When now Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris was "accused" of being "too ambitious" on the campaign trail, it spurred her niece, activist and author Meena Harris, into action.
"It really just stopped me in my tracks. ... I had had enough," Harris says.
So she wrote a children's book called Ambitious Girl, in the hope that no young woman in the next generation would have her dreams characterized as a liability.
"I was thinking about my kids ..." Harris says. "Like, are we still going to be doing this with my daughters? Telling them, you know: You can be ambitious but not too ambitious. Stay in your lane. Stay in your little box."
The book, which is illustrated by Marissa Valdez, is a celebration of ambition. "It was really about reclaiming that word, redefining it, reframing it for the next generation," Harris says.
On what inspired her to write children's books
Becoming a kids' book author is never what I imagined. It was never on my my bucket list. I'm sort of an accidental author. ... [I remember] reading the classics to my older daughter and wondering, you know, where the black children were. They were not represented on the pages of books. We would color the skin color in with a brown marker; often we would change pronouns from he, to she, to they.
And I saw, you know, firsthand ... this idea that you can't be what you can't see. ... Now [my daughter] says she wants to be a president and an astronaut when she grows up — and that is because she saw a family member running for president. It's because she read a book about [astronaut] Mae Jemison.
On the idea that you should not let anyone else define you
"Don't let anyone tell you who you are. You tell them who you are." ... That is actually something my grandmother used to say often to my aunt, my mom and to me. ... You are the only person who has power to define who you are — what your ambitions are and what your impact on the world will be. No one else should have the power to do that. And I think inherent in that is, again, claiming your ambition.
On daring to be the first
We need to continue to elect women leaders and to appoint women to positions of leadership ... My grandmother had another saying, which was: "You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you're not the last." ... Daring to be the first woman elected to do something, or the first black woman to be elected is, by definition, ambitious. And it's also not only ... achieving representation, but in doing so, you know, people are not able to tell us: "Oh, it can't be done — it's never been done, so it can't be done." It's about challenging the status quo.
On where she gets her creative spark
My grandmother was such an influential figure in my life. And when you say that "spark," I mean, I immediately think of her. That's the life that she lived — just unapologetically her — and encouraged all of us to pursue our dreams in the same way.
I come from this family of social justice lawyers and I had these incredible role models. Right? But I was always encouraged to pursue my dreams — not to be corny — but that's how I was raised ... and I'm super thankful for that.
Kalyani Saxena and William Troop produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
At one point this past summer, before the presidential election, before presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden chose a running mate, there were reports by the usual anonymous sources that Senator Kamala Harris was thought to be too ambitious to be selected as a vice-presidential nominee. But the rest, as they say, is history.
But it's worth mentioning again because the senator's niece, the activist, bestselling author and entrepreneur Meena Harris, has a new children's book inspired in part by that diss. It's called, appropriately enough, "Ambitious Girl." And Meena Harris is with us now to tell us more, as well as to reflect on this historic moment.
Meena Harris, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
MEENA HARRIS: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So congratulations on the book, which I want to mention is illustrated by Marissa Valdez. It's your second children's book. But what an incredible moment to be having this book come out.
HARRIS: Yes, it is. It still feels a little surreal (laughter). I did not know that this would be, you know, where we are right now when I decided to write the book. And I'm just thrilled. I think that it is - obviously, as you just said, it's a historic moment. But it's also just so needed. And as you said, there was, you know, this moment on the campaign trail where my family member was called too ambitious, and it really just stopped me in my tracks.
And I think it was - you know, it was an emotional moment, obviously. I was tired, but I was also just - I had had enough. And I was really thinking about, you know, how this affects us, even if we are, you know, able to deal with it and, you know, get through it. And I was thinking about my kids - right? - the next generation. Like, are we still going to be doing this with my daughters - telling them, you know, you can be ambitious, but not too ambitious, right? Stay in your lane. Stay in your little box.
And so I decided, you know, I'm going to do something. I want to write this book. And it was really about, you know, reclaiming that word, redefining it, reframing it for the next generation.
MARTIN: I don't know that everybody knows this, but you are also the founder of an apparel brand that a lot of people will have seen on Instagram, celebrities sporting your wares. It's called Phenomenal Woman. And there's one that was sold out with a quickness this summer, as I recall - the logo - it says, quite simply, I'm speaking.
MARTIN: I think people know what the reference to that is. So what made you decide to write children's books? I mean, this is your second. Your first was also a bestseller. But what made you decide to kind of pivot to children's books along with the messaging that is probably more commonly sported by adults?
HARRIS: Yeah. You know, I have to say, becoming a kids' book author is never what I imagined. It was never on my bucket list. I'm sort of an accidental author. And with my first book in particular, it was thinking about, you know, raising my kids, raising the next generation and having a lot of pride in the way that I was raised and frankly, you know, having a little anxiety about, how do I do that, right? How do I, you know, pass that on to my kids in a meaningful way?
And I was seeing as a new mother, you know, with my now older daughter just the power of literature, and especially at that young, young age that kids often, you know, learn about the world for the first time through books and family, right?
And frankly, you know, reading sort of the classics to my older daughter and wondering, you know, where the Black children were. They were not represented on the pages of books. And we would color, you know, the skin color in with a brown marker often. We would change, you know, pronouns from he to she to they.
And I saw, you know, firsthand - right? - this idea that you can't be what you can't see, and further, that my daughter - she would see images and say, I want to be that thing, right? She now says (laughter) she wants to be a president and an astronaut when she grows up.
MARTIN: And that is because she saw a family member running for president. It's because she read a book about Mae Jemison. That's why she wants to be those things. And so the power of that and knowing that, you know, I could do something meaningful through that medium is what really initially inspired me.
MARTIN: The book opens with drawings of a woman politician who I have to say looks a lot like Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley.
HARRIS: Well, you would be correct.
MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah. I - why did you choose her? And one of the - I'll just tell a little bit of it. She was also called, you know, too assertive, too ambitious, too this, too that. And in the book, the response is to say, don't let anyone tell you who you are. You tell them who you are. What is the power you hear in those words? Is it - how did you sort of arrive at that method of storytelling?
HARRIS: Well, first, you are absolutely right that that illustration is inspired by Ayanna Pressley, who is a, you know, personal hero of mine.
And when I was thinking about, you know, who do I want this little girