Female founder, lawyer, and mama Meena Harris recently added “children’s books author” to her impressive list of titles. As the founder of the groundbreaking Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, Meena is a respected entrepreneur and influential voice for equity and women’s empowerment. In her most recent role as the Head of Strategy and Leadership at Uber, she lead brand transformation initiatives focused on corporate citizenship, customer loyalty and employee engagement.
Harris’s new children’s book Kamala & Maya’s Big Idea shares the story of two young activists who set out to bring a playground to their community. The two characters in the story are especially near and dear to Harris’s heart, as they are closely based on two strong female figures in her own life – her aunt, United States Senator Kamala Harris, and her mother, lawyer and policy expert Maya Harris.
Here’s what Meena Harris had to say about her new children’s book, the importance of sharing diverse stories with young minds, and how she’s raising her daughters to become empowered, phenomenal young women:
You recently published your children’s book Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea. The book draws from your mother and aunt’s childhood. What is the real life story that sparked your inspiration and made you realize this was a book you needed to write?
The real life inspiration is the literal story of them basically lobbying the apartment manager to turn the unused courtyard into an area where kids could play. If I recall correctly, my mom really wanted to play soccer and kick around a ball. And it was just a story that I heard growing up, among many stories, including ones around my grandmother coming here as a student at UC Berkeley and being a part of the Civil Rights movement and, you know, growing up in this sort of incredible household that I now realize is quite unique, of these three strong women. And hearing stories like that was super important and informative for me in terms of my outlook on the world and formative for me in terms of thinking about myself as a new parent at the time when I came up with a book idea. You know, how do I pass on a lot of the values that came out of those stories that I was hearing? So it was both about sort of memorializing what was a really personal, special family story for my own kids, but more than that, becoming a parent and thinking about, how can I possibly replicate or emulate as best I can what they provided to me in terms of showing those values? … You know, a lot of my circumstances and experiences that later became really important for me were somehow, sometimes based on necessity, right? Like having to take me everywhere with her because she didn’t have childcare but now realizing that seeing my mom working and in action and being a leader was deeply impactful for me. So, part of the process was really about “Alright how do I recreate this or translate it for my own children?”
What was the biggest challenge for you in writing this book? Did you involve your daughters in the process?
I mean, they’re really young. I did involved them in the sense that, at the time, this was like two years ago now. I must have been pregnant and the older one was only two, but they were central figures and thoughts for me in terms of how I approached it – most specifically around the illustrations. It was around that time that I started to notice that my now older daughter was noticing that her hair was textured and that it’s different than mine. And I’ve written about this a little bit other spaces around my kids seeming to be fixated on long hair. But then, in more positive ways I also saw when she saw Miss Halina who’s a black girl character on Daniel Tiger’s animated cartoon series, one day she said “I love her hair,” and it’s because her hair looks exactly like my daughter’s, right? And so that was a big thing for me and thinking about the skin tone and things like body inclusivity, but the hair was like a big one, and part of the process was I went back and forth a bit with the illustrator to like get it right… I feel very lucky to not only have an extraordinarily talented illustrator, but someone who was patient with me and understood that I wanted to get that right.
Can you speak to the importance of black and brown children seeing themselves represented in the books they engage with through their literary development, and why we all need to be making diverse representation across all media a priority?
I think it’s two-fold. I think it’s both what you just said, that representation matters for underrepresented people because you can’t be what you can’t see and it shows them what’s possible. I could see that even more with becoming a new mom, where most recently we had a family member running for president, and before you know it my kid is like “I want to be president when I grow up.” While I was writing the book… she comes upstairs one day and she’s like “Mommy, Mommy, I need tape… I need it to tape all my pages together because I’m making a book.” Her mommy was an author and so she was wanting to be an author. I had one of her preschool teachers text me like “Amara was so focused on her book and meeting her deadline. She was so intensely focused on it that she didn’t want to go to circle time.” When she was even way younger than this, like 18 months, I was working from home a lot during that period, and she started telling me “Oh, I have a call. I have a conference call.” Or she’d tell my mom “Grandma, I’m going to a meeting,” You know, they emulate, they see it, they want to be it. And the point is that they have to see it first and it has to be real to them.
