Changemakers Exclusive: Meena Harris Is Changing the World, One T-Shirt at a Time
Meena Harris

Exclusive: Meena Harris Is Changing the World, One T-Shirt at a Time

"You don't have to be any one thing—you can make positive social change in your own unique way."

It’s about 30 seconds into our phone interview when Meena Harris shares she’s missing one of her AirPods. She finds it about another 30 seconds in, only to discover it’s dead. “Life with two children,” she quips. More broadly, it’s the life of an entrepreneur, author, lawyer, and activist who, in her words, has been dealing with a “non-stop whirlwind” since 2016—the year Trump was elected, and also the year Harris, who was working for Uber at the time, decided to tap into her creative side and sell T-shirts to raise money for women’s organizations. Four years later and her Phenomenal Woman business has expanded to include sweatshirts, leggings, and bodysuits, and has grown into a full-fledged action campaign that works to raise awareness around issues that affect underrepresented communities. 

Four years later and we’re also coming up on another historic election that, this time, Harris has a personal connection to. The daughter of Maya Harris, a civil rights lawyer and public policy advocate, and the niece of Democratic VP nominee Kamala Harris, Meena was born into a family of dynamic Black changemakers. Politics and social justice are in her blood, so it’s easy to understand why these past couple of years under the current administration have been particularly stressful. “In terms of wanting to get Donald Trump out of office, we only have two months left, so I definitely feel somewhat of a greater sense of urgency and anxiety,” she says “Everything feels high stakes and important.” 

Politically active or not, a lot of people feel similarly and, if there’s one lesson that’s been passed down from the strong women in Meena’s life, it’s that “each of us can make a contribution, no matter how small.” Part of that includes exercising your right to vote, Meena says, pointing to the election interference and mass voter suppression currently taking place. “Our democracy is in peril and that's the least you can do, in my opinion.”

Ahead, we talk to Meena about how she’s taking care of herself, the lessons her two daughters have taught her, and her hopes for the future. 

Meena Harris
 Birdies 

How have you been taking care of yourself since 2016 and during this quarantine? 

I've always been pretty bad at self-care. I’m the classic person—and there's a lot of us in this space in terms of politics and activism—where we run ourselves into the ground constantly. The biggest thing that is going to change for me is becoming more aware of that; to check in with myself and [ask myself], are you one the verge of burnout? Are you so exhausted that it's affecting your ability to do your work or your creativity? And then doing whatever I can in that moment to remedy that. I'll try to clear my calendar the next day or literally step away from my laptop for the evening and go cook a meal. Sometimes, that means that I'm roasting chickens and making chili at like 11 o'clock on a weeknight, that's happened before. My kind of philosophy, given who I am and how I am about this stuff, is to basically take self-care wherever you can find it. And the little things matter. And understanding what you can control also matters. And, in that way, I feel really good if I drink a shit ton of water on any given day. I know that's good for me and good for my body. That's one thing that's part of my practice that's on the more mindfulness side. 

And then—I swear I'm not sponsored by them, I frankly wish I was—but Peloton has been a life-changer for me. As both a working mom and an entrepreneur and then now with the pandemic, it's made exercise so much more accessible for me… meaning I’m literally staring at my bike right now. I've always been terrible about committing to a regular workout routine and going to classes, in part because I'm so overbooked and then I'm rushing to this class and then I'm late for the class and I'm paying late fees...it's stressful. Whereas, with the bike, if I have a 30-minute window I’ve now gotten accustomed to being like, just get on it. Go do your workout, bang it out, and understand that not only is that good for my physical health and well-being, but it creates a lot of mental strength too. It feels like a mini-therapy hype session. One thing that I've definitely learned over the years is the need to create white space and spaciousness. I assume it's good for your mental health but for me, it also makes me better at what I do. It's those moments where I come up with the best ideas and when I have creative breakthroughs. So basically every single time that I do Peloton, I literally have to race off my bike because my mind is exploding with ideas and I need to write them all down before I forget. 

Go do your workout, bang it out, and understand that not only is that good for my physical health and well-being, but it creates a lot of mental strength too. It feels like a mini-therapy hype session.

