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August 20, 2020
Liz speaks with Meena Harris, lawyer and founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign. Meena talked about what she learned from growing up in a family of strong, tight-knit women and why she wrote her children's book Kamala and Maya's Big Idea, which is based on the story of her mother, Maya Harris and her aunt and Vice-Presidential nominee, Kamala Harris.
Liz Tenety: So my husband and I like to joke that pretty much our kids complaints come down to three things. I don't want to, he got more than me and it's not fair. Like if they just said those three things like that would probably carry us through the whole day, but especially it's not fair. I think kids have such a clear and strong sense of.
Like basic injustice, especially for things that are not fair for them. But my six year olds last year turned to me and said, mom, when are we going to get a woman president? And kind of like not the window to hear him ask it that way, because you know, I think he'd been learning about the fact that we have only had men as president and our representative and the highest office for the entire history of our country. And. To him. It was like, well, that's not fair.
Like that's so obvious that it's not [00:01:00] fair. And I think for us as women, and I know speaking for myself, it's not fair. There's, there's so many historic injustices in our country that we're only beginning to reckon with. And certainly one of them is the role of women in government and in public life.
And it's just not fair and I can't help, but believe that one of the reasons that women's issues, topics around motherhood and family are not taken seriously in our country is because women, I have not been at the table, which is why, whatever your political party, it's exciting to you see a woman on the ticket, which we found out this week that Joe Biden selected Kamala Harris to be his vice president.
Liz Tenety: Hey mama. Welcome to the motherly podcast, [00:02:00] honest conversations about modern motherhood. I am Liz Tenety, the cofounder of motherly and a mom of four myself today. We're talking to him, Meena Harris, lawyer, founder of the phenomenal woman action campaign and children's book, author of Camila and Maya's book, big idea, which is based on the story of her mother, Maya Harris and her aunts and VP nominee, Kamala Harris. Meena talked about growing up in a family of strong and tight knit women and how that experience influenced her own life choices. And she also explained why it's so important for her to teach her two young daughters, how to be engaged and aware of what's happening in their communities.
[00:03:00] Meena Harris. Welcome to the motherly podcast.
Meena Harris: Thank you.
Liz Tenety: We're so happy to have you, what did you think being a mom would be like before you had kids?
Meena Harris: Oh man. Uh, you know, I had a very unique. Perspective on that. And it was based on sort of, you know, how I grew up, which was with a young single mom. And, you know, it was exciting at times in the sense that I got to sort of have a fridge hand view of everything she was doing, because she did take me with her everywhere all the time.
Um, which was a really. Amazing experience. And so as a kid, I think, you know, I kind of thought of motherhood in that way, just sort of me and her and, um, exploring the world together and kind of these in my child's eyes. Like [00:04:00] these adventures, I would go on with my mom. Of course now, as an actual mom, I realized it.
Yeah, because, you know, she didn't have childcare that day. And so it felt more like an adventure. And I think that's something that I definitely hold dear in terms of, you know, how I, how I still think of motherhood, but it's always the. You know, realities of like not sleeping very much and, you know, just kind of juggling everything at once.
And by that, I mean, you know, not only the actual work and all that stuff, but like wanting to be present and, um, making sure that I'm, you know, being thoughtful about, um, how, you know, day to day we're raising our kids.
Liz Tenety: You know, in describing your mom and family, I heard you, I heard you say that it was like the opening scene from wonder woman and for those who are listening and don't know yours, your family and your story. Can you tell us more about the family that you grew up in?
Meena Harris: Yeah. I mean, it was incredible. And I appreciate that even more now as an adult and now as a mom, myself. Yeah. I joked [00:05:00] that it was like the opening scene of the wonder woman movie, where you have these like all female sovereign nation of women, just running around, saving the world, helping each other, um, you know, sharing their wisdom with each other.
And it was just, um, it was such a vibrant experience in my household in the same way where. You know, I had these incredible role models to my grandmother, my mom and my aunt and through them, I was able to see, you know, the, the possibilities of, of what I could be and, and through very different sort of lenses.
Right. I joke that, you know, for me to become a lawyer as sort of the path of least resistance, because I was sort of surrounded. By lawyers, but you know, the truth is I was still able to get so many different sort of perspectives on, on what that meant. Right? So, um, my grandmother actually was not a lawyer.