It’s interesting now hearing feedback from parents which is confirming just that, which is kids love the story. But then they’re like even more obsessed with it knowing that Maya and Kamala, the two girls in the story, are real people that exist right now in real life. And some of them may know like “Oh and Kamala is a US Senator, she ran for president,” and kids, from feedback we’re getting, really love that. I also think we’re in a moment right now, where the other thing that I’ve been saying nonstop that people are finally listening to is that this is just as important for white children, this is just as important for boys. We know that when you talk about empathy and compassion and seeing people as equals and worthy of dignity and human life and viewing them as leaders, that starts with these early images of who we are seeing as the person in power, who is the default narrator, who is the central character that everything revolves around. And it turns out that when you do something as simple as just exposing your children to powerful black characters who are relatable and inspiring, that makes for adults who view black people in the same way and are less likely to engage in racism. The point is that there are obviously other tools that are much more directly on the topic of racism that I think are very important things, but this is some of the basic stuff of how we are sending messages to our children about who’s in charge, who’s powerful, who you should expect to be in positions of leadership. And if you’re able to disrupt that early on, it has really important outcomes.
I mentioned boys – we know that a lot of these harmful social and cultural norms that we teach boys around how to view girls and women start very, very young. And it turns out that when you present boy with women as fully fledged people who have big ideas that are worth supporting and worth following as leaders, and seeing them with empathy and compassion and respect and, better yet, admiration, they turn into men who view women that way and are much less likely to engage in violence and sexual harassment. These things are directly connected.
When you were growing up, what kinds of books and stories and characters did you gravitate toward?
Nothing stuck with me in a way that I feel like I saw that representation or connection… I feel like I cannot name something that I point to other than maybe the Dr. Seuss books, which I think were very progressive for their time but compared to now are not. For me though, really I was much more artistic and so a lot of the stuff that I did with my free time was creating things. I drew a lot. I don’t know why I remember this, but I had drawn like an Ursula mask. So The Little Mermaid was like a thing obviously for kids, but instead of reading it or watching it I was coloring and drawing pictures of Ursula. The point is more so that I can’t really point to anything that stuck with me and felt impactful in the way that one would hope for kids books. So I was like I’ll just write the damn thing myself.
You are also the founder of the lifestyle brand Phenomenal, which produces empowering fashion staples featuring phrases like “Phenomenally Black” and “Phenomenal Women.” What was your intention behind designing clothing where those messages are front and center?
Phenomenal started as a very small, modest idea, but part of growing it was really about thinking about how do we raise awareness around the nuances of how different issues impact different communities. And we initially started off really focusing on equal pay for women of color, and I think it’s fair to say that we were early on these conversations and were leading a lot of them around focusing not only on Equal Pay Day, but Black Equal Pay Day, Latinx Equal Pay Day, Indigenous Equal Pay Day… But the point is that these are not issues to celebrate. There’s a joke that people don’t really understand what it means are like “Happy Equal Pay Day!” No, it’s not a celebratory day. This is literally marking how much longer you have to work to catch up – this is not a celebration. But the angle of it being “Okay, we can raise awareness around what is not a positive issue, but do it in a way that is positive and uplifting of that community,” which, by the way, as we talk about representation, is often underrepresented in the conversation. It took a long time for us to move from just talking about Equal Pay Day which includes all women including white women, to the nuances and intersectionality around equal pay for women of color. And it was just such a clear point to make where it’s literally like dollars and cents in different pay gaps for different communities of women. But doing it in a way that was most importantly, celebrating that community and creating pride.
We just did a “Phenomenally Black” campaign. Again, the topic and the issue that we’re raising awareness around is horrifying. It’s that black men are being killed by the police. But it’s also a moment where we can say let’s keep fighting, because we know that we’re phenomenal. We’re deserving of dignity and life. Let’s continue showing us the world because we can’t do that enough. At least until there is full accountability and justice for those communities, because we know that but apparently the rest the world doesn’t. So there’s also this element of, radically, courageously proclaiming that to the world and standing in your power, and most importantly understanding the power of the community as a whole.
Between COVID-19 and the protests against police brutality, this is an especially difficult time for mothers to explain to their young children. Are you talking to your kids about what’s going on in this moment, and if so, what are you saying to them?
I think it is challenging, especially figuring out what’s age appropriate for different ages. I think ours can be tricky because the two year old doesn’t really understand much at all about what’s going on, whereas the four year old understands a lot. So a lot of time I’m having sort of separate conversations with the four year old. But part of it too is I think I start with the value of I’m gonna be honest with them. Again, it’s age appropriate, but I’m going to be honest about racism and the reason why people are protesting, but try to translate it to her in a way that again makes it real and goes to plant empathy. Saying “How would you feel if someone told you that you couldn’t speak out because you’re a girl, or because you have brown skin?” to explain to her some of the issues around First Amendment rights and folks not being able to express their protected rights. And connecting it to the book in the way of “none of us can do everything, but all of us can do something” and explaining that’s what the protesters are doing – that they are speaking out, they’re doing whatever they can to make their voices heard to exercise their their rights and their civil rights.
