I first met Amika George in 2017 at the launch of some feminism-tinctured campaign fronted by the Mayor of London. At the time she was an A-level student, slightly bewildered by the scale of a petition she had launched just months before, calling for free pads and tampons in UK schools. Shortly after I interviewed her she had to leave for a mock exam. Since then, her petition has ballooned into a nationwide movement at the forefront of a new wave of “menstrual activism”. It is largely thanks to George that, in 2019, the UK government announced plans to roll out free sanitary products in schools and colleges.
“You don’t have to be someone with millions of followers on social media, or loads of confidence, or loads of experience to be an activist,” says George who, now in her final year at Cambridge University, is juggling Free Periods with her history degree. This DIY attitude forms the basis of her debut book, Make It Happen, a “manual for change” in which she insists that anyone can do what she did given the right tools.
And, in 2021, she has an audience ripe for the picking. The past nine months have brought myriad social issues to the fore, and myriad campaigns have emerged in response. Be it Marcus Rashford’s battle against child hunger, the global Black Lives Matter movement or George’s own efforts to end period poverty – the general public are more attuned to injustice than ever, and many are anxious for change.
But with most of us stuck at home for the best part of nine months, the nature of activism itself has changed significantly. “The internet and social media has really enabled a lot of people to have a voice. There was this moment where Instagram just changed,” says George, alluding to 2020’s summer of protest following the killing of George Floyd. “I was seeing more posts about racism and the climate crisis and Black Lives Matter than anything else. I think it was a really important moment, especially for our generation to prove that actually, social media isn't just this useless tool to feed narcissism.”
It would be inaccurate to say that social media has become the new picket line, but there have been several highly impactful mass protests this year, and Twitter and Instagram have been instrumental when it comes to organising and raising awareness. The #EndSARS hashtag alerted users around the world to the issue of police brutality in Nigeria last October. And when security forces opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, it was captured play-by-play in a horrifying Instagram Live. In some cases, action has been entirely confined to social media. It was teenage TikTok users who apparently registered hundreds of thousands of tickets for a Trump rally in Tulsa last summer, resulting in a far lower turnout than expected.
Young people, like George, have been using social media in evermore creative ways. Most Instagram users will be familiar with the “social justice slideshows” that have taken over the platform in the past year; multi-slide posts with eye-catching headlines, followed by a bullet-pointed summary of the subject. This one on non-optical allyship went viral. And the Free Periods Instagram itself – an explosion of preppy pink and in-your-face slogans (“Periods don’t stop for pandemics!”) – is a crash course in visual branding.
But as someone who is on the frontline of activism, George admits that increased time spent online has taken its toll. “I’ve definitely struggled with my mental health during lockdown,” she says. “It’s invigorating to see people using social media in new ways but I did notice I was spending too much time on Instagram. As an activist, you want people to talk about these issues. But you also don’t want to think about it all the time because that can be draining. As a person of colour, seeing racial trauma on your feed constantly is difficult too.”
The uptick in internet-based protest has also cultivated an intense pressure to make your activism public – to post that black square or anti-racist book stack or acknowledge your privilege in a pithy 240-character tweet. “There has always been this feeling that if everyone’s doing something and you’re not, then you must be doing something wrong,” says George. Yomi Adegoke aptly referred to this as a ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ approach to activism, which in turn leads to empty performances of 'wokeness' online.
“I resent the idea that people are held up for having opinions that really aren’t radical. A lot of my friends came off social media during that time because they just found it really unproductive,” says George. “I don't know if I completely agree with that, but there are definitely ups and downs. With the Free Periods, for example, I used to look at my Instagram feed and see everyone posting it and think it's so weird that the government haven't done anything yet. But actually, it’s an echo chamber – I only follow accounts that support free periods, obviously. It’s dangerous to always surround yourself with people who agree with you so that you're not exposed to any sort of difference or disagreement. Social media does perpetuate this idea that everyone's on your side.”
It’s been a whirlwind year for George, but despite everything, the fight to end period poverty has made giant leaps forward. In November, Scotland became the first country to make sanitary products free for all, and just this month the UK government announced its decision to scrap the tampon tax. Period poverty has been exacerbated by the pandemic, but initially, the issue wasn’t on people’s radar, says George. Press coverage around Scotland in particular changed that: “it started so many conversations about how much work needs to be done,” she says.
The initiative that provides free pads and tampons in UK schools, however, is opt-in, and many institutions are unaware it exists. “We know that there have been issues around take-up for several reasons, combined with the pandemic. The bottom line is that those who should be getting help, aren't.” Next on Free Periods’ agenda is making sure that schools are signing up, and continuing to tackle the taboo around menstruation. True to form, George concludes by saying, “for now I’m just focussing on my degree and getting through my exams.”
It’s all about community “[Free Periods] would have never been successful if it had just been me starting in 2017. I don't think activism can ever be a really isolated pursuit. It needs to be rooted in community and you need to collaborate with people because that's the only way you really make change”
Use the tools at your disposal “Social media should never be underestimated as a valid tool for making a change”
Get creative “Working with artists and illustrators over the years has been really valuable in reaching different audiences. Writing to your MP or debating in Parliament is one way to do things, but don’t be afraid to think outside of the box”