It’s been four years since the founding of Phenomenal Woman. How would you say its evolved and what part of the action campaign are you most proud of?

We've grown in terms of our messaging and in the communities that we work with. Obviously, we started off with that one grey T-shirt and, even back then, I remember people asking me, "Can you create a different colorway? Can you do pink for Breast Cancer Awareness?" Fast forward two, three years later…I think the next style that we did was Phenomenally Indigenous and that was driven by us continuing our number one issue for the first year, which was equal pay and pay inequity for women of color and making the point that women of color—specifically Black, Latinx, and Indigenous women—have a different experience with pay inequality than white women. 

In addition to doing different styles, we also started expanding our advocacy to different issue areas. We’ve done so many campaigns now—one around farmworkers and their working conditions, we've done a huge campaign around family separation and the humanitarian crisis at the border. We have always centered on women of color and Black women in particular, but we did a huge campaign around the BLM protests at the beginning of the pandemic. We brought the Phenomenally Asian T-shirt back to do a campaign around anti-Asian racism coming out of the coronavirus crisis. I can go on and on, but the point is that we grew in a big way and it continued to expand our reach and the breadth of issues that we advocate on and the communities that we represent and engage with. 

Is there a part of the action campaign that you're most proud of?

I'd probably say I'm most proud of our WNBA partnership. That’s a recent one where we supported WNBA players in their decision to dedicate the 2020 season to social justice. We kicked it off with launching Phenomenal Media, which is another platform for us to continue engaging around these issues, and we published our first op-ed with Sue Bird and Nneka [Ogwumike] who is the president of the WNBA players association. Then we did a massive campaign demanding accountability and justice for Breonna Taylor.

Meena Harris
@meena

What are some bits of advice that the phenomenal women in your life have taught you and that you hope to pass down to your daughters?

Not to be corny and mention my children's book [Kamala and Maya's Big Ideas], but I think the number one thing that I talk about is this idea that no one can do everything, but everyone can do something. And what that means is each of us can play a role, no matter how small. Each of us can make a contribution, no matter how small. I was taught that I had a duty and responsibility to figure out how I could make an impact, big or small. You don't have to be any one thing or call yourself an activist—you can make positive social change in your own unique way. And, in fact, that's the better way to do it, right? In a way that's unique to you and brings out your passion and experiences. For me, in the context of Phenomenal Woman, it was making a little T-shirt. I had no idea where that was going to take me, but I kept that advice and those values in mind, which is do something. And when each of us decides to stand up and speak out, it’s the chance to start a movement; to change the world.

You don't have to be any one thing or call yourself an activist—you can make positive social change in your own unique way.

It’s [also] about showing up with that commitment and doing it in a consistent way, not a one-off thing. There's also a lesson in that with my shirt. I could've put out this one shirt, and I could've said, "alright I reached my goal—in fact, I exceeded my goal, I'm done with this thing." I think in part because of those values that I was raised with and having been somebody whose done community organizing, instead, my thought was, "Oh my god, I can't stop now. This is literally something that is resonating with people, so how can I grow it? How can I do more? How can I make it better? How can I reach more people?" Coming to it with that commitment to show up in a consistent way is also important and that is critical to actually effecting change in the long-term. It's not something that you do once and you walk away.

I read that your grandmother taught you what the word "boycott" meant at the age of four. We’re living in a particularly trying time of civil unrest currently and I know your daughters are young, but I’m wondering if you’ve had conversations with them about the recent protests and the racial injustice in this country and, if so, what those conversations have looked like.

My general advice around this is to be as honest as you can with your children— but obviously that also has to be age accessible. My philosophy is to teach lessons around what's going on in the world, but relating it back to more universal things that [your child] can understand. During some of the BLM protests when Donald Trump used the national guard to push back protestors so that he could go off in front of the church, I was talking to my four-year-old and the way that I phrased it for her was, "How would it make you feel if somebody told you you couldn't speak your mind and share your opinion? How would that make you feel?" Likewise, that the police treat Black people differently and it’s not fair. And that people may treat you differently because of the color of your skin, and what's happening is people are getting killed. Doing it in a way where she can understand it and relate to it and explore the feelings around what injustice feels like is important. 

