November 2023 – We take for granted that any public restroom we enter will be stocked with toilet paper and soap, free for use to all comers. Edina High School senior Sarah Hu imagines a world where the same holds true for menstrual products.
It would be more than a kind or inclusive gesture. Nearly one quarter of American teens struggle to afford necessities like tampons or pads. That sobering statistic comes from PERIOD, an education and advocacy group dedicated to eradicating what Hu calls "period poverty."
She first encountered the concept – and learned of its prevalence right here in Edina – through the Edina High School chapter of a student club called Girls United MN.
“I first joined while a sophomore,” Hu shared. She says she felt drawn to the club’s mission: to empower young women through educational opportunities and advocacy for gender equality. “A big, basic part of this is just giving girls a space to be comfortable sharing the experiences and concerns they have as a girl.”
“During my first year, the club’s leaders identified period poverty as an issue here, and one we could address through dispensers in the girls’ bathrooms.” Hu inherited that crusade during the 2022-2023 school year, when she took over as Edina Girls United’s President.
Hu credits her cohorts and school administrators for working together, talking through options and logistics to find the most effective and sustainable way to eliminate period poverty on campus. “We had to think about possible vandalism and about whether some students would hoard supplies. … We also had to figure out who would keep these products in stock.”
Sometimes, the simplest solution is best. Instead of investing in costly stall- or wall-mounted metal dispensers, “we eventually ordered plastic containers from Amazon and placed these in four bathrooms throughout the school.”
While that was a significant stride in the right direction, Hu says the work is still ongoing. Edina Girls United now coordinates period product drives to replenish school inventory – and to benefit the community more generally. “We donate whatever we can to women’s shelters here in the area.”
For her senior year, Hu rotated into the Vice President role. “We do this in Girls United so that juniors can gain experiences as President, but while also benefiting from the background of a senior who has been there already.”
In this same spirit, Hu welcomes any opportunity to learn from the experience and perspectives of others.
“I really appreciate that Girls United brings in guest speakers. … For example, Rep. Heather Edelson comes through to share her experiences as a woman in lawmaking.” State Senator Steve Cwodzinski, a former teacher from Eden Prairie who chairs the Chamber’s Education Policy Committee, recently visited to share details around proposed legislation mandating no-cost period products in all Minnesota schools.
From time to time, most every high schooler has opportunities like these to hear from adult guest speakers. Hu, however, has gone a step further.
“I’ve known since the ninth grade that the City of Edina offers students a chance to get involved actively … through time as student commissioners.” Resident-led commissions advise the City Council on everything from park and recreation amenities, to energy and environmental issues, to heritage preservation.
Student appointments are competitive. During the most recent cycle, 33 candidates vied for 16 commissioner positions. Hu is among these Sweet Sixteen. For the second year running, she sits on the Edina Planning Commission.
“We’re a group of about a dozen [residents] that meets twice a month and makes recommendations on projects, and possible projects, that impact the community – things like rezoning and affordable housing,” Hu said. “I feel this is an area more of us should be interested in, because these kinds of [decisions] matter to a lot of people.”
Last year, Hu also sat on a Planning Commission working group devoted specifically to assessment and re-envisioning of the Cahill District. Located along the Highway 100 corridor, this largely industrial area is home to over 200 businesses and upwards of 4,000 employees. “They wanted a youth perspective on how that neighborhood could look in the future,” Hu said.
While not everyone will have an opportunity to sit formally as a student commissioner, “I really believe it’s important for students to get involved in their school and with their community. We all have a voice and perspectives worth sharing” – and a stake in our collective future.
In recognition and gratitude for how she actively models this attitude, Mayor Jim Hovland named Sarah Hu the 2023 recipient of the Mayor’s Youth Commendation.