Activist Meena Harris: The Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign

We talked to the lawyer, mother, entrepreneur, and activist about empowering women, making waves, and starting the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign.

With a distinguished career that includes being a Harvard-educated attorney, a senior policy and communications advisor for her aunt, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris's 2016 campaign, and the current head of strategy and leadership at Uber, Meena Harris is making a name for herself. Beyond her professional achievements, she’s also a mother, an artist, an entrepreneur, and an activist - roles that significantly contributed to the creation of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, which emerged following the last election in 2016.

This women-led movement shines a spotlight on multiple women's empowerment and societal issues while championing non-profit partners such as Girls Who Code and Families Belong Together. The campaign, which started with a single 'Phenomenal Woman' t-shirt that went viral, has now expanded into a multi-dimensional initiative that supports a broad spectrum of relevant causes like #1600 Men. In case you missed it, the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign published a full-page advertisement in the New York Times featuring the signatures of 1,600 men expressing their support for Christine Blasey Ford and all survivors of sexual assault.

This was a poignant tribute to the 1991 ad where 1,600 black women signed in support of Anita Hill. We had the opportunity to converse with this influential figure about what motivated her to transform a simple t-shirt into a social justice crusade, raising children in a family committed to social justice, and ways to unlock one's inherent activist spirit.

The Story Behind the ‘Phenomenal Woman’ T-shirt

"Feeling a sense of despair and helplessness following the 2016 election results was common, even for someone like me who has always been politically aware and involved [my mother Maya was an essential advisor to Hillary Clinton and my Aunt Kamala is a contender in the 2020 presidential race]. It was a time of overwhelming darkness, leaving me questioning, 'What can one individual do in such circumstances?' During the Women’s March, although I couldn't participate due to having a young infant, I yearned to contribute somehow. The idea of creating t-shirts surfaced as a way to celebrate the tremendous women who have forged the path for our generation. This march marked one of history's largest protests, and through these shirts, I wanted to acknowledge the strength of that milestone moment."

The Women Who Inspired Her Activism

"Influenced by the words of Maya Angelo, the Phenomenal Woman poem has always been a favorite of mine. Not only was she a celebrated author and poet, but she was also a passionate activist and had a close friendship with Malcolm X. I was inspired to recognize that often it is black women who are the unseen force steering these movements. I wanted to find a way to acknowledge and honor their contributions, realizing that our position today is due to their hard work. My grandmother was another significant influence in my life, as well as my mom's and aunt's lives. She instilled in us the belief that not only could we make a difference, but that it was our duty to do so. We were taught to lead lives of purpose and meaning, committed to making a positive impact. We learned to utilize any privilege we have to instigate positive change and challenge oppressive systems. My grandmother lived a life full of everyday acts of resistance, setting an extraordinary example for us. Looking back, I realize how fortunate I was to have such an environment growing up, and also how rare it is."

How a Shirt Turned Into a Movement

"Originally, the plan was to make roughly 20 shirts and distribute them among friends. The powerful images they sent me from the Women's March, braving the snow and standing up for their rights, were honestly the most impactful visuals I'd seen since the election. It stirred something within me. When we decided to build a campaign around this, it surpassed our expectations with 25 people purchasing shirts. Rather than reverting back to my regular routine after achieving our goal, I felt an urge to expand this movement. What started as a fearful time turned into an opportunity to uplift women and celebrate their individuality and resilience. This belief propelled me to commit to this cause long-term. Our initial one-month plan became a three-month pilot where we sold over 10,000 shirts. Now, two and a half years later, the journey continues. To think initially it was only meant to last a month!"

Lifting Up Women of Color

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Our strategy is significantly tailored towards addressing the specific difficulties faced by varying communities. We aim to lend support not only to high-profile entities like Planned Parenthood or Girls Who Code, but also emerging organizations, primarily spearheaded by women of color. These groups may not have extensive funding but carry out exceptional grassroots work that needs recognizing. One such organization is Essie Justice Group that works tirelessly for women associated with imprisoned individuals and National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health that caters to the Latino community's unique needs.

We are focused on providing an intersectional standpoint, shedding light on the lesser-known narratives of marginalized people, particularly women of color. For instance, Equal Pay Day in April is a widely known event signifying how long all women must work into the subsequent year to earn as much as men did in the previous year. However, it's often overlooked that the wage gap is considerably larger for women of color. Therefore, we championed a campaign surrounding Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, which isn't commemorated until the end of August."

Reacting During In Moments of Urgency

"On the occasion of Mother’s Day, we initiated a venture named Phenomenal Mother in collaboration with Family Belongs Together, an organization addressing the humanitarian crisis concerning family separations at the border. The essence of this campaign was to put the spotlight back on this persisting issue and emphasize its continuity. Our aim was not only to appreciate the strength of mothers who are putting their lives at stake for their children but also highlight the role of ordinary mothers. It became evident that this matter deeply resonated with mothers — the thought of having their children taken away is unimaginable. There lies potential in further breaking down by different groups and concerns, but simultaneously, we've established ourselves as a credible and engaging voice in times of exigency...In this sense, the opportunities are boundless regarding what more we can accomplish and the issues we can mobilize. One of the formidable challenges is the rapid pace at which we're moving from one problem to another, especially in present times when it seems like there's a new concern or a new community being targeted every day. Repeated instances of tragedy leave one feeling overwhelmed. However, our guiding principle remains intersectionality. We focus on underscoring issues affecting marginalized groups and discussing matters in a manner that isn't typically seen in mainstream consumer advertising campaigns."

How Becoming a Mother Informs Her Activism

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While I can't say that motherhood was the direct trigger for my campaign, it certainly influences how I examine the example I'm setting for my girls. Additionally, it makes me strive to emulate the impact my grandmother and mother had on my upbringing - particularly in their introduction of social justice conversations from a young age. Parenthood is packed with uncertainties and the basic challenge of ensuring your children's survival can be overwhelming. Add to that, aspiring to consciously nurture a family dedicated to social justice. A large number of millennial mothers are gradually embracing an identity centered around activism and vocal advocacy.

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How to Turn Your Passion Into Purpose

Commencement is key. The current scenario presents us with innumerable issues that we could potentially get entangled in. This situation might appear overwhelming and daunting to several individuals including me. As a person deeply involved in this work, it feels like a consistent onslaught. For successful engagement, you need to invest time in identifying your passion: What motivates you to wake up every day? What infuriates you? What makes you feel the injustice is so severe that you shed tears when you read about it in the news, and you feel the urge to take action immediately? Following this, accept that we are all leading our regular lives, and I don't anticipate you becoming a full-time activist. Yet, how can you make a substantial, consistent contribution? Our entire message revolves around this - addressing people from where they stand.

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