Next-Gen

How Activist Meena Harris Is Empowering Future Generations of Women—Including Her Daughters

7 min read

Essential Takeaways

  • Meena Harris is a lawyer, activist, and the founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, a female-powered organization that brings awareness to intersectional social causes. She's also the niece of presidential hopeful Kamala Harris, and the mother to two young girls.
  • "I grew up in a household where there was a strong and constant emphasis on activism and political engagement. Now that I’m a mother, I’m always thinking about how I can create the same environment for my girls."

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Giving a damn is kind of in Meena Harris' DNA. The same goes for setting the ultimate example for how women can defy systemic inequality to change the world. Just as she learned from her mother Maya, a senior advisor to Hillary Clinton, and her aunt Kamala, who you probably know as a frontrunner in the 2020 presidential race, Harris is hellbent on empowering future generations of women to make their mark—including her two daughters.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Harris—a Harvard-schooled lawyer—launched the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, an organization that works to bring awareness to intersectional social causes. That means juggling partnerships with nine other organizations working to empower women, designing and selling t-shirts that have gone viral many times over to benefit those organizations, crossing the country for speaking engagements and other advocacy opportunities, and at the end of the day, also being a mom.

You might wonder how there are enough hours in the day for Harris to tackle it all, but that's a question she constantly ponders herself. "I became a (full-time) entrepreneur and a mother basically at the same time, so my identity expanded and evolved in some ways," she says. "But the biggest challenge has been juggling the two in terms of how I spend my time. I try to remind myself that although they’re distinct identities, they’re not mutually exclusive."

Below, she shares more about what it means to be a phemonenal woman, and how she plans on instilling that same spirit of activism into her daughters.

You’ve built a career and a voice in industries where women are notoriously underrepresented (tech, politics, etc.). We’re making amazing progress but the climb is steep. What advice do you have for keeping up the fight?

The first step is simply finding the issue you’re passionate about—whatever inspires you or makes you angry—and engaging with that as often as you can, whether it’s on a weekly or monthly basis. Maybe that means getting involved at a local nonprofit or school, or learning more about one issue and really owning that. All of us have the power to make an impact, and it’s just about taking the first step and continuing to show up. I also think it’s important to advocate for those who are not always heard and to build spaces for those who are often underrepresented to feel recognized and celebrated. As long as we are lifting each other up, and making sure each unique and important story is heard, we are making progress. At the same time, we also need to keep our eye on the ball and not become complacent by thinking we’ve made more progress than we actually have.

What does being a "phenomenal woman" mean to you?

To me, it means speaking out and standing up for women everywhere; it means understanding intersectionality and supporting and advancing the interests of women of color; and it means working together to make positive change in the world, no matter how small. The Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign came to be through my belief that there is no feminism without intersectionality. I wanted to create a space that brings together all women in solidarity while recognizing the distinct experiences among each of us. I think people were really drawn to the idea because it provided a tangible opportunity to create change through nonprofit donations, as well as social awareness through dialogue around pressing issues that affect women.

I hope for Phenomenal Woman to inspire even more meaningful opportunities for civic engagement and to deepen partnerships within different communities. The campaign was only supposed to last one month, but now has endured for over two years and has grown to be so much more than a t-shirt. We’ve proven to be particularly effective at urgent moments, and along with the original Phenomenal Woman t-shirt, we have launched other activism-focused campaigns and products, including #1600men, Phenomenal Voter, Phenomenally Black, Phenomenally Indigenous, and Phenomenally Latina, with plans to continue to grow and expand an intersectional movement of women using their power to create change.

How are old stigmas and definitions around motherhood changing, from your perspective?

In 2019, motherhood is overcoming the guilt and lack of institutional support for doing what mothers and women have always done since the beginning of time, which is doing it all: working, juggling families, and making a purposeful life. When we talk about things like self-care and work/life balance, we put a lot on the individual. But the reality is that it has to be a partnership. We each have a responsibility to seek fulfillment in our own lives, but employers also have a responsibility to create environments where fulfillment is actually possible. That starts with things like generous paid family leave, caregiver support, and flexible work hours.

What steps do you take to nurture yourself, and how does that ultimately feed into your role as a parent?

Honestly I still haven’t completely figured out self-care, and with two small kids, it often feels impossible. The essentials are water and sleep, so for now I’m focused on staying hydrated...but wine helps too.

Is there anything you wish you’d known about motherhood when you were pregnant for the first time?

Do what works for you, and don’t worry about what other people think.

On that note, in what ways has becoming a mother empowered you? How do you hope to pass along your spirit of activism and political engagement to your daughters?

I grew up in a household where there was a strong and constant emphasis on activism and political engagement. Now that I’m a mother, I’m always thinking about how I can create the same environment for my girls. They’re still very young, but part of it starts with conversations about what it means to be a leader and to do good in your community. We’re lucky to have many women in our family who are great role models for this...in addition to Moana.

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