Activist Meena Harris Is One Seriously Phenomenal Woman
We talked to the lawyer, mother, entrepreneur, and activist about empowering women, making waves, and starting the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign.
Meena Harris has an impressive resume: The Harvard-educated lawyer was a senior adviser on policy and communications for her aunt U.S. Senator Kamala Harris’s 2016 campaign and is currently head of strategy and leadership at Uber. But she’s also a mother, a creative, an entrepreneur, and an activist—identities that all helped inform and inspire the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, which she started in the wake of the 2016 election. The female-powered organization brings awareness to various women’s empowerment and social causes and supports non-profit partners like Girls Who Code and Families Belong Together. (Related: Busy Philipps Has Some Pretty Epic Things to Say About Changing the World)
What started with one viral ‘Phenomenal Woman’ t-shirt—as seen on pretty much every celebrity you follow—has grown into a multifaceted campaign that helps support a wide-range of timely initiatives, like #1600 Men. ICYMI, the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign took out a full-page ad in the New York Times with signatures of 1,600 men showing their support for Christine Blasey Ford and all surivors of sexual assault, paying homage to the 1991 ad signed by 1,600 black women in support of Anita Hill.
We talked to the changemaker about what urged her to turn a t-shirt into a social justice movement, raising daughters in a social-justice family, and how to tap into your inner activist.
The Story Behind the ‘Phenomenal Woman’ T-shirt
"Like a lot of folks coming out of the 2016 election, I was feeling sort of desperate and helpless in terms of the outcome we were facing. The inspiration for this came from thinking about, 'what can I do as an individual in this moment of dark darkness?' I’m somebody who has been involved in politics throughout my life [her mother Maya was a senior advisor to Hillary Clinton and her aunt Kamala is a candidate in the 2020 presidential race] and even I was feeling like, 'wow, what can I do here?' And then when the Women’s March happened, and I wasn’t able to go because I had an infant at the time, but I wanted to be a part of it in some way. So I thought, what if I made some t-shirts? I wanted to honor the incredible women before us who paved the way for our generation to have this historic moment—it was one of the biggest protests in history—so it was a way to recognize the power of that moment."
The Women Who Inspired Her Activism
"The name Phenomenal Woman was inspired by Maya Angelo, who wrote Phenomenal Woman, a favorite poem of mine. A lot of people know her as a poet and an author, but she was also a fierce activist and was good friends with Malcolm X. Thinking about women like her and my mom (my mom has been doing this work around racial justice behind the scenes without fanfare for her whole life, really), I had this realization that a lot of times it’s black women who are the hidden figures leading these movements. I wanted to think about how we can honor and celebrate them and realize that we're here standing on their shoulders because of them.
My grandmother was also a huge figure in my life and the lives of my mom and aunt. She taught each of us that, yes, we can do this, but also we have a responsibility to do this. We have a duty to show up in the world with meaning and purpose and commitment to doing good. And to use any privilege that we have to make positive change and to disrupt oppressive systems. My grandmother was such an incredible example of living out everyday acts of resistance. I now realize not only how lucky I was to grow up in that environment, but also how unique that was."
How a Shirt Turned Into a Movement
"I thought I was going to create 20 or so shirts and send them off with my friends. They sent me photos [from the Women’s March] with snow in the background on the mall of them marching and protesting and they were the most powerful images I had seen since the election. I felt like, wow, this is something. And then, sure enough, when we actually took the leap to launch an entire campaign around it, 25 people bought shirts. Instead of saying 'ok, we hit our goal, let me go back to my regular life,' I thought 'holy cow, I have to keep growing this, right? We’re really onto something here.' Turning what I think was this moment of despair and what was really scary for a lot of people into a moment of celebration and of lifting women up, and of saying that women are resilient and phenomenal in their own individual ways and, together, we can get through this—that's really what inspired me to commit to this long-term.
So, we went from one month to a three-month pilot, during which time we ended up selling over 10,000 shirts. And here I am now, over two and a half years later, talking about it. I never thought that it would be anything bigger than one month."
Lifting Up Women of Color
"These issues are experienced differently by different communities, so that was a big part of the strategy. I didn’t want to just contribute to super well-known organizations like Planned Parenthood or Girls Who Code, but also smaller organizations, many of them run by women of color that are not as well-funded but that are doing some of the most brilliant and critical on-the-ground-work. I wanted to let people know about these other organizations like Essie Justice Group, an organization dedicated to helping women with incarcerated loved ones or National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, which focuses specifically on the Latino community.
We wanted to find an intersectional perspective and think about underrepresented people and stories that are not usually part of mainstream dialogue. We want to use our platform and our influence to shed light on the experiences of different communities, specifically around women of color. For example, most people are aware of Equal Pay Day, which happens in April, and represents the number of days that all women have to work into the next year in order to reach pay parity with what men earned the year before. But most people don’t realize that the gap is much wider for women of color, so we did a campaign around Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, which doesn’t happen until the end of August."
Reacting During In Moments of Urgency
"On Mother’s Day, we launched a campaign called Phenomenal Mother in partnership with Family Belongs Together, which is responding to the humanitarian crisis at the border around family separation. That campaign was about responding in this moment and drawing people's attention back to the issue and to show that this is an ongoing crisis. We also wanted to use it to recognize the power, not only of these mothers that are literally risking their lives for their children but also of ordinary moms. It had become clear to me that it was an issue that really touched moms, I think for obvious reasons—you're imagining your own children being ripped from your arms.
We can continue segmenting by different communities and issues, but we’re also a trusted compelling voice in those moments of urgency...I think in that way like the sky's the limit in terms of what else we can be doing and what are the issues we can activate on. I think that's one of my challenges—you're moving so fast and you're going from issue to issue, especially in this era where it feels like literally there's a new issue each day. There’s a new tragedy, a new community under attack. For us, the North Star is that it's intersectional that we are highlighting, issues that impact underrepresented groups and talking about issues in a way that you're not normally going to see in mainstream consumer advertising campaigns."
How Becoming a Mother Informs Her Activism
“I wouldn't say that becoming a mother inspired me to do the campaign necessarily, but it did and continues to make me think about what kind of model am I setting for my daughters and, frankly, how I can get as close as possible to what my grandmother did, what my mother did, knowing what an incredible impact it had on me and how formative it was for me to be exposed to talking about social justice at an early age. Being a parent, there are a lot of unknowns and just keeping your children alive is hard enough, let alone trying to be really intentional about, 'how do I raise my own little social justice family?' I think a lot of, for example, millennial mothers are themselves coming into this kind of identity around activism and speaking up."
How to Turn Your Passion Into Purpose
“Just start somewhere. We're in this moment where there are unlimited issues you could get wrapped up in. I think it’s overwhelming for a lot of people and can be daunting; it is for me. As somebody who's engaged in this work, it feels like a constant assault and I think that to do this and to do it successfully, you have to really take your time to consider what you're passionate about: What makes makes you want to get out of bed in the morning? What makes you really angry? What makes you feel like something is so unjust, that it makes you break down in tears when you read about it in the newspaper and you feel like you just need to do something? And then it’s about recognizing that we're all living our daily lives, and I'm not expecting you to go be a full time activist, but how do you show up in a consistent, meaningful way? That’s what our whole message is about: It's about meeting people where they are."