When Ms. Huq’s group of 8th grade girls from Bronx Prep Middle (BPM) clicked “submit” to enter their podcast into NPR’s national competition, none of them were expecting to win.
“We’re from the South Bronx,” 8th grader Raizel Febles said. “We’re not known for podcasting.”
6th grade literature teacher Shehtaz Huq tried to manage their expectations. “I told them, ‘I don’t want you to be disappointed if we don’t win,’” she said. “‘We are up against a lot.’”
Other schools who entered the competition had professional sound editing equipment, and some even had a recording studio. The Bronx Prep Middle School girls used one laptop, three cell phones, and one recorder to create their podcast.
But as it turns out, they did not need to be warned against disappointment at all. Kassy Abad, Caroline Abreu, Jasmin Acosta, Ashley Amankwah, Litzy Encarnacion, Raizel Febles and Kathaleen Restitullo were crowned the 1st place winners of NPR’s first national student podcast competition. The judges selected their podcast, “Sssh! Periods” for their fearless topic choice and for each girl’s personality clearly shining through in the episode.
Why take on the topic of periods for their podcast? These 8th graders were frustrated with the shame, stigma, and flat out difficulty of being a middle school girl who gets her period.
“I went off about how I was trying to get a pad in class and how it was one of the hardest things I had to do that day,” said Raizel. “That’s how the topic of periods came about.”
“It was so universal but personal at the same time,” said Kathaleen.
Middle school is already a challenging time for any student, regardless of gender. But add in painful cramps, having to ask a teacher to use the restroom or for a pad, the possibility (or reality) of bleeding through your clothes, and your day-to-day life at school becomes that much more difficult.
“There were so many stories [from the group] around periods,” said Ms. Huq. “Like the struggles of getting pads, what do you do if you are in the middle of class but you are bleeding through your pants, or you’re taking a test?”
In addition to managing their periods at school, they also had to deal with male peers vocalizing disgust at them. Boys would say things like, “Dirty!” when they overheard the young women asking their teacher for a pad.
“[Male peers] should try to sympathize with us,” said Ashley. “Although they can’t empathize, they can at least sympathize. It’s a natural thing. People shouldn’t be ashamed of their periods.”
One of the reasons the young women made the podcast was to combat the stigma and shame around periods. They have succeeded in changing aspects of their school’s culture.
“The behavior towards periods has flipped,” said Caroline. “Our male peers tend to be more comfortable around us when we are on our periods and more comforting in general. They don’t even give us looks anymore. It has brought change in our community.” She added, “It’s nice to know that we’ve done something.”
They are also proud to be using their voices as women of color.
“We are all really happy that we are all women of color,” said Ashley. “I don’t look like Raizel, Kathaleen and Kassy don’t look alike, and we all came together as a family and we were all able to express something and shed light on a topic that has been shamed for a long period of time.”
Ms. Huq is incredibly proud of her diverse group of young scholars.
“We have a team of all girls,” said Ms. Huq. “[Girls] don’t really get this platform at all. You get boys’ sports and boy’s this and boy’s that, and this one time, it was seven girls and a teacher and one thing we had in common is that we are all women of color from all immigrant backgrounds, speaking different languages, coming from different religious practices, but this one thing united us. They’re all intelligent, articulate women, and for once, they didn’t have to dumb it down. They could just be authentic and fiercely intelligent and show the world what they are capable of and nobody expected anybody from the Bronx to win.”
These young women have received national news coverage for their podcast. NPR’s Morning Edition aired a segment about their award, as did The Today Show. Other outlets such as Jezebel and Teen Vogue have published articles about their podcast. House Representative and member of “The Squad” Ayanna Pressley congratulated “these young scholars & queens” on working towards ending the stigma around discussing periods. They were also invited to speak at the ACLU’s centennial celebration (pictured).
The response to the girls’ first podcast was so positive and far-reaching that the girls decided to continue creating new episodes. So far, they have recorded five additional episodes and a bonus podcast. In the weeks after their podcast, women from all over the country mailed pads and tampons to the school in support of the girls. Be sure to listen to their award-winning podcast here.