By Za Unitt
In Dececember of 2018, my friend and bandmate, Julia, and I sat in her kitchen talking about the future and what direction we wanted to take with our newly formed Duo/Act, Tickles And Pokes. We’re both mothers, entertainers, and over 40. Neither one of us were interested in doing the whole traveling “band thing” again. With the music still flowing and the love of entertaining the people not waning, we decided that whatever we did, we needed to be able to use our talents and art in order to give back to our communities. Focusing on women’s issues was a no brainier. But with so many issues facing women, where do you even start?! In January of 2019, I found an article concerning period poverty and for the first time things began to click.
My life started like many others. I was the seventh child in a large and religious home. My father, who is a US immigrant, joined the Airforce. His job took our family all around the world, which is how I came to be born in the Philippines. My parents were loving, talented and kind. My father, among his many talents, was an artist and my mother, among her many, was an opera singer. We were big, loud and energetic but most importantly, we were loving.
In 1976, after moving back to the States, my mother was hit by a drunk driver on her way to work and was killed as a result of the accident. I believe my whole family died that day. With all the pressure of being made a suddenly single dad of eight children, the “good intentions” from members of the church and under the weight of his own grief my dad remarried that same year and his new wife was not ready to deal with eight children who were still morning the loss of their mother. I watched as my older siblings were removed one after the other from our home until it was my turn.
At the age of 13, I was put into a psychiatric hospital and then moved into the foster care system. My last foster home was supposed to be with a mother and her adult daughter. While the mother was never around, the daughter had an unfortunate dark addiction. It was just another night. I had gone to bed and was almost asleep when I heard the knock at the door. I recognized her dealers voice. I knew I had to keep my door locked. I went back to my bed. However, I noticed that the voices were getting louder and he was becoming angry. Soon, they were yelling about money and within moments he began beating on my door demanding; “If I can’t get it outta you, I’ll take it outta her!” I grabbed my backpack and made my way out the window to the streets, where I lived homeless for almost 2 years.
The struggle is real. Not having access to bathrooms, clean water or menstruation products are only a part of it. I remember starving myself during my periods in order to slow my flow – which didn’t always work. I had to use dirty socks, cheep toilet paper, scratchy paper towels. It was humiliating and exhausting. It not only took a toll on my physical health but my emotional wellbeing as well.
Much like my story, Julia was raised in a working class family. She, on the other hand, had the experience of stability and a strong connection to her community. Her family was loud, fun, fierce and creative. You know, your classic Irish Catholic family of eight. While she was never homeless, she, like many, lived with well-intentioned parents, who were not interested in or maybe even educated enough to be talking about periods, sex, birth or anything to do with a uterus. There was a need for access to information but her family still subscribed to narrative of “We’re not supposed to talk about that”. Ever the mystery buff, she was determined to solve the case of, “Why is having a uterus so taboo?!” She experienced a lot of trials and errors in order to know what she knows today and admits she still learning more all the time.
As a young adult, she started working in mental health, which opened her eyes to the more extreme cases of period poverty. This experience prepared her for the bigger issues yet be revealed to her in her journey. Even as a well prepared adult herself, she has had many ‘Oh, shit!’ moments where she found herself short on cash or short on pads. However, she always had a tribe to call – not everyone is so lucky.
Period poverty is real and period education is an opportunity that has been missed too often. Now, our duo had something to really focus on and the more we learned, the more determined we were to see this through. We believe the systemic attacks on menstruating people are one of the fundamental starting point for the war on women. Tickles and Pokes found our purpose and so we created the Red Tent Revival, A Period Positive Movement!
Our shows are designed to address the systemic shame attached to menstruation and a shortage of resources that stop the people who bleed from going to school and work every day. The Red Tent supplies period positive education and petitions to a broader platform in order to change legislation and improve lives. We’ve teamed up with period.org to insure the systemic changes we seek and we’ve partnered with Aunt Flow as our official product sponsor. We’re not looking for band-aide solutions.We believe in the power of communities and to be able to respond and support those in need without discrimination.
Za Unitt is a mother of six as well as a musical entertainer, visual artist, actor and activist with over 20 yrs of experience. In 1999, she created and help run two academic co-ops for youth 18 months – 18 years. In 2002, she ran the primary organization for her local church. In 2007, she began performed solo and then later that year formed her first band, Za’s Pawnshop Special. In 2010 she created, Za Unitt and the Angry Men and has performed to help raise money for a variety of charitable organizations. She has volunteered for ComFest and Girls Rhythm n Rock Camp as a beginning guitar guide and counselor. In 2015, while living in Colorado, she served as V.P. For the CYP and started a “Rock Class” for the Moffett school.
Julia O’Keefe is the mother of twin boys. She has worked in the mental health profession for over twenty years, but she has been singing and entertaining her whole life. She has volunteered for many festivals around town as an STNA and aide. As a singer and entertainer, she has volunteered her time and talents to raise money for Animal Shelters, Domestic Violence Shelters, LGBTQ community as well as many others over the years.
Check out Tickles and Pokes’ website at www.ticklesandpokes.com. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter (@and_pokes ), and Instagram (@ticklesandpokes)! They hosted their first Red Tent show on the 20th of April 2019. Due to the outpouring support and interest in their movement, they decided to keep the ball rolling and have planned their second and third shows on the 22nd of June and the 17th of August with plans already in the works for the 4th and 5th Red Tent.