Mensi Project

The Mensi Project began operating in 2018 with dispensers like this one. However, soon Facilities Management will aid in installing machines to help instead.

SIUE will install dispensers for menstrual projects in some restrooms after another wave of vandalism against the Mensi Project bags hanging in all restrooms on campus.

The Mensi Project began in 2018 after the university removed machines dispensing menstrual products from most restrooms on campus, leaving them available only on a first-floor restroom in each building. In response, English professor Christy Ferguson began leaving small quantities of menstrual supplies in restrooms with a little sign that read “period emergencies are emergencies,” and by the end of the first day she had a flurry of emails.

So Ferguson launched the Mensi Project, hand-sewing the colorful cloth bags now found in every restroom on campus. It was designed as a community project, where people might leave extra supplies in the bags for someone else who had need of them. 

“The goal was to get people talking about periods and to have access to the products they need,” Ferguson said. “We’ve been shamed about our periods our whole lives. It became this source of shame, of fear, ‘somebody might know,’ to the point where you couldn’t really ask questions.”

Ferguson hoped the Mensi Project would help destigmatize menstruation, and foster awareness particularly among people who do not menstruate and might react with discomfort at a basic bodily function. “

“The reality is that it is painful, it can be sporadic and you can’t track it, and the products themselves can be expensive,” she said. “These are things we need in order to remain healthy and safe; it is a bodily function we cannot control. Having access to those things in public spaces – for some people it’s indescribable how helpful it is.” 

In 2021, the Illinois state legislature passed a law requiring that menstruation products must be available in all public restrooms, including men’s rooms, as transgender men also have the possibility of menstruating. Facilities Management began supplying products to the Mensi Project, so Ferguson no longer had to rely on donations to keep the bags full.

But the Mensi Project bags became a target for vandalism once they started appearing in men’s rooms last year. Mensi bags were thrown in the trash or in urinals, defaced or otherwise damaged with the products destroyed. Anti-trans stickers were found on walls in the bathrooms and elsewhere on campus. 

Ferguson said she tried switching to discreet baskets instead of the colorful cloth bags, and added explanatory signs with QR codes leading to information about the state law requiring the products’ availability and the SIUE Student Conduct Code. Facilities Management tried zip-tying the bags to make it harder for them to be removed or damaged. 

“Still they were regularly thrown away,” Ferguson said. 

Two weeks into the fall semester, there have already been incidents of vandalism against the bags in men’s rooms and at least one report made to the Bias Incident Report Team. 

Nick Niemerg, co-chairman of Safe Zone and co-founder of the Queer Faculty and Staff Association, said incidents of anti-trans stickers and vandalism started the first week of school and have cropped up in the library, main academic buildings and the MUC. 

“At the end of the day, people need to use a restroom where they feel the most comfortable; it’s really not anyone else’s business where people go to the bathroom,” Niemerg said. 

The university issued a campus-wide statement last week condemning the anti-trans stickers and vandalism against the Mensi Project bags. Jessica Harris, vice chancellor for anti-racism, diversity, equity and inclusion, called them “transphobic and anti-gender inclusive messages that create an unwelcoming environment” for trans and non-binary students and employees.

“These actions are not acceptable and conflict with our institutional values and commitment to inclusive excellence,” read Harris’ statement. “SIUE supports trans and non-binary people and affirms that they have a place in our university community. We value all individuals who step foot on our campus and hold firm in our support of our LGBTQIA+ community members.”

Facilities Management director Craig Holan is ordering 10 dispenser machines to install in some restrooms, with the possibility for more. 

“We decided to start by putting in machines where we’ve had problems,” Holan said. “There’s a difference between an impulse and actively trying to tear a machine off the wall, so we’ll be watching it carefully.”

The dispensers cost approximately $300 to $400 each, and require maintenance as well as supply. The supplies will still be free, but Holan said they are working to find machines that dispense one item at a time with a timer, to keep vandals from emptying the machines. 

Ferguson and Niemerg both complimented Facilities Management on being proactive and going after vandalism as soon as it is reported. Holan said their goal is to remove any reported stickers or vandalism within an hour of receiving the report.

Bias incident reports can be submitted electronically on the SIUE website.

Safe Zone is a faculty-staff-student group whose sole purpose is to provide education on LGBTQ+ issues, on and off campus. It maintains a comprehensive list of Safe Zone allies who have gone through training and can provide help and answer questions for LGBTQ+ people on campus. Find out more at siue.edu/lgbtqia

For people who would like to help the Mensi Project, contact Ferguson or check out its website through Women’s Studies.

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