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She's More Than Just Kamala Harris's Niece

Meena Harris steps forward.

 

Women contain multitudes, as the saying (sort of) goes, and phenomenal women contain more than most. Ask Meena Harris, founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, how she’d describe herself and the answer varies. Entrepreneur, yes. Activist, for sure. Founder, community organizer, attorney, mother, no doubt. Artist? Maybe that, too. She certainly does know how to make a T-shirt. (More on that later.)

“I’m a creative,” she says. But she’s a creative with a Harvard law degree, a dynamo flying from city to city to host pop-ups for the Phenomenal Woman campaign—her grassroots women’s empowerment initiative—stump for politicians, and sit on panels with celebrities, all of which she documents on Instagram for her more than 33,500 followers.

Harris speaks paragraphs in the time it takes most people just to gather their thoughts, chattering in the caffeinated cadence of someone holding down two full-time jobs and raising a pair of daughters under the age of three. There are moments, though, when words fail. Harris and I meet up the night that her aunt has received a pipe bomb in the mail, allegedly from a deranged Fox News–loving, MAGA hat–wearing Donald Trump supporter.

“Fuck!” is all she has to say about it, an expletive spat out like a chewed-up worm in a bite of apple—a hissed exhale of a breath she hasn’t quite realized she’s been holding. In the background at the Ritual Coffee on Haight Street, mid-’90s Jewel comes on shuffle, crooning “You Were Meant for Me.” The sun has already set as she sips her iced tea (“I have to sleep tonight,” she explained to the barista behind the counter) and considers the dangers that come with challenging the status quo, as her aunt does in the United States Senate, fighting against such rollbacks of progress as the confirmation of Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Harris rejects the term “political dynasty,” but she is proud to claim her place in one of the Democratic Party’s most powerful matriarchal families—niece of senator and presidential aspirant Kamala Harris; daughter of Maya Harris, Hillary Clinton’s senior policy adviser during her 2016 presidential run, and Tony West, California cochair of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and an associate attorney general in his administration. Just two months before election night 2016, a photographer on Clinton’s campaign plane captured a quiet moment between the former First Lady and secretary of state and Maya Harris, relaxing side by side, looking at a phone together. They were swiping through photos of Meena Harris’s then-three-month-old daughter.

 

Harris, 34, has spent her life both honoring the legacy of her family and trying to establish her identity within it. She was raised in Oakland, the daughter and niece of powerful lawyers and the granddaughter of a civil rights activist and scientist. Her grandmother Shyamala Harris was “always reminding us that we had a duty to make an impact and to give back in any way, big or small,” Harris says.

Harris has always had an artistic bent—she attended summer art camp at Lake Merritt, and while following in her parents’ footsteps by earning an undergraduate degree at Stanford University, she stomped through the streets of Palo Alto trying to convince boutiques to sell the earrings she made in her free time. After graduation, she volunteered with the Mural Music & Arts Project in East Palo Alto, working with youth to beautify their community, before joining Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2007.

“My whole life has been reconciling those two things, art and activism,” Harris says in the coffee shop, sitting in front of a stack of envelopes from the post office, where she’s just come from. She’s adept at multitasking—although she works full-time as the head of strategy and leadership at Uber and serves on the city’s Commission on the Status of Women, she is still running the Phenomenal Woman campaign, which involves shipping off hundreds of T-shirts each week.

“I think this is the first time in my life when I’m feeling comfortable and owning the intersection,” she continues. “You can be whatever—a powerhouse and an advocate and a lawyer—and bring a creative lens to it.”

It feels simplistic to boil down the Phenomenal Woman campaign to a T-shirt, even one that raises money for women’s groups, but that’s how it started: a simple gray tee with black lettering, a nod to Harris’s favorite Maya Angelou poem, in which the writer declares, “It’s in the click of my heels, / The bend of my hair, / the palm of my hand, / The need for my care. / ’Cause I’m a woman / Phenomenally. / Phenomenal woman, / That’s me.”

Actually, you could say that Phenomenal Woman really began with a nod to another poem of sorts. The first T-shirt Harris ever made, in 2011, read, “I’m an entrepreneur, bitch”—a reference to Mark Zuckerberg’s business card (“I’m CEO, bitch”). Harris says that her “platform to empower, engage, and honor women” was inspired by a simple—and infuriating—observation. “It was the idea that when you say, ‘Name an entrepreneur,’ the first person who comes to mind is probably not me or a woman who works from home or has an Etsy shop. It’s usually Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg or some white guy who looks a lot like them. I found that a lot of people were like, ‘I’m a mom boss, I’m a girl boss.’ And it was like, ‘You’re an entrepreneur!’ I hate policing language, but I felt it too, that feeling of ‘Am I? Can I claim that?’”

Then came the 2016 election—the “grab them by the pussy” tape, the night when Trump received 52 percent of the vote among white women but only 4 percent among African American women, the Women’s March, the parade of old white men assuming cabinet posts, the Neil Gorsuch nomination, and the Stormy Daniels saga. The rage and the calls for resistance. In the middle of that hurricane, the Phenomenal Woman shirts emerged, rapidly turning into suits of armor.

The campaign “goes beyond the T-shirt,” Harris says. “When we first started and were doing all these pop-ups, people would post photos on Facebook, and there would be just these cascades of comments: ‘You are phenomenal!’ and ‘Of course you are! And I am too!’ It was this act of self-affirmation, this act of wearing it and posting about it, and then this act of community affirmation, where you have all these people engaging around this really positive and uplifting message. It was such a small thing, but also a powerful thing.”

Since the campaign launched, Phenomenal Woman has sold more than 30,000 T-shirts, raising money for organizations like Girls Who Code, the United State of Women, the Essie Justice Group, Planned Parenthood, Higher Heights, and the Dr. Maya Angelou Foundation. Beyond the support for women’s groups, the shirts have swept through social media, landing on the backs of celebrities like Serena Williams, Laverne Cox, and America Ferrera.

“I kind of think of it as a gateway drug,” Harris says, laughing. “For somebody who has never done activism but is moved by the shirt, it’s like, All right, in three years I’m going to have you knocking on doors. It’s not explicitly political, and it’s not explicitly partisan. It’s about inspiring women to engage.” I ask Harris if she considers herself an optimist or a pessimist. “I’m hopeful,” she says, “and I’m pragmatic.” With anybody else, this could seem like a cop-out, but for Harris it feels legitimate. After all, she’s a creative in a power pantsuit. She grew up seeing not just what women can do when faced with awful circumstances, but also what women can achieve together.

“Women are powerful, and women are phenomenal,” she says. “And we are going to get through this.” Or, as Maya Angelou put it, “Now you understand / Just why my head’s not bowed.”

 

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco 

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