The T-Shirt Says it All

By Laura Hilgers

Activism is in Meena Harris’ DNA. The multitasking daughter of former ACLU leader Maya and niece to presidential candidate Kamala juggles her wildly popular organization, a full-time tech job and motherhood: “I don’t sleep.”

Meena Harris awoke on November 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump was elected president, feeling awful. “I think a lot of people woke up the next morning just completely devastated,” says Harris, 34. “Also, though, feeling like we’re fighters and we’re going to get through this. I was thinking about what my contribution could be.”

At the time, Harris, who talks so fast she seems to do it without breathing, was already stretched thin. She had just had her first child. She was working as a senior policy manager at Slack. But the Harvard Law School grad was inspired enough by the activism around the Women’s March, scheduled for the day after Trump’s inauguration, that she wanted to do something.

So she started the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, which drew its name from Maya Angelou’s poem, “Phenomenal Woman.” The idea was simple: Harris printed T-shirts that said “Phenomenal Woman” and planned to sell them during Women’s History Month, in March 2017, donating profits to organizations such as Planned Parenthood and Girls Who Code. She guessed she’d sell a few hundred T-shirts. The first day, she sold 2,500. Harris urged women, including celebrities, to wear them on social media in order to spark conversation about women’s issues. In three months, she sold 10,000 shirts. Since then, celebrities such as Ciara, Serena Williams and Zoe Saldana have appeared on social media in the “Phenomenal Woman” shirt. And Phenomenal Woman has gained nearly 200,000 followers on Instagram.

When we met in a small, bare conference room in one of Uber’s Market Street offices, where she works as the company’s head of strategy and leadership, Harris wore the tech uniform of jeans, sweatshirt (pink) and big chunky glasses. She admitted, laughing, that she can run Phenomenal Woman while holding a full-time job and raising two young children because “I don’t sleep.” But it would probably be difficult for her to do otherwise. Activism is in her blood.

Harris is the niece of Kamala Harris, the California senator running for president, and daughter of Maya Harris, who was the former executive director of the Northern California ACLU, as well as a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and now campaign chairwoman for Kamala’s 2020 campaign. Her grandmother, Shyamala Gopalan, was a U.C. Berkeley breast cancer researcher.

Meena was born when her mother was 17 and spent her early childhood in Oakland, surrounded by her mother’s family and “a black community with all these academics, scholars, lawyers and community leaders.” Her mother earned a degree at Cal and a law degree from Stanford while raising Meena. And Meena saw her grandmother and aunt Kamala (then ascending through the ranks of city and state government) on weekends.

I joke that growing up in my household … felt like the opening scene of the Wonder Woman movie, where you just have these incredible women teaching, advocating for each other and fighting for women’s rights,” says Harris. The biggest revolutionary, she adds, was her grandmother, an Indian immigrant who was active in the civil rights movement. “She was in a profession dominated by white men at a time when there were incredible discrimination and barriers and challenges for women, let alone a brown-skinned immigrant woman.” It’s a sizable legacy to shoulder. “I think that it would be hard not to be exceptional coming from that crucible,” says Christy Haubegger, a longtime family friend and the chief enterprise inclusion officer at Warner Media. She observes that “Meena has this incredible sense of values and of her life’s work that is very consistent with that of her family. But she’s innovative in the sense that she’s taking a different path than anyone in her family.”

For starters, Harris has no interest in a political career. “I’ve had a real up-close and personal view of what it takes,” she says, adding that it’s not for her. She did, however, work on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and co-founded Gen44, a millennial fundraising organization. She also worked as a deputy campaign manager for Kamala’s state attorney general campaign in 2010 while starting her first year of law school. “If you can learn any sort of trend around how I’ve operated,” Harris laughs, “it’s that I was always kind of having these outside projects that were also taking up a lot of time.”

After law school, Harris worked for three years at a D.C. law firm on data privacy and security issues before being lured back to the Bay Area by tech. She’s been at Uber for the last two years.

But that’s Harris’ day job. As the “one-woman show” running Phenomenal Woman, she partnered with the nonprofit Futures Without Violence to run a full-page ad in The New York Times during the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings, with the names of 1,600 men accompanying the statement, “We believe Anita Hill. We also believe Christine Blasey Ford.”

Harris has also advocated for equal pay for women. According to the website Equal Pay Today, women must work far into the next year to earn what the average man earned the previous year. For women of color, it’s worse. Black women have to work until August to catch up with what men earned the previous year. Latina women have to work until November.

Last November, Phenomenal Woman brought attention to Latina Equal Pay Day by partnering with Justice for Migrant Women and having celebrities such as Eva Longoria, Jessica Alba and Sofia Vergara pose on Instagram in “Phenomenally Latina” T-shirts. This August, Harris’ organization did the same for Black Women’s Equal Pay Day.

“Meena has given folks in this moment — women of color, mothers — an iconography,” says Lateefah Simon, president of the Akonadi Foundation, which works to eliminate structural racism in the U.S. “There’s iconography in this campaign, which she understands is extremely powerful.” Simon, who was also the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” fellowship, states, “Phenomenal Woman is totally more than a T-shirt campaign.”

Harris has created a social media moment that’s thoughtful, growing and having an impact. And with her T-shirt sales, she’s raising funds for organizations in a position to make change. “Our message is basic,” says Harris. “It’s really ‘Women are resilient. Women are phenomenal.’ Even though it’s such a small kind of message celebrating women and that they’re phenomenal, it’s something that we as a society don’t do very often. Or certainly not enough.”

Related Articles

Back to top button