks, and to our voiceover artist, Rachel Griesinger, thanks so much, and join us next week.
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