She was a breast cancer researcher or a scientist. Uh, my mom was a civil rights lawyer. And then, you know, my aunt, you know, showed sort of. What was possible through public service. Right. And so, um, I grew up with these phenomenal women who, [00:06:00] you know, tell me that I could be anything that I could do anything, but the most important, you know, I think piece of that was that they were showing it to me every day.
Right. And, and, and through the work that they were doing and, and raising me in a household where all the time sort of constantly. We were talking about, you know, our obligations to do good in the world. Right. And, and to care about issues, to be informed, to be engaged. And, uh, as I said, it, it was really formative for me as a kid.
And it's, it's kinda crazy to look back and. Realize that that's like all I knew, uh, the idea of like men in power, right. And a man in charge was, was foreign to me. Like I just thought that was not how I grew up in. And as far as I knew, you know, women did run the world and, you know, again, I carry with me that feeling of responsibility and, and, um, commitment to think about how I'm raising my own girls now.
Right. I, um, Love sort of the pair. I'm an only child, but sort of the parallels of [00:07:00] my grandmother raising her two daughters, you know, my uncommon and now I am embracing my two girls and I love that. And I think a lot about. Again, how intentional, you know, my grandmother was and sort of how she raised, raised them and how she raised me, um, as well.
And I think about that all the time in terms of, you know, my own household and my girls.
Liz Tenety: Um, it sounds like you grew up in an environment where activism to put a word on it. Um, activism was. Expected and not even, it, it doesn't sound like it was a burden on you as a child, more than it was like in the air that you breathe, that it was part of your mission as individuals and as a family.
What do you think it means to kids when that is expected of them?
Meena Harris: Yeah, it's funny. You said to put out a word on it. I mean, there was no word put on it when I was growing up. Right. I think you're absolutely right. That it was expected of me. It was expected that I would wake up and every day and think about, you know, what [00:08:00] was going on in the world, what was wrong in the world?
It wasn't though phrase to sort of, you have, you know, you should be an activist and it's expected of you, um, to, to go fulfill for that mission. It was more, um, I was a broader, it was broader than that. It was, you have a responsibility to care about your community. Right. And the funny thing though, is that the way that you phrase it to about it was sort of in the air?
I breathe. I mean, that was definitely true. Right? All of my grandmothers. Friends were, you know, in the civil rights movement, they were, um, local elected officials. They were thinkers and academics and lawyers. And those were, you know, Conwell talks about this all the time that lawyers were sort of the heroes, right.
When she was growing up. And that was definitely, it was a different time for her and this. All right. Um, you know, era, but, um, for me as well, that's sort of, um, what was around me all the time. And so to your question of sort of, you know, how, um, do you talk to kids about that? How do you raise kids in that way?
I think that it's really through through example, like I said earlier, right. That you can say all this stuff, you can, [00:09:00] you know, talk about it. You can. Have these conversations, we need to do it on a consistent basis. Right. If you're really wanting to sort of be meaningful about it, but, um, you also have to still show it through action, right.
And show your kids, um, what's possible. And also that you're doing it right. You're talking about. So I think the other key piece of it though, again, is that there, I feel like there's a lot of, uh, potentially sort of like pressure, um, you know, that label of activist. And what does that mean? And. You know, am I fulfilling that duty?
And again, it's not, it wasn't sort of, um, I don't know. I mean, it wasn't tense, right? I mean, it's sort of like, this was all, everybody in my household cared about. And so we were talking about all the time, but it was more of a sense of you can do it in your own way. Right.
Liz Tenety: What did that, what did that look like in practice to you? So again, you had, your grandmother was a cancer researcher. Um, your mom and your aunts. Yeah, both lawyers, um, and having very public careers, living in breathing the [00:10:00] air of the civil rights movement in your home. How did that childhood, that kind of childhood shaped your view of what your life was going to be about?
Meena Harris: Um, you know, I think I definitely want to be a lawyer right early on. I thought I wanted to go to law school, but back to sort of, um, how it shaped me versus what was sort of told to me of like, what was expected. It was very much, you know, you can make your own contribution in your own way. And the expectation was one.
