Meena Harris Has a Response to Everyone Who Called Her Aunt Kamala "Too Ambitious"
Credit: INSTAGRAM: MEENA / LITTLE, BROWN BOOKS
From Oprah Magazine
Making changes is basically in Meena Harris' DNA.
Her mother, Maya Harris, is a well-known civil rights activist who has served as the executive director of the A.C.L.U. of Northern California and advisor to Hillary Clinton. Her aunt is the elected Vice President Kamala Harris. They were both mostly raised by their mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a cancer researcher who often said, "Don't sit around complaining about things. Doing something."
When her aunt Kamala was accused of being too ambitious in the campaign, she encouraged Meena to follow her grandmother's advice and take matters into her own hands. "What really stopped me in my footsteps was that it was amplified by the media ... as if being too ambitious was a valid criticism and worth paying attention to," said the best-selling children's book author, Founder and CEO of Phenomenal and mother of 4 year old Amara and 2 year old Leela tell OprahMag.com. "I felt so full - and especially as the parent of two daughters, I thought you weren't going to do this to my kids. Or if you are, I'll be damn sure they have the tools, the language and the ability to to navigate in a way that is productive for them and society. "
The result: Ambitious Girl, Meena's latest children's book, in which a pint-sized protagonist decides to turn down the labels of "this or that" and embarks on a journey on which she learns not to just win back words, the to knock them down, but also to take up space and hold their power - a lesson passed down through generations of Harris women.
“I was raised to believe that ambition is a good thing. That it was something to celebrate. It meant purpose, it meant power, it meant determination, it meant having a dream and striving for it, even when other people tried to tell you it couldn't, ”says the 36-year-old. "That's all I knew because my whole family was this little unit of me, my grandma, my mother and my aunt, and I would see that every day."
As an adult, however, Meena realized that not everyone saw ambition in the same light as her family. "The first time I really realized it was being used negatively was in the workplace of course, but even more so in the political context, where it was suggested that a woman should run for office or have political aspirations calculating and opportunistic," says Meena. "And we know that there is a double standard. We don't talk about male ambitions like that. We assume that as an ambitious man you have to be successful and a doer." This is why it is so important for Meena to have girls already in To teach young people how to win back, redefine and redefine words like ambitious - as well as bossy, competitive, persistent, assertive and loud.
"My grandmother taught us: don't let anyone tell you who you are - you tell them who you are," she says. "This is about defining your ambitions and not letting anyone do it for you. And I know, both because I grew up and experienced this criticism myself, that there is so much power to name this and do it early." . "
And while Ambitious Girl is indeed a children's book, its lessons may be equally valuable to adults as well. “To be honest, this work must also be done for adults,” says Meena. "Not going too crazy here, but unlearning and relearning the bullshit tools of oppressive patriarchal societies - things that are used against women to hold us back, degrade our performance, and dim our lights," she explains. We need to rethink the context in which we are using the word ambitious and start conversations with our children about it. She adds, “That's why books like this are key - not just to have a story before bed, but as a tool that enables parents and families to engage with the topic in a meaningful way and, ideally, build on it . "
In the meantime, however, Meena points out another piece of advice courtesy of Shyamala if criticism of this or that comes up - as unfortunately they will: "My grandmother had a lot of sayings, and one of them was' Fuck her", says Meena. "And I think the point was you don't have time for it because ultimately it's a distraction that's supposed to hold you back. Is that how you feel? Is that how you define it? If not, who cares - dismiss it as." Nothing. "
"[My grandmother] was very clear that when you have ambition you can do anything and be anything - but you will meet people who tell you that for some reason you cannot," continued Meena. “And it's something that the people in my family have been told throughout their careers: you're too young, you're too this, you're that too. But keep an eye on the ball, put one foot in front of the other and go on. Don't let anyone define what your chances are or what the future might be and how things should be. "
However, Ambitious Girl isn't just about bringing the lessons Meena learned from her grandmother, mother and aunt to the broadest possible audience. It continues to correct the harsh imbalance that in part inspired her first book, Kamala and Maya's Great Idea. "I read the classics to my older daughter and asked myself: Where are the characters who look like my own daughters?" says Meena. "I was tired of having to put a brown pencil in my girls' books to add variety or change the pronouns from him and her to them."
According to the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, there were more children's books with animals as main characters in 2019 than books with black, Latin American, Asian, or indigenous characters combined. Equally problematic: In the same year, only 16.8 percent of children's books were written or illustrated by people of color.
“Becoming a children's author was never on my list of dreams or anything I thought I would,” says Meena. "At some point I thought I was going to just write this damn book myself. I'm going to write the book my daughters should read, where they can actually see themselves in pages."
Meena was eager to change the narrative because she had witnessed the effects of a diverse children's shelf. "Although there were far fewer in my childhood, my family looked for stories that highlighted communities of color and multiculturalism, like Tar Beach, Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, Whistle for Willie, and Shake It to the One That You Love the Best." But she had also seen the effects of what had happened when her own children were exposed to books with blacks at the center. “For over a year, my older daughter has been saying she wants to be president and astronaut when she grows up - and that's because she had a family member running for presidency and read a children's book about Mae Jemison. Says Meena. "I realized that books had this tremendous power for young children who are first learning about the world."
It is common knowledge that reading fiction can foster empathy, respect, and acceptance - which could ultimately pave the way for an equitable future. “It's not just important for my daughters to see this representation or diversity,” says Meena. “It is just as important for white men and boys to see women of color as leaders and to understand that we should support them when they have big ideas or are ambitious,” she says.
In the seven months since Kamala and Maya's Big Idea were released, Meena has not only seen firsthand the impact of meaningful representation (Amara is not only president and astronaut, but now wants to become a writer too), but what happens when Ambitious girls become ambitious women - something she will no doubt think of when her aunt becomes the first female vice president and, as the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, also the first black and first vice president of South Asian descent.
"'Too Ambitious' did it, didn't it?" Says Meena. "That shows in all of this and in every form and in all its glory what ambition means and what happens when you dare to do something, even though people would say all along that it is not possible simply because it is never happened before. " That's the part that gets me sometimes - like, holy shit, it's Kamala. It is actually the first in our nation's entire history. "
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