Meena Harris on importance of representation for children: ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’
EXCLUSIVE: The author is dishing on her childhood dreams and the motivation behind her latest children's book, 'Ambitious Girl'
Meena Harris has been on a mission to change the narrative surrounding Black women and women of color who dare to be ambitious since 2017.
The mom of two is the founder and CEO of Phenomenal, a multipurpose media and lifestyle company named after the iconic poem “Phenomenal Woman” by the late, great Maya Angelou. The brand is committed to actively bringing awareness to causes and culture around issues affecting underrepresented communities.
Carrying forward the legacy and teachings instilled in her at an early age while creating her own lane, the Oakland native is also a New York Times best-selling author. She recently released her second children’s book, Ambitious Girl, which takes a deep-dive exploration into debunking and reframing the word “ambitious” from being perceived as a negative connotation for young girls.
Just like the trailblazing women who raised the Harvard law school graduate, Harris is fiercely devoted to igniting change in the realms of social justice, racial inequity, and gender-based discrimination. Although the 36-year-old is making her mark and has achieved a great deal, Harris says this is just the beginning.
Dontaira Terrell: What was one of your ambitions when you were a child?
Meena Harris: I feel in some ways, I’ve now come back to really getting to pursue what my passions were as a child. My number one ambition as a child was to be on Broadway. I don’t think I’ve ever said that publicly before! I’ve had an incredible journey. I’m thankful for the role models and examples of activism and social justice through the legal profession to fight for communities and achieve racial justice. As much as I’m very grateful for that, that’s all I knew. But also, I knew at an early age that I was very creative and entrepreneurial.
DT: I feel you’re still tapping into and speaking to that inner child through your children’s books.
MH: My family was very intentional about emphasizing and exposing me to inspiring, uplifting, aspirational images that celebrate Black culture and the Black community, including kids books. But the fact is, there were so few. There still are so few. Black authors did not even write many of the books centered on Black culture and communities of color. The work that I’m doing around the representation of girls of color as the main characters is about the reader being able to see themselves.
DT: Would you say that was the biggest void in the marketplace which led you to begin this journey?
MH: No question. I had become a new parent and had a little anxiety. I was raised in a unique way, and it was important for me to carry that on and pass it on to my daughters. A lot of that was rooted in thinking about the loss of my grandmother, who was such an important vehicle for me. My first book was very personal and paying tribute to her, and everything she taught me, taught my mom and aunt. It was such a central part of our family, and it was about literally passing that to my daughters through a family story.
I began to understand the power of children’s literature as culture shift work, and also realized as a new parent, the lack of diversity in kids’ books.
I said, ‘I’m just going to write the book myself because I’m not seeing what I want for my kids.’ If you’re not leading with intentionality and being purposeful, you’re going to, by default, continue to perpetuate and promote the status quo, which is white men in power. You see that in every space.
It’s that point of representation. You can’t be what you can’t see. If you bring that eye of looking at issues of equity to everything that you do, we have the chance to change culture. We need to start young because that’s where it all begins literally in our homes.
DT: What was an early experience where you learned language had power?
MH: Thinking back to my first moment of realizing the power of language was probably through my mom’s work at the ACLU and, in particular, in the context of criminal justice and racial justice with the understanding that words can be stigmatizing. Words like “offender,” “ex-offender,” “felon,” and words that follow people unfairly, affecting the rest of their lives. I think that’s the first time I ever really interacted with that as a concept. That language has power.
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