Um, not only of sort of making an impact, but also of excellence. Right? So, um, I think my grandmother is a great example of this, where, um, her sort of full time job, or, you know, day to day work was not activism. It was not as a lawyer, civil rights lawyer or anything like that. Um, but you know, as somebody who was in the sciences, as someone who was engaged in work, um, that for example, has a disproportionate impact on.
Women of color, right. Which is, um, in terms of, uh, how women of color are treated for breast cancer. Right. We know all of these issues now around, [00:11:00] um, health care around, um, communities of color. My grandmother felt a great responsibility to make sure that she was, you know, using her, um, a small platform.
Right. I mean, she was an unknown person. She wasn't sort of a political figure or had any kind of fanfare in that way, but had a personal duty. Um, that she felt, you know, she needed to mentor other young women of color who were coming to her lab, that she wanted to create, you know, spaces for, um, black women who had been affected by or survivors the breast cancer to, um, come together around that, to educate people around, you know, preventative measures and things like that.
So, um, again was not specifically on that topic, but she nevertheless, um, felt a great responsibility that she. I'm needed to do that, right? Because those are the people that she cared about and she wanted to make sure that, um, others sort of were, um, also aware. And so I look at her as a great example of that.
Another, um, story I love to tell about, again, this sort of these ordinary, everyday examples, how, um, [00:12:00] you can, you know, give a damn how you can, um, show up with that intention and in small ways, um, is that as a kid, I remember going with her to the grocery store and her telling me that we weren't allowed to buy grapes.
And this was back in, you know, uh, I think 1988, I was like four years old. The first time I learned an important word from her, which was boycott. Right. And it was, um, when Cesar Chavez was fasting to call attention to the flight of farm workers and their families. Right. And so. This was my grandmother shopping with me at Safeway so that we could, so she could make dinner and was teaching me about boycotting.
Yeah. And why, right. Why we weren't allowed to. And so again, it's, I think something that the lesson is really that you carry it with you and you, um, you, you think about it all the time and you integrate it into your. Wife, um, in, in every way that you can.
Liz Tenety: So you took that environment that you grew up in. You, you did become a lawyer. You also worked on [00:13:00] multiple political campaigns, including that of your aunt, Senator Kamala Harris. Um, I'm curious, along the way, you also became a mother. So how did, how did becoming a mother yourself newly inspire or transformed your approach to activism?
Meena Harris: You know, it just sort of, I think it deepened it and it gave me perspective of, again, I know I've said this a lot, but a feeling of responses, stability, right?
Not only that, the work I do is something that I hope, you know, affects. My kids in terms of creating a better world for them and a better environment for them, but also, so, uh, really demonstrating to them what, what that looks like in terms of the action behind it. Right. And all about talking to them about it.
And again, we talked about this at the beginning, like. Being a parent, you kind of don't know what the hell you're doing. Right. And you get all kinds of unsolicited advice. You can sort of model, [00:14:00] um, what, you know, your parents did for you, or maybe decide not to do that for whatever reason. Right. Um, but at the end of the day, we kind of don't know what we're doing.
And I think it's really about just sort of, um, you know, leading with that, you know, um, kind of passion around sort of how you want, you know, to see your kids in the world. You know, I think it's easy to kind of be passive sometimes, or, you know, when an event happens in the world, think of it as sort of an adult issue and not something that you talk to your kids about, but instead I carry with me sort of this again, you know, perspective of, well, how, how can I talk to her about this?
And I think it is important or them, I say her because I have an older one who can kind of, you know, understand this stuff a little bit more, but you know, she's still three years old. Right. Um, but I still think about, you know, How can I talk to her about politics? How can I explain to her, you know, um, that we still don't have a woman president, and that's why this election is so important.
Liz Tenety: I know… I have to tell you this, but we are really living through. An [00:15:00] incredibly interesting and tumultuous time as women. And I know, you know, you now have always cared about women's rights, but you now also have two daughters. Um, tell us a little bit about the phenomenal woman project, which grew out of the women's March and post 2016 activism.
