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Maisonette Muse

Meena Harris

Growing up, Meena Harris had no shortage of strong female role models. As the daughter of Maya Harris, a civil rights lawyer and senior advisor to Hillary Clinton, and the niece of Kamala Harris, who is currently making waves on the campaign trail, she was raised to engage meaningfully with the world around her. Now, the mother of two daughters, lawyer, activist, founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign and Head of Strategy & Leadership at Uber, is dedicated to helping men and women do the same. We caught up with Meena on the eve of International Day of the Girl to talk about raising strong women, how to talk to children about activism and what it would mean for little girls to see a woman in the White House.

Photography
Maria Del Rio
Interview By
Liz McDaniel
Your mother, your aunt, your grandmother—you grew up surrounded by powerful women, political women. Can you speak to the importance of having these strong female role models?

Yes, absolutely. I now appreciate how powerful and formative that was for me. I didn’t quite appreciate it at the time. It was just all I knew which, in itself, is sort of extraordinary. I joke that it was sort of like the opening scene of Wonder Woman where you’re on this all-female sovereign island nation and it’s all women who are running around helping each other and saving the world and that’s literally all I knew. The ideal of male leadership was actually very foreign to me. All I knew was women in charge and powerful women doing things in the world and so, needless to say, that was an incredibly important experience for me. And something I appreciate even more now that I’m a mother and I’m thinking about how to create an experience and a world like that for my own two daughters.

Your mom was a single mother and she often took you everywhere. How do you think that informed the person and mother you have become and what lessons have you passed on to your own daughters?

Yes, it’s been such an important thing for me having a single mom. One of the things that is different is that, in many ways, I had that experience by necessity. Because my grandmother was a single mom. My mom was a single mom. Whereas we’re a two parent household, so many of the things that impacted me, like my mom just taking me everywhere with her— to her law school classes, or the law library or to her office or to events because she wasn’t able to get child care in some cases—I don’t necessarily have that constraint. But I now understand just how important it was to see my mother working, to see that the work that she did mattered, to see her as a leader in the world and to learn about social justice not only through the way that my family talked about it but in the way that my family was actually doing something about it. Now with my kids, I think we can acknowledge that it’s kind of hard to bring your kids along if you don’t have to. (I have a three-year-old and a nineteen-month- old.) But I still aspire to bring them to speaking events and to marches and things like that when they’re a little older because I want to create that same experience.

In the meantime, my older daughter has been joining conference calls, whether it’s her imaginary conference calls or my actually putting an earbud in her ear when I’m on calls. But what’s been really important is actually talking about this stuff all the time. I think there’s this kind of old and tired conversation around work life balance and I think that being engaged, being an active participant in the world, you can’t really separate those things.

Do you have any advice for talking to children about activism, particularly for really little ones, or making them understand how to engage with something larger than themselves?

Well, I had a funny conversation with my partner early on because we get The New Yorker to the house and Donald Trump is often on the cover or in the cartoons, and my older daughter was about two and she pointed to the cover and said, “Who is that?” and I said, “That’s Donald Trump.” And my partner was like, “Meena, don’t talk to her about that.” And I kind of had this moment like, “No, I’m going to talk to her about this. She needs to understand what’s going on and who Donald Trump is and what the national conversation is.” We graduated the conversation recently to talking about the election and I’ve explained that Donald Trump is the president and that Auntie is running for president, that she’s running to take that position and this is how you run for president and you have your platform and you tell people what matters to you and you really try to convince them that you’re the best person. And we’ve talked about the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment coming up and I’ve tried to convey to her that not everybody got the right to vote on that day, that black women didn’t get the right to vote and what it means to fight for that, so that’s how we’re doing it for now.

But I think you have to start with what feels true to you. Maybe it’s not realistic for everyone to talk to their kids about it non-stop, but you do have to be intentional. We don’t watch a ton of movies and TV but we did watch Moana in part because it’s this brown girl who also has thick curly hair. So there’s representation. And I have been very deliberate about referring to Moana as a community leader. She’s a leader and she takes care of her community and you can talk about kindness and caring about other people. And we teach her that Auntie is running to be a community leader also and how each of us in our lives can think about that and who we want to be. So I think you can contextualize it in ways they understand.

You started your Phenomenal Woman campaign in the aftermath of the 2016 election, which was an emotional day for a lot of women. Can you share what you felt on that day and what inspired you to act?

I was at the Javits Center in New York on election night. My daughter was only five months and travel was a bit challenging so we had decided not to go and at the last minute we were like we cannot miss witnessing history, so we got her a little white suffragette outfit and we took a red eye so she could sleep and we were literally in New York for twenty-four hours. And it turned into being there providing moral support for my mom. It was the most devastating thing and to be at the center of it on election night, to be there, it was awful. We woke up the next day and flew back to San Francisco. It felt apocalyptic.

I think the very next day, I was cleansing myself of everything, and I took my pantsuit to the dry cleaner. And Pantsuit Nation, if you remember the origin of that, it was really women coordinating to wear pantsuits on Election Day and I thought, there’s a facebook group with four million women so why don’t we do something so these folks can feel like they’re immediately engaging in something meaningful? With that came the idea of a pantsuit drive to donate suits to homeless women and poor women looking for jobs. There was a healing aspect and we were doing good through this pantsuit drive campaign and that preceded the Phenomenal Woman t-shirt. I was working in a tech company at the time and I wasn’t totally new to the t-shirt game. I had done a t-shirt for female entrepreneurs, so when I texted my parents and said, “I think I want to do a Phenomenal Woman t-shirt based on the Maya Angelou quote,” my mom was like, “Do you really want to take on another t-shirt?,” and my father famously said, “I don’t know I think it sounds a little self-referential…” so that can be a lesson for entrepreneurs that you don’t have to take everyone’s actual advice. I did it anyway. And partly it was that I wasn’t able to make it to the Women’s March because I had a baby and I wasn’t able to fly out but I wanted to be a part of it in some small way. So I made a small batch of Phenomenal Woman t-shirts and sent them with some friends who were going and the photos they sent back were just completely, overwhelmingly inspiring, and the feedback that they got from people at the march was positive, so we decided to keep it going and we turned it into a fundraising campaign celebrating Women’s History Month. We launched on International Women’s Day and now here we are two and a half years later.

Can you speak to your aunt’s campaign and what you think it would mean for little girls to have a woman in the White House?

Obviously, I’m biased, but there are so many images and videos of Kamala interacting with young girls and it pretty much bring me to tears everytime. Just to see the look in their eyes, the idea that one day they could be doing that, too. Or that you have someone like her who interacts with you the way that she does fighting for you and someone who wants to continue fighting for you. To have that representation and someone who prioritizes those issues is incredibly inspiring.

I think it’s hugely important for young girls to see that possibility and to understand that we’re fighting for it.

Are there any organizations you love that are doing a great job lifting up women and girls?

One in particular is the Essie Justice Group which is a really well-regarded criminal justice reform organization that has a specific focus on women. Girls Who Code is another important one that focuses on job training and skill building for young women. There’s also our #1600 Men campaign partner, Futures Without Violence. Another one is Tarana Burke’s organization and her work with Me Too and Girls for Gender Equity. And Michelle Obama’s organization, Girls Opportunity Alliance.

Finally, if you could say one thing to inspire all little girls, what would it be?!

Keep fighting!