Ambition is not a dirty word, especially if you’re a woman. So says Meena Harris, the author of the children’s book, ‘Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea.’ Here’s why.
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Two little sisters living in an apartment long for a playground as they gaze out at the complex’s courtyard. When the adults in their life won’t give them one, they make it happen.
They gather their friends together, inspire the grown-ups to donate items, hold a sidewalk sale, roll up their sleeves and get to work.
Those little girls were a young Kamala Harris and her sister Maya. And that true story has been woven into a children’s book by the senator’s niece, Meena. It comes with a powerful message.
“The true story that inspired Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea is one I’ve been hearing ever since I can remember,” says Meena, 35, who is now herself a mother-of-two. “It’s also a story I’ve been telling my daughters since they were very little.”
The book is essentially a children’s guide to activism and is reflective of the family that Meena grew up in. At the head was Senator Harris’s mom, Shyamala Goplan, a cancer researcher who raised Kamala and Maya mostly on her own.
“I grew up in what I call a ‘social justice family,’ which means I learned at a young age what activism looks like, and what it can achieve,” Meena tells HollywoodLife. “My grandmother was no stranger to protests and political rallies, but she was also a great example of living out everyday acts of resistance. My grandma taught me I should always try to make an impact, wherever I was, however I could, big or small.”
Meena adds, “In doing so, she also taught me a key lesson that has now become the central line of my kids’ book, Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea: ‘No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.’ I’ve found that line has really resonated with people and that gives me so much hope.”
While everyone can indeed do something, the scope of what the Harris women have achieved is vast. All three – Kamala, Maya and Meena – are attorneys. Maya’s impressive resume includes being a senior advisor to Hillary Clinton during her 2016 election campaign. Those “Phenomenal Women” and “Arrest The Cops Who Killed Breonna Taylor” T-shirts that you see celebs like Regina King and Halle Berry wearing grew out of Meena’s Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, which shines a light on social causes. Meanwhile her aunt, Kamala, is days away from finding out if she’ll be the next Vice President of the United States.
Plucked from the Maya Angelou poem Phenomenal Woman, the word “phenomenal” when attached to “woman” has a specific meaning for Meena. It means “taking risks to pursue your ideas, leading with empathy and compassion, and keeping the door open for those who come after you,” she says. Or, to quote her Indian-born grandma Shyamala, “You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last.”
Sadly, too often the world at large deems a “phenomenal woman” an ambitious one. (And “ambition” when attached to a female tends to be lobbed as a slur, not a compliment.) In Meena’s mind that word should be embraced.
“There is incredible conscious and unconscious bias in our society, particularly in the U.S.,” she says. “What that means is that women in positions of power and leadership are often held to a double standard. Women with ambition are too often punished, not rewarded. There’s an entire history of suppressing women’s desires and achievements, especially for women of color. So when a strong woman like Kamala or [former Georgia gubernatorial candidate] Stacey Abrams or Hillary Clinton dares to speak her truth out loud, it hits the ultimate patriarchy nerve.”
To those young women who want to make an impact like the next Kamala, or Hillary or Stacey or Maya, Meena hopes to inspire them to find their voice. “Young women are changing the world, so get on out there,” she says. “And when you do get out there, don’t let anyone try to tear you down by telling you that you’re too ambitious. In my book, ambitious is a compliment.”
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