Drop Ins: The Phenomenal Meena Harris

We believe in the power of routines and finding meaning in the ways we sew comfort into our everyday surroundings. Drop Ins is a series that explores just that, taking a dressed-down look at the lives of people who inspire us.

To say Meena Harris knows how to juggle many roles at once is an understatement: The Harvard-educated lawyer and mother of two launched Phenomenal in 2017 as a grassroots initiative meant to lift up women and make their voices heard through the sale of graphic tees emblazoned with phrases like, “Phenomenally Black” and “Latina Power” as well as “Votes for Women,” which honored the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. This summer she released the New York Times bestselling children’s book, Kamala and Maya's Big Idea, based on the real-life story of her aunt, Kamala Harris, and her mom, Maya Harris, who as two young girls, wanted to inspire change in their community. Today, she announced the launch of Ambitious Girl, a new picture book meant to inspire young girls to take charge and not let words like "too ambitious" or "too assertive" deter them from pursuing their dreams. The book comes out in January 2021.

You come from a family of strong, passionate women. Can you talk about how that’s shaped who you are today?

I often joke that growing up in my family was like the opening scene of Wonder Woman, where a community of strong, brilliant women ran around helping each other succeed, and basically saved the world together. That’s truly all I knew as a kid; strong, powerful women was my worldview. 

I learned at a young age what activism looks like, and what it can achieve. Social justice issues were frequently discussed at our dinner table. My grandmother, in particular, was no stranger to protests, but she was also a great example of living out everyday acts of resistance. She taught my mom and aunt, and later me, that you should always try to make an impact, wherever you are, however you can—big or small. In doing so, she also taught us a key lesson that became the central message of my kids’ book, Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea: “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.”

It’s important to talk to our kids about the issues we care about and to show them how passion can drive action.
In that same vein, what are some valuable lessons you’re hoping to instill in your own daughters?

Since the day they were born practically, my partner and I have been teaching our girls about activism. For me, it’s how I was raised, so we wanted to pass these values on to our kids. My daughters are still quite young, but like many kids, they are beginning to understand the world around them through big concepts and feelings like fairness.

My mother was a single mom, so when I was very little she took me everywhere—rallies, meetings, even to class—and that had a lasting positive impact on me. In fact, one of the reasons I wrote Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea is I think it’s critical for parents to start these conversations right now. It’s important to talk to our kids about the issues we care about and to show them how passion can drive action.

How are you keeping tabs on your mental health?

I’ve been improving on setting boundaries. It’s so easy to just send one more email, or take one more phone call. But with the boundary between work and home completely blurred now, I try my best to unplug at night and on weekends (although my success varies, especially as Election Day gets closer). So far, I’m a lot better at carving out space on weekends, less so at night, since that’s basically my only time throughout the day that’s completely uninterrupted by kids.

I also love cooking, and I’ve become much more mindful about taking time away from my phone and my inbox to spend free time in the kitchen. When I can, I try to get outside for fresh air, but that of course has become less possible these days due to California wildfires escalating from climate change. But we love taking walks as a family, and grabbing coffee and snacks along the way.

What’s keeping you up at night these days? And what’s giving you hope?

What’s keeping me up at night is that Election Day is just a few weeks away, and it will quite literally be the most important election, not just in our lifetimes, but in the history of our country. The threats to our democracy, including voter suppression, are real. And that’s not even counting the global health crisis, economic recession, and police violence, all of which we’re still very much dealing with. That’s why we all need to work as hard as we can over these next few weeks to get out the vote.

What’s giving me hope is young people! Young people are inheritors of a long, powerful legacy.

What’s giving me hope is young people! Young people are inheritors of a long, powerful legacy. Students and young people have led some of the most powerful social movements we’ve ever seen, and I’m constantly inspired by Gen Z’s ability especially to reject the status quo, organize, and fight for change—whether that’s in their backyard, on their campus, or all across the country. Young activists don’t need to wait for anyone to invite them to the table, because they’re already building a new, better, sturdier, and more welcoming table.

What organizations and resources have you personally been leaning on for support?

My family and friends are my greatest personal support system. I am so thankful to be surrounded by thoughtful, curious, loving, ambitious people. And I’m lucky that I get to work side-by-side with many changemakers who are leading incredible organizations and social movements. From Black Futures Lab to the WNBA to farmworkers’ rights advocates, our work at Phenomenal is about lifting up those doing the critical work on the ground.

You’ve switched gears from working as a corporate lawyer to the founder and CEO social justice organization, Phenomenal. Can you talk a bit about that transition?

My educational background and training is in the law. After graduating from Harvard Law School, I worked in a big law firm and in-house in the tech industry. But I’ve always been an activist and a creative at heart, and shortly after the 2016 election, I launched Phenomenal. Like a lot of people at that moment I found myself wondering what I personally could do to lift up women, make our voices heard, and support issues I cared about. Phenomenal started as a very small initiative to raise money for women’s organizations — I had made a handful of “Phenomenal Woman” t-shirts for the first Women’s March in 2017, and I decided to sell them on International Women’s Day through Women’s History Month.

The original t-shirt was inspired by my favorite Maya Angelou poem, “Phenomenal Woman.” A lot of people know Angelou as an iconic author and poet. But she was also a fierce advocate — a true pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement, and a good friend of both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The more I thought about Maya the activist and that powerful poem, and about the energy and engagement I was feeling all around me in the wake of the 2016 election, the more the poem started to feel like a rallying cry.

I wanted to honor the work of black women like Maya Angelou who came before me and paved the way, while also celebrating the historic moment that was the Women’s March. We thought it was going to be a small thing, but we ended up selling 2,500 shirts in one day, and the rest is history. Most recently, we launched Phenomenal Media to continue to bring greater awareness to issues affecting underrepresented communities. 

While I’m no longer practicing law day-to-day, I absolutely still feel like I use those critical-thinking and problem-solving skills every day. I’m happy to show the world that there is no one right way to use your legal education.

What piece of advice would you give young(er) Meena?

I would tell young Meena to take your time, and that it’s ok to fail. I’m a type-A high achiever and a perfectionist, so this was a hard lesson to learn. But as an entrepreneur, you have to embrace the process, and with that sometimes comes stumbles and failures.

I would tell young Meena to take your time, and that it’s ok to fail.
With millennials and Gen-Zers making up 37% of eligible voters this year, what do you want them to know most?

Young people: you are not just a voter demographic—you are a force. Representing over a third of eligible voters, you can literally decide the election. And this election will determine your future. What kind of world do you want to grow up in? One with clean air and water? One that welcomes immigrants and refugees? One that prevents and mitigates deadly pandemics? We know what the alternative is because we’re all living through it right now. While I’m going to work as hard as I possibly can over these next few weeks, I know that it’s young people who truly can make the difference in this election.

Meena and her partner, Nikolas Ajagu, were photographed (safely, from a distance) by Samantha Cooper on September 20, 2020, around Buena Vista Park in San Francisco.

Learn more about Meena’s advocacy work with Phenomenal here, and keep up with her over on Instagram

Nandita KhannaNandita Khanna LA-based content and brand ringmaster.

Likes: hand-written notes, iced lattes, and the Sunday NYT.
Dislikes: Bad manners, plastic straws.