There have been other [conversations] around the coronavirus that I’ve been navigating. There was a situation where I had like a piece of paper with writing on it printed out that said “100,000 Americans have died from coronavirus.” I was recording a video with it, and she found it – I already said she’s like always drawing on paper – and wanted to trace the letters. And then she says “Well, what does it say?” and I’m like, “All right, I’m not gonna lie to her and like say that it says something totally different.” So I read it to her, and she said “Died?!” And I was like, all right, how do I navigate this in a way where I’m not like unnecessarily scaring her, like building on what we’ve already taught her which is why we’re at home and why to wash our hands constantly, but then also try to teach her some shit. And what I decided was, one, that I wanted her to know that it’s a long conversation and that we’re not possibly going to be able to cover everything in the time we had so I was to be an ongoing conversation. I also decided that I wanted to use it to try to explain to a four year old the importance of having a social safety net and inequality and then also, at the same time, gratitude… for the fact that we do have access to privileges and protections.
How can all parents teach their children to do good and make change within their communities, raising them to be lifelong activists?
I think it’s very much the message of the book. No one can do anything but all of us to do something and what that means is starting somewhere, no matter how small. And I think that can mean many different things to different people, but I think we are in this moment with the protests where it’s an example of just that. These are regular people who decided that they’re not going to sit by and they wanted to do something and to speak out. So whether it’s, like in the book, deciding that you want to advocate for having a courtyard for kids to play, or maybe it’s in your neighborhood or your place of worship or something at your school, all of us can contribute something. And part of getting on the path to raising an activist or someone who gives a damn or who is just a good problem solver is taking a look at what’s around you and what moves you and coming up with a plan and a big idea, and going for it. Not necessarily knowing like what the outcome’s gonna be, but letting your passion, your curiosity, your drive, a feeling that something’s unjust, or whatever it may be, guide you to show up consistently, to show continuously, to engage in a meaningful way. No matter how small right. It’s just learning more about an issue, making sure that you understand. If there’s a hotly contested issue, that you’re fully informed of what all the different viewpoints are. There’s so much that we can be doing literally from our living room. I look at this as an engagement ladder. For some folks, it’ll be baby steps, it’ll be meeting them where they are, but we’re seeing again that people are stepping up and, I think, finally waking up.
How are you raising your daughters to feel empowered by who they are?
Telling them just that. That their opinions are interesting and worthy and that they should talk about them. In my house, I was the only child and part of that was I was never babied. So it was sort of like if you have an interesting idea or something to say, great. So, what does that actually mean, right? Challenge critical thinking, and I think the key is that you’re building someone up to say “You’re capable, but you’re gonna have to do the work.” We’re building you up so you understand and you have confidence knowing that you can do anything. But how are you following it up with action? And that you’re going to be challenged to do that. So it is both a lesson for parents and how they’re parenting, but also thinking about how do we talk to our kids honestly, really engaging with them more in a more nuanced, deep way.
In the midst of all that is going on, what are you doing to care for and mother yourself?
I’m doing a terrible job right now of self-care. I think a lot of people who are doing the work that I do are, some of them much more exhausting work on the front line. It’s just one of those things where we have this window and we have the momentum and you can’t possibly take a break right now. I’m exhausted. I had wanted to like take the day off last week and it didn’t happen. So I think it’s just being self-aware that I am running myself into the ground and knowing that when that moment is available, to take a break.
I’ve gotten better with hopping on the exercise bike for like 30 minutes, and knowing that even if I don’t “perform” as well as I want, it’s good for my mental health, it’s good to clear my head. So I try to do that stuff. But I went to bed at like four o’clock yesterday so this is not a good time to ask me about self-care! Again, it’s about being able to activate in these moments and go hard and hustle, as long as you have the opportunity, and then take a break when you’re able to… I hope to have that window soon, but the challenge is that having that window means this moment of opportunity has like slowed down, and I don’t want that either. I think the first step is just being mindful and understanding that this is not sustainable. And I think the other piece of it is just like getting those moments, wherever I can, however I can. And sometimes that means, if I am able to move things around, trying to clear my calendar for the day so I can have more white space, or taking an evening to like cook. Just trying to find those rare moments, even if it’s 30 minutes.
Meena’s book, Kamala and Meena’s Big Idea is available everywhere books are sold.