When Elif Ozturk was in middle school, she remembers being frustrated at how many of her classmates struggled to find or afford menstrual products. “I go to an economically diverse school, so I saw the need, even among my own friends,” she says. Through research, she learned that nationally one in five teens have struggled to afford period products or were not able to purchase them at all. “I think this is an injustice because for lack of a better word – you’re forcing a girl to be bleeding in class,” she says. “Women can’t control their periods in the same way we can’t control when we need to go to the bathroom. But we can assume there’s going to be toilet paper in school and public restrooms. Like toilet paper, period products should be considered a necessity, not a luxury.”

Elif decided something needed to be done. She started by working to supply free tampons and pads in all Hopkins High School women’s and gender-neutral restrooms. Then she decided to aim higher.

During her freshman year in high school, Elif connected with several other young women from across the Twin Cities who started working with Representative Sandra Feist, who shared their interest in expanding access to period products.  

This year, the group’s hard work paid off. On May 17, the Minnesota Senate and House of Representatives passed a bill (authored by Rep. Feist) requiring schools to provide free period products to students in grades 4-12. The passage of this bill makes Minnesota the 16th state to mandate free menstrual products in schools.

Elif credits her experience in both YMCA Youth in Government (YIG) and Model United Nations (MUN) with helping her develop the knowledge, skills, and confidence to keep fighting for this legislation despite the “painfully long process” and ongoing setbacks. “My program area at YIG is the National Issues Forum (NIF),” she explains. “One of the reasons I like NIF so much is that we get to explore important policy issues from a number of different perspectives. You learn to advocate for what you believe, but you also hear others’ perspectives about what they believe. That activity helps you realize that listening is as important as speaking when you are trying to change policies or laws. You have to understand others’ objections before you can make the most persuasive argument.”

When Elif was a sophomore, her NIF proposal focused on replacing incarceration with rehabilitation for crimes involving drug use. “Over the course of researching and debating my proposal, my overall viewpoint about the issue didn’t change but I understood better why people were against the idea,” she says. “That understanding allowed me to discuss the issue more calmly and adjust my proposal to address the objections.” In recognition of her efforts, Elif received the 2022 Most Outstanding Proposal Award.

This fall, Elif will be a senior in high school and a third-year delegate at YIG. She has applied to be an appointed official and is looking forward to helping other younger delegates find their voice. “If you care about an issue and you want to see a change, just get started. Get out there and try! You have nothing to lose and so much to gain. Trust me – you can make a difference!”