Meena Harris
@meena

I was raised in a very unique family where I was the only child with these three powerhouse women and I joke that I was, like, a "super" only child. It was both a parenting approach but also a matter of circumstances that I was basically talked to like an adult. I wasn't coddled—we had very passionate dinner table conversations about social justice and I was expected to listen and participate and engage. I think it was incredibly important and I aim to raise my daughters in the same way. 

Along the lines of teaching, you’re also actively working to teach your oldest daughter that her curly hair is beautiful. Why was that important for you?

I would contextualize it generally in building up confidence in girls. What I know is that, if you don't do it at home, it's not going to happen out in the world. In fact, the opposite will happen. People will try to dim her light or make her feel different or whatever it may be. I have a huge responsibility to do everything I can to make sure that she loves herself and is confident about all of her unique characteristics and experiences.

The initial impetus for it came a little earlier than I expected, which it became clear that she was noticing that her hair was different than mine. It was apparent to me that she was seeing me and [noticing when I may have] made off-hand comments about needing to blow-dry my hair, or my hair being long. She started to pick up things about long hair and things like that and I wanted to make sure I quickly made sure that she understood that, even though her hair is different than mine, that it's really special and it's really beautiful. In the same way, she'll see that when she goes to school and if somebody has blonde hair or straight hair or doesn't put their hair in braids, [I want her] to know that, just because she’s different, doesn't mean that she's somehow less than.

Meena Harris
 @meena

Are there lessons your daughters have, in turn, taught you? 

It's kind of crazy becoming a parent and seeing how much kids soak up and getting to see their unfiltered view. One of the biggest lessons in parenting for me with them is letting them figuring shit out for themselves. As somebody who is a Type-A with an in-control personality, it's easy to slip into helicopter parenting. Also, I’m an only child, as I said, so I've never dealt with sibling relations. But I see the power in letting them figure things out for themselves or problem solving—including with each other. There are times when they come to me like, "Mommy she did this" or "she did that" and I'm like, "Okay, well, go talk to your sister. I don't have anything to do with it. That's between you guys. You guys need to figure that out." Challenging them in that way has been important. 

It’s easy to be depleted these days. What or who is motivating you right now? 

Two groups: One I would say is Black activists who have been doing work on the ground and organizing for generations. What we are seeing in terms of civil unrest and protests and uprising and demand for change...that didn't just happen. It didn't come out of thin air. This has been the work of lots of people and organizations for years and years. I've worked with a lot of them but I continue to have incredible respect for them and it's a reminder to me of keeping your head in the game, keeping your eye on the ball, and sticking with it. That gives me a lot of hope and I think it's an important reminder for all of us in terms of the work that we do.

Meena Harris
@meena 

The other is just my kids. As I said, they bring so much joy and light into our lives and when you're in your head or too far deep into some shit, they're a reminder of what really matters.

What's one thing you think anyone can do to spur change in their life, right here, right now? 

It starts with figuring out what you care about. People need to figure out what is that issue that makes you feel angry, or that is so unjust that you can't sit by, or inspires you so much that you've developed a real passionate interest in—such as electing more women to office. There are so many things that each of us can be doing; it’s about finding that thing and going hard on it. Leaning all the way in. Becoming an expert. Get a Google alert so you can learn more about the issue. Figure out opportunities to engage with it.

There are so many things that each of us can be doing; it’s about finding that thing and going hard on it.

What are your hopes and vision for the future? As you’ve mentioned, the election is coming up in a couple of monthsare you optimistic?

I'm hopeful; I feel good, I feel motivated. I tweeted this last night; like, I'm really exhausted but we have two more months and we gotta get this done. But that's also to say that it's going to take a lot of hard work and I hope that people are ready to run and sprint and do everything they possibly can to get us across the finish line. Because that is what it's going to take. We're up against a lot and it's going to take all of us assuming that feeling of responsibility and urgency and understanding how high stakes this is to really make an impact. I feel there could not be enough hours in the day. I check in with myself every day like, "Alright, are you going to collapse today?" But we gotta get to November and I'm committed to doing that, no matter what it takes. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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