Meena Harris, the CEO and founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, was born to do the work.
The daughter of Maya Harris, a lawyer, and the niece of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Meena was born into a legacy of dynamic, hardworking Black women. She never felt pressure to be a lawyer like the women around her, but they did instill in her the importance of being her personal best at whatever she attempted, which is a lesson that has stuck with her throughout the years.
“I early on showed interest in the arts and I used to say, ‘I’m an artist, I’m an artist,'” Harris said to ESSENCE. “I was doing visual art and everybody said, ‘That’s wonderful,’ and encouraged it, but still there’s an expectation of excellence. No matter what you do, there’s an expectation that you’re going to be the best at it, that you’re going to get the proper education and training to be good at it. And then again, use that for good.” These are the kinds of truths Harris is sharing with her two young daughters as well.
Harris is also dedicated to sharing the narratives of Black women and girls to facilitate social change, which is exactly what she’s done with her children’s book, Kamala And Maya’s Big Idea. It’s centered around the childhoods of her mother and aunt, and tackles their early interests in social justice. Harris meant for it to be a reality-based story about young Black girls while they were yet becoming, because of how often we hear the stories of Black women who have achieved greatness in adulthood. But Harris wanted to acknowledge the beginning stages of lifelong journeys of excellence.
ESSENCE spoke with Harris about motherhood, how she remained motivated, and more. Check out our chat below.
ESSENCE: Can you expound on the premise of Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea?
It’s all about two little girls who have this big idea and decided to go do it. Its lessons are around community organizing, and persevering in the face of people telling you “no.”
[They’re] leaning on each other, on themselves, and on their community, and figuring out how to make something happen that is for the betterment of their community. So it’s really, again, about looking around you, wherever you are. There [was] an unused courtyard that they wanted to turn into a children’s play area. And they saw that need, they wanted to make it better for the children in their apartment complex, and they went and did it.
I think that there are lessons in there that are not just for kids. I draw inspiration from people like Dwyane Wade, who I think has become such an incredible leader, especially around and for his daughter Zaya. He said something that really struck me, which was about listening to and learning from your kid. He’s literally learning from her for the first time about social issues that he previously was not really engaged with or knowledgeable about.
So, I think it’s also about realizing that, especially little girls, little Black girls and girls of color, have a lot to offer the world. And we should look into them and follow them and follow their lead.
ESSENCE: Bringing a unique vision such as this to life isn’t as simplistic as people would think. What inspired you to write a children’s book?
The idea that not only can we look to our kids and take lessons from them, but also, how do you raise your kids in that way? How do you create a household where that’s really injected into the everyday day to day, instead of it being a one-off, right? How do you really develop that with your kids? It’s personal with my own kids.
Also, the bigger picture issue around diversity in children’s literature. I’m really proud that the two main characters are Black and brown little girls. [W]e’re so unrepresented on bookshelves.
“For me, this is my self care.”
ESSENCE: How did you stay motivated throughout the writing process?
Harris: I used to deal with Phenomenal Women. That’s how I came up with this idea in the first place. I was seeing this, I was exerting this, I was experiencing it. I said, “I’m going to go do something.” Which is in many ways, also the lessons and everything that we talk about with people. If you are moved to act, act. Go do something. No matter how small. And that’s what I did. And I think there’s a lot of conversation around self care. For me, this is my self care.
Writing this book has brought me so much joy, as has getting to talk to my kids about it. In terms of kids wanting to emulate everything, my daughter started saying that she was writing a book. We’ll give her white paper to color on, and one day she kept asking for tape and she was like, “I’m going to tape it together because I’m writing a book.”
It took me a minute to realize where that was coming from. Those moments are just really special. So those are the things that keep me going and doing anything that is hard.
ESSENCE: Have you heard any general anecdotes about your mom’s and your aunt’s personalities in their younger years?
Harris: My memories were just that it was a household full of joy and laughter and lots of humor. If I were to distill my household, it was a passion for social justice and a love for food and laughter. And what I loved including in the story was just learning about how they were as kids. And Kamala was definitely the troublemaker and much more mischievous. Whereas my mom was a bookworm. She was a rule follower, kind of nerdy.
One of the funny stories that my grandmother would tell me about my mother would be [when she was] on break from school and would assign book reports to herself. So, not only was she reading books, but she was writing essays and assigning her own schoolwork for her book reading, in the absence of actually being in school. It’s interesting seeing that in many ways they’re very, very different. But I think what’s beautiful is that they really took to heart what my grandmother had taught them and showed them and taught all of us, which was that we all have a responsibility to show off our community. They each did that in their own ways.
And that’s how it was for me growing up, where I had this firsthand view of what that looks like. Through Kamala, I saw it through elected office and being a public servant. And through my mom I saw the lens of racial justice and nonprofit work with folks like the ACLU and philanthropic communities. So, yes, it was a household that was full of the serious stuff, but also very much a fun atmosphere.
“So, I think it’s also about realizing that, especially little girls, little Black girls and girls of color, have a lot to offer the world. And we should look into them and follow them and follow their lead.”
ESSENCE: Like your aunt, you also pursued law. Can you think of any teachable moments between you two that stand out?
Harris: My grandmother actually was not a lawyer, but it feels like I was surrounded by lawyers. And Kamala actually talks about this a lot because she was, too. [During] the civil rights movement, when they were kids, those were the heroes, right? Lawyers who were fighting racism and racial inequality in the courts. That’s what inspired my mom and aunt, I think, to go to law school. And so for me, too, growing up and seeing that there was very much a sense of responsibility around social justice.
A key lesson that I’ve gotten from Kamala in particular, but my mom and my grandmother as well, is just to pursue things with passion. Kamala would always tell me like, “You don’t cut corners ever. You always put in the work, and it’s going to be hard work and oftentimes it’ll feel like an uphill battle, but you put in the work.” And there’s another layer to that too, which is, for women of color and Black women, it’s not going to be easy. You’re often going to have to work twice as hard as your other counterparts, but that just happens.
As much as I grew up in a household that was surrounded by lawyers, it was never something that I was pressured to do. I early on showed interest in the arts and I used to say like, “I’m an artist, I’m an artist.” I was painting, I was doing visual art and everybody said, “That’s wonderful,” and encouraged it, but still there’s an expectation of excellence, right? No matter what you do, there’s an expectation that you’re going to be the best at it, that you’re going to get the proper education and training to be good at it. And then again, hopefully, use that for good.
And so in the same way, it was really about showing up with intention, whatever you decide to pursue, do it with passion and become an expert in that thing. And lean all the way into it. Don’t do anything half-assed. Leave no stone unturned. These are all, again, lessons around community organizing that are applicable to anything that you do. People often say, “Wow, when you do something, you really do something.” And it’s like, “Yeah, I don’t know any other way. That’s what I was taught.”
This book has been such an amazing opportunity to reflect on a lot of that, and to think about how I share those messages with the world.
Pre-order Maya and Kamala’s Big Idea here.