For as long as Meena Harris can remember, a story has been passed down through the generations of strong and powerful women in her family—the community that helped raise her. Whenever her mother Maya and aunt Kamala encountered an injustice, Meena’s late grandmother Shyamala Gopalan Harris, a biomedical scientist and civil rights activist, would ask: “So what are you going to do about it?”
It’s a disposition that has led all three women to lead with ambition in their own way: Maya, an attorney, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, executive director at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, and served as a senior policy adviser on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign before going on to chair her sister’s 2020 presidential bid. Meanwhile, Kamala made history on January 20 when she was sworn in as the first (but not the last) woman vice president. And Meena—a Harvard-educated lawyer—left her job as head of strategy and leadership at Uber to establish the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign in 2017 and published her second book, Ambitious Girl (Little, Brown) on January 19.
Meena Harris as a young girl flanked by her mum Maya Harris (left), grandma Shyamala Gopalan Harris (centre) and aunt Kamala Harris (right).
While The New York Times bestseller Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea (HarperCollins, 2020) was directly inspired by the values Shyamala instilled in her daughters, Meena, 36, hopes Ambitious Girl will “reframe and redefine our understanding of who can be ambitious, and what exactly that means.” The mother-of-two says a good first step in supporting girls and young women is “to reject the premise that women’s ambition, especially for women of colour, is anything but a positive thing.”
Here, Meena shares her insights on diversity in children’s publishing, motherhood and cooking with aunt Kamala.Your Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign sweatshirts have been worn by everyone from Serena Williams to Lizzo. What is your overall mission?
“To bring awareness to social causes, in particular issues affecting underrepresented communities. We have a specific emphasis on centring feminism for women of colour. From initiatives and partnerships focused on trans women to farmworkers to domestic workers, we have been amplifying the voices of women leaders across communities who are working to make the world better and more equitable for all. Fashion, especially for women, can be one of the most personal and public ways we express ourselves. Especially these days, that form of self-expression has become even more important.”What inspired you to write books for young people?
“As a mom to Black daughters, diversity and representation in children’s books has always been important to me. When I was growing up, I almost never saw faces like mine in picture books. And while things have got ever so slightly better, think about this: in 2018, there were as many kids’ books with animals as main characters as there were books with Black, Latinx, Asian or Native main characters combined. That same year, only a fifth of children’s books were written or illustrated by people of colour.
“It’s so outrageous, I could practically hear my grandmother’s voice asking, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ I was tired of colouring in my daughter’s books with a brown marker, so I became an author myself.”Can you share a few of the lessons the women in your life have taught you?
“My mom, aunt, and grandma raised me to believe that ambition was a good thing. They taught me that ambition means owning and living your purpose; it means determination. It never occurred to me until I was much older that this could be anything but positive, something to be celebrated.
“My grandmother, in particular, was an important figure in my life, a second mother who helped raise me. A great deal of who I am today—my activism, my drive to make a difference, the way I’m raising my daughters—can be traced directly to her. In fact, her lessons have made their way into my books: ‘No one can do everything, but everyone can do something,’ in Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea, and ‘Don’t let anyone tell you who you are; you tell them who you are,’ in Ambitious Girl.”Are there times when people have told you, “You’re too this or that” like the protagonist in Ambitious Girl and, if so, how did you respond?
“Almost every day! And if it’s not directed towards me, I’m hearing or reading about it [happening to] women I love and admire. My reaction, whenever possible, is to challenge the premise behind these statements. I like to ask, ‘Why is her ambition a bad thing?’ or ‘Would you say that about a white man?’ Force folks to think about their underlying bias. I’m not shy about that.”
© AmbitiousGirl. Meena HarrisWhy do you think adjectives such as ‘ambitious’, ‘proud’ and ‘confident’ have negative connotations, especially when used to describe women?
“There's a really fascinating  case study where two groups of Harvard Business School students learned about one of two tech executives: Howard or Heidi. The executives—high-achieving, successful, ambitious by any definition—were exactly alike, except for their names. What happened? Students rated Howard as highly competent and effective. They said they liked him and would want to work with him. Meanwhile, Heidi was rated as competent and effective, but students neither liked nor wanted to work with her.
“To say our society is shaped by conscious and unconscious bias, particularly in the US, is an understatement, which means women in positions of power and leadership are often held to an absurd double standard. And when a strong woman such as Kamala or Stacey Abrams or Hillary Clinton dares to speak her truth out loud, it hits the ultimate patriarchy nerve.”How do you talk about the topics covered in Ambitious Girl with your own daughters?
“The message in the book is exactly how I talk about ambition with my own daughters. They’re still quite young, but my partner and I do our best to find everyday ways to incorporate these values. For example, this past Christmas, our older daughter asked what Mrs Claus was doing. Feeling a little inspired, at that moment, we decided to tell her Mrs Claus is an entrepreneur and runs the family business! My girls know their mom is an entrepreneur, so that made perfect sense to them. And if anyone ever dared question their ambition, confidence, or pride, I know they wouldn’t hesitate to set them straight.”Why is it important to talk openly about failure and how it can ultimately lead to growth and development, as you do in Ambitious Girl?
“It’s important to talk about failure because it’s something all of us experience, but very few people are willing to open up about. When you do inevitably fail, you may feel vulnerable and alone when the truth is you’re in great company. We should talk about failure as early as we can—my partner and I are already instilling in our young daughters that it’s OK to try, fail, and try again. For me, it’s about embracing challenges (or setbacks, depending on your perspective). Part of that is understanding that we don’t necessarily overcome every failure, but that we can’t be afraid of it. Just because you experience failure doesn’t mean you are one.”It’s a big week for the Harris family—your second book is out and your aunt Kamala will be sworn in as US vice president. Do you have any favourite memories of Kamala over the years?
“My newest favourite memory is, of course, standing on stage on November 7, 2020 with her and my own daughters—the night she was elected vice president. I kept thinking of how proud my grandmother would have been, and I wish she could have seen it.
“But in my family, we cherish the small moments just as much as the big. Some of my favourite memories are just being together—whether it’s over a Thanksgiving meal or celebrating our shared birthday (both of us were born on October 20, exactly 20 years apart) which, of course, we haven’t been able to do during the pandemic. In ‘normal’ times, we really enjoy cooking. My aunt is a great cook, and I’ve learned a lot from her over the years. Over the past few months, one of the ways I’ve been trying to take care of myself is by channelling her—by unplugging my phone, and enjoying time cooking and trying new recipes.”
Ambitious Girl by Meena Harris (Little, Brown, 2021) is out nowAlso read:
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