Meena Harris: Yeah, so it, um, it started off as a very small idea. It, um, Was never intended to be anything longer than a one month fundraising campaign for women's organizations. I like, you know, a lot of, um, people coming out of the 2016 election, I think woke up the next day feeling sort of like what the hell just happened?
Like how are we going to move forward? You know, what can I do? This is the moment where I can't, you know, sit by and I, I frankly felt, you know, somewhat regretful that I didn't do more, right. That I didn't make more phone calls or knock on more doors. And, um, you know, going into the women's March, which is obviously this incredible, inspiring historic moment.
Uh, if you remember early [00:16:00] on, there was, there was still conversation around, you know, um, representation and making sure that the leadership and, you know, the March itself was really representative of, of the full diversity of, of women in marriage, Erica. And, uh, it, it started, you know, To think about, you know, who are the women that came before us, who were the women that, you know, paved the way for these movements that made it possible for us to, um, turn out in historic numbers.
And those are often black women. Those are, um, women who often are, you know, sort of hidden figures, um, who are on the front lines doing the work, but are not, you know, getting the credit and the fancier and all that. And. You know, my Angelo, um, her poem, phenomenal woman has always been a favorite comb of mine.
And what's amazing about her as an individual is that, you know, she was an incredible author and poet, as most people know her, but she was also this fierce, you know, advocate for civil rights and, and, and an activist. Right. Was good friends with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. And so anyway, [00:17:00] I really wanted to think about that.
How do I honor women like her? How do I honor, you know, women like my mother, other black women that came before us and paved the way, but then also to celebrate that moment that we were in, right. To recognize the historic nature of it. And, um, to celebrate the, you know, um, heightened activism and engagement, all these people who are out there.
Um, these women who are standing up and speaking out. And so I, I thought, you know, what am I put that on a tee shirt? Um, and, um, you know, a handful of tee shirts with some friends and they got, you know, lots of incredible photos and, you know, tons of people were saying, you know, I love your shirt. Where'd you get that?
And I thought, well, Hey, if this is kind of, you know, interesting to some people, why don't we, uh, launch a fundraising campaign thing? You saw a lot of people who were, you know, raising money for the ACLU and planned Parenthood. And again, Within their own communities within their own spaces. We're thinking about where the small ways that they could make an impact.
Um, and I thought, why don't we, you know, sell a tee shirts over the course of women's history month to raise money for women's organizations. Um, and it just totally took off, [00:18:00]
Liz Tenety: You know, so many of us as parents want. To do more you know, what are some conversation starters that you use or recommend other other parents use in kind of helping their child to follow, follow that general sense of unfairness in knowing what they could actually do about it in their daily lives?
Meena Harris: Well, I think it's kind of two fold. I think it's one taking what's happening in the world, right. What's literally going on in the world that, you know, I feel is unjust or unfair and, and trying to talk to her about that stuff. Right. So one example there is, uh, you know, it's the hundredth anniversary of the 19th amendment, right.
Of women getting the right to vote. And again, this is like complicated stuff that these are conversations I have with adult women, but I thought, how do I talk to my kid about it? And what I've said to her is. It's really extraordinary, right. That we're celebrating this. And she knows about voting because we take her to, you know, drop off our balance.
We take her to the voting [00:19:00] booth, so she knows that much. And I've explained to her, you know, um, women didn't always have the right to vote. Right. And this is now a hundred years that they have that. Right. And. When they didn't have it, that that was really unfair. And, you know, how does that make you feel to think about, um, you know, mommy and daddy take you to go vote?
What if someone told you that you couldn't do that? Just because you're a girl, right. Or that, um, all girls didn't have that opportunity. How does that make you feel? Right. So that's like sort of one layer and then I'd take it to the next layer, which is, and you should also know that, uh, for black women and Latinas and women of color, They didn't get the right to vote until much, much later.
And how unfair does that feel? Right. So not only is it that, um, little girls couldn't vote a little black girls couldn't vote. Right. And let's talk about that. And you know, again, like this is, um, sad, hard stuff. I know, like,
Liz Tenety: I don't want to tell my kids about how bad the world has been, you know, but I. You feel like you kind of, you have to do them that service of being honest.
