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Redefining what equitable and inclusive means

Pawtucket becomes the first city in Rhode Island to offer free menstrual products at all of its municipal buildings

Photo by Richard Asinof

In a public policy first, the city of Pawtucket has begun a program of offering free menstrual products in all of its municipal buildings. Shown above is an aisle of menstrual products at a local pharmacy.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/3/23
Pawtucket becomes the first city or town in Rhode Island to inaugurate a public policy of distributing free menstrual products at all of its municipal buildings.
Which municipality – Cranston, Warwick, Providence, Central Falls, or Newport – will become the next municipality to adopt the policy of free menstrual products at all of their municipal buildings? Will the General Assembly expand its policy for free menstrual products in public schools to include all state facilities? Is there federal money available to underwrite such public health measures?
HousingWorks RI presented research conducted with funding from the Women’s Fund looking at Women and Housing in Rhode Island on Tuesday, March 28, at Roger Williams University, moderated by Brenda Clement of Housing Works RI.
Responding to the research results was a stellar panel of elected officials, including State Sen. Meghan Kallman, Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, and State Rep. June Speakman, who shared their ideas for legislative fixes for the current housing crisis n Rhode Island, colored by the research findings:
In a state with one of the highest numbers of “older” ‘citizens, women represent a significant share of the oldest population: 52 percent of ages 50-64, 53 percent of the ages 65-74, 58 percent of the ages 75-84, and 68 percent of the ages 85 and older.
For the 52,422 households in Rhode Island living below the poverty line, 53 percent are female households, compared to 25 percent male households, and 22 percent couples.
What that translates into is the fact that there are a significant number of older women living alone who are cost burdened. by their housing situation.
What resonated most in the presentations by the elected officials were the stories they told about their constituents and their struggles – and the apparent failure by the private sector to address the current housing crisis.
A remarkable new study published by The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, entitled “Demographic and Geographic Variation in Fatal Drug Overdoses in the United States, 1999-2020, was authored by sociologist Shannon Monnat, the Lerner Chair in Public Health Promotion and Population Health, and director of the Center for Policy Research at Syracuse University.
“Among the biggest failures of U.S. public policy is that we invest most of our resources into tackling problems after they emerge rather than investing in the institutions and community-level infrastructure that will prevent problems from emerging,” Monnat concluded, recommending that in the immediate term, harm reduction approaches are essential, but warning that these strategies are only tourniquets.
Imagine a dinner with Monnat, joined by Sen. Josh Miller, whose legislation to extend the harm reduction center pilot program until March 1, 2026, passed the Senate last week, called the harm reduction center pilot program “a time-tested model that works, and it will save lives here in Rhode Island.
In fact, Monnat and Miller did have dinner together at the home of Dr. Peter Simon and Toby Simon in 2016, joined by Holly Cekala, in advance of Monnat’s presentation at RIC the following morning. Perhaps RICARES will extend and invitation for Monnat to speak again in Rhode Island, to be joined by author Beth Macy, and Sen.Miller. ConvergenceRI will be happy to sponsor the event and the dinner.

PAWTUCKET – The business development news has not been great. Financing for the planned soccer stadium on the waterfront along the Blackstone River may be in jeopardy, a result of the recent rise in interest rates.

And, plans for converting the former Memorial Hospital building into a veterans’ facility or a homeless shelter may have hit a legal snag: R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha intervened on Friday, March 31, to stop what his office claimed was an illegal foreclosure. Boastful entrepreneur Michael Mota had been claiming to be the owner of the former Memorial Hospital property, despite his growing trail of alleged unpaid debts that has been chronicled in excellent reporting by Amanda Milkovits in The Boston Globe.

So, perhaps it is understandable that a seemingly small story with good news about Pawtucket received scant news coverage, a story with major economic development implications in an industrial city that is battling to find its sure footing again. The city launched a public policy initiative that is courageous, progressive, and innovative.

“As of April 1, 2023, disposable menstrual products, such as tampons and sanitary pads, will be available in city-owned buildings at no cost [emphasis added],” the news release from Grace Voll, the city’s communications person, announced last week.

“Any person in need of such products will be able to obtain them for free in public restrooms at Pawtucket City Hall, Pawtucket Police, and Fire Stations, Leon Mathieu Senior Center, Department of Public Works, Pawtucket Public Library, and Pawtucket Public Parks,” the news release continued.

“I am extremely proud of this new initiative as it will ensure that all individuals who need these products, will have access to them at no cost,” said Mayor Donald R. Grebien, in the news release. “The installation of these dispensers is just one step towards making Pawtucket a more equitable and inclusive community.”

Translated, the city of Pawtucket has become the first city or town in Rhode Island to make free menstrual products available at all of its municipal buildings.

A brief herstory
As the news release by Voll detailed, in January of 2021, the state of Rhode Island and the General Assembly passed a bill to provide free menstrual products in all public schools that serve grades 5 through 12. However, prior to the state law, the Pawtucket Public School Department provided the products to students at no cost, according to the news release.

Further, the news release continued: “This specific initiative to provide free menstrual products in city-owned buildings was led by former Councilwoman At-Large, Elena Vazquez, and former Public Health and Equity Leader, Elizabeth Moreira.”

When asked by ConvergenceRI whether the policy move by Pawtucket to provide free menstrual products was the first such initiative by a town or city in Rhode Island, Voll replied: “Off the top of my head, in Rhode Island, Providence tried one in 2019. I am not sure how it ended up, but it appears that it did not become official. I know that the city of Brookline, Mass., was the first in Massachusetts to implement it.”

In an article published in June of 2019, WBUR reporter Ally Jarmanning told the story of how a high school student spurred the policy change. “Brookline wants to make menstrual products as routine as those other bathroom staples, and in May voted to become the first municipality in the United States to offer free tampons and pads in all of its town-owned restrooms, in places like town hall, libraries and the rec center,” Jarmanning wrote. “The schools are expected to follow suit.”

The story continued: Sarah Groustra is the one who got this all started. Last year, the then-senior wrote a column in the Brookline High School newspaper, calling for an end to what she called period ‘shaming.’ She mentioned zipping her tampons into her boots, so nobody would see her taking them out of her backpack in class.

“In the end, no cultural, social or legislative change can come until female-bodied people stop feeling like their bodies are abnormal, or inappropriate, or flat-out disgusting,” Groustra wrote. “I don’t love talking about my period, but until menstruation becomes as normalized as other routine body activities, actively combating the stigma is the only way to end it.”

How soon may other Rhode Island cities and towns follow Pawtucket’s lead? ConvergenceRI then followed up and asked Patricia Socarras, Providence’s Director of Communications, if the city had implemented a similar policy. “The city does not currently have a distribution policy for menstrual products in its other municipal buildings,” she said. “As of the 2022-2023 school year, all public middle and high schools provide menstrual products at no cost to the students.”

ConvergenceRI also followed up with similar questions to city officials in Warwick, Cranston, and Central Falls. Warwick said no, Cranston said no, and Central Falls did not respond.

ConvergenceRI also reached out to Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island. Rich Salit, the health insurer’s public relations manager, said that they were not involved with any of the municipal efforts mentioned. “However, we support providing essential hygiene products to vulnerable populations and are funders of Amenity Aid [see link to website below],” Salit said. “We support their fundraising efforts, regularly provide volunteers to them, and have partnered with them multiple times in our annual Blue across Rhode Island day of service.”

Here is a complete list of locations in Pawtucket municipal buildings that where free menstrual products are available:

City Hall
Credit Union 4th floor Bathroom
City Clerk’s Kitchen Bathroom
Ladies Mezzanine 3rd Floor Bathroom
Mayor's Office Bathroom
Finance Department Bathroom
Handicapped Bathroom
Payroll Room 211 Bathroom
Law Department Bathroom
Accounting Department Bathroom
Collections Bathroom
Tax Assessors Bathroom
Zoning Department Bathroom
Ladies' Mezzanine 1st Floor Bathroom
Ladies' Ground Floor Bathroom
Human Resources Bathroom
Purchasing Bathroom
Internal Affairs Bathroom

Department of Public Works
Carpenter Shop Bathroom
Sanitation Bathroom
Garage Bathroom
Highway Department Bathroom
Parks Department Bathroom
Public Traffic Bathroom
Ladies Employee Bathroom

Daggett Farm
Ladies Bathroom
Kitchen Bathroom
Garage Bathroom

New Max Reed
Pariseau Park [McCoy]
Old Max Read (Pleasant St)
Vets Park [Smithfield Ave]
Hank Soars [Prospect St.]
McKinnon Alves [Monticello Ave]

Directors Office
All ladies bathrooms
All Kitchen bathrooms

Senior Inn
All Kitchen Bathrooms
All Ladies Bathrooms
Break Room Bathroom

Prosecution Bathroom
Detectives Kitchenette Bathroom
Chief’s Office Bathroom
2nd Floor Bathroom
Front Kitchenette Bathroom
All Ladies Bathrooms
Dispatch Bathroom
Cell Block ID Bathroom
Special Squad Bathroom

Police Sub-Station
2nd Fl Ladies Locker RM
Hallway Bathroom

Fire Station 2
Top Floor Bathroom

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