[00:20:00] Meena Harris: I think we do. And you know, I have to say that not everybody sort of agrees with that, right. Or not everybody I think does that in practice? I, I actually just wrote something about this for international women's day, which is the necessity to really focus on girls in a serious way. Right. And not teach treated as a children's issue or a girl's issue, which is to say that.
All of this harmful societal, you know, stuff, cultural norms, all of the gender bias. This starts at this age. It starts right now. Right. And we go from, I think again, it's about what's comfortable and I get it. Like, we're tired, we're busy, you know, like, do you really want to be. Uh, you know, having to consume all of the news that exhausts you and then go talk to your fricking child about it.
Like probably not, but at the end of the day, you know, we, we really do have to recognize how this stuff happens. And I was joking that, you know, sort of there's this, um, kind of idea like, Oh, you go from girl power to women power and it's like, Not really. We kind of go from like girl power RA, like [00:21:00] let's, you know, um, you know, be positive too, like women's inequality, right?
Like it's not, um, sort of that easy. And I think that we need to be having those have conversations and we're doing a disservice, not only to our, our kids, but, you know, actually to, um, the, the process of sort of, you know, dismantling. These harmful institutions and, you know, uh, actually countering some of this, um, harmful, harmful cultural stuff, if we're not having those conversations,
Liz Tenety: Can you give some examples of what that could look like in practice.
Meena Harris: One very concrete example that has come up for us recently is curious, George, which my kids like a lot and. Don't quote me on this. I haven't watched every single episode, but I noticed that a lot of the characters tend to be male in curious, George.
I mean, obviously the two main characters are
Liz Tenety: I'm reading a curious George book, actually. And I'm curious, George goes to the hospital and, um, there's a line in there and this happens in a lot of [00:22:00] books that were written generations ago. There's a line in there multiple times. It's called the nurse a pretty young nurse.
Meena Harris: That is… wow.
Liz Tenety: the line they use to describe the nurse in the book, you know, that it's sold in a bookstore today to my daughter. So my husband and I are busy, you know, editing those words out as we're reading the kids, the book.
Meena Harris: Yeah. That's a small thing. You can do edit words out. Like, you know, that's, that's, you know, as you're reading it, uh, or maybe read them and instead of glossing over it and keep going, pausing and saying, wow, That really bothered me.
My gosh. Did you see that the way that they talked about the nurse? Like how does that, you know, just talk about it.
Liz Tenety: I want to talk a good bit about your new children's book. Um, can you describe it for our listeners?
Meena Harris: So I'm so excited. I never thought I was going to write a kid's book, but it's sort of, you know, building on his whole conversation.
It was just a moment for me and I decided to act on it, which were, it was kind of, you know, Two fold. There was that, um, I talked about this, [00:23:00] um, just a couple minutes ago, reading kid's books with my children. And feeling that there was a lack of, you know, characters of color that were we're, you know, prominent in the, in the, in the book, there were, um, even more so lack of, you know, characters that were girls of color that my children could, you know, black and Brown children that my girls could see themselves in.
Um, you know, whose hair texture looks like there's right. Um, whose parents look like there is, and. Also just sort of a lack of, um, real kind of, you know, narrative and character as well, where I think we've seen a lot of an important, you know, children's literature around sort of women in history and all these lists of women.
I'm like, listen, what's the woman. And that's so important. I, I want to teach my kids that history. It's, it's something that, you know, I have those incredible. So important. I, I, I, um, am excited to see sort of this proliferation, but there also came a point where I was like, I'm tired of reading book lists of women.
I'm tired of [00:24:00] sort of these historical characters that are dead, that my, my kids literally, you know, cannot relate to in terms of, we just have this whole conversation around the real world. Right. And kind of adapting it and relating it to their, you know, environment and what they're seeing and engaging with in the world.
And so. Um, I felt like, you know, I'm not seeing this stuff, so I'm going to go right at my damn self. Right? Like we, we went from sort of, you know, reading the books and then feeling a little frustrated and then starting to, like, you talked about editing out certain words or changing the heat or her, or, you know, coloring the characters in with Brown skin.
And I thought, my God, like, I need to just go write the book myself. Right. And so. So that was a huge piece of it for me. And the other was again, sort of, you know, moment that we're in. Right. Um, what inspired me to launch phenomenal woman? What has inspired me to sort of, um, you know, engage more, um, in ways that.
You know, I've, I've engaged like this before, but I definitely was in kind of a, a period of, you know, I think I needed to remind myself of like what it [00:25:00] means to actually be. Yeah. Right. Um, I was really, you know, thinking about again, raising my girls and why teach them, you know, what my grandmother taught me, what my mother taught me and what better way to do that then through, you know, their grandma and auntie, um, she's technically their great aunt, but they call her auntie.
But, you know, this was so formative for me as a kid, right? Hearing these stories about them, meaning my mom as children. And this was one of those stories. And. It's based on a true story about two sisters named Carmilla and Maya, and it's all about a community organizing, leaning on your community to make it better.
And it's a story of two sisters that have a big idea, which, um, this boiler is that, you know, this whole conversation, it's actually a very small idea, right? And it's something that happens in their apartment complex. But nevertheless, it is something that has a huge impact on the [00:26:00] children in our community.
And it's all about, you know, persevering in the face of resistance and people telling you no. And the face of people telling you that something can't be done, that you are too small, that it is too expensive that, you know, it's not possible. And learning that you can really derive power from your community and coming together, um, and asking your community to step up too, to make it better.
Liz Tenety: So at motherly, we like to talk about how motherhood helps us uncover soup that we have, and especially ones that we didn't even know existed within us until we became mothers. So I'm wondering what's your super power?
Meena Harris: I don't know if this is a super power, but I think one of the things that is new for me, that I'm learning and trying really hard.
To do and be thoughtful around is backing away from the two of them when they like get into it with you. Right. I [00:27:00] think for me, I'm used to like being in control and controlling things and, you know, I clearly have a very, uh, you know, a strong perspective on sort of like how I want kids in my household.
But I think my superpower in this way has been sort of just to know when. I need to back a way and like let them meaning my two daughters sort of talk to each other and like hash it out with each other. Right. I'm an only child. And so the whole concept of like living with a sibling and having another, like child in your house and having to deal with another yeah
Liz: Real life conflict resolution, mini conflict, right.
Meena Harris: Maybe that's what it is. Uh, it's so foreign to me, but one of the things that. I think about is, you know, and again, in terms of like, kind of having adult conversations with our kids, uh, you know, my daughter, my older one with the presidential election was saying for a long time that she wanted to be a president.
And there [00:28:00] then, you know, were moments where, you know, she, maybe she was fighting with her sister or whining or whatever. And I would say, Tamara, listen, you know, I know that you want to be a president and in order to be a president, you have to learn how to communicate effectively. And here's what that means.
Right? And so, you know, part of being a president is you're talking to your community. You're, you're trying to learn from them and listen to them and write in and convince them of. You know your ideas and to actually get things done. And the way that you do that is you have to effectively communicate, you know, it's all about how do I kind of bring out those lessons?
Liz Tenety: Meena Harris. Thank you so much for joining us on the motherly podcast.
Meena Harris: I love talking to you. It's
Liz Tenety: It's such a great conversation. Thank you.
Meena Harris: Thanks so much.
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[00:29:00] Liz Tenety: Well, that's it for our show this week. Thank you so much Meena. And thank you for listening. We would love it. If you spread the word about our podcast, we would love it. If you spread the word about the motherly podcast this season, we have incredible guests and are going to touch on many relevant cultural topics.
I know you're going to love listening. So if you can please leave a review on Apple podcasts. It takes 30 seconds. I promise, and it really helps other people discover our show. I really love reading your feedback. I honestly read every single one. The motherly podcast is produced by Jennifer Bassett. Our editor is Anthony Lemos and our [00:30:00] music is from the blue dot sessions.
I'm your host, Liz Tenety. Thank you so much for listening.
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Hosted by Liz Tenety
Liz is an award-winning journalist and editor, and the co-founder of Motherly. A former Washington Post editor, she thrives on all things digital community + social media strategy. She's passionate about helping to provide women with more support, (and way less judgment), on the journey through motherhood. This podcast is an extension of her commitment to hosting honest conversations about modern motherhood. Liz resides outside NYC with her husband, two sons, one daughter and one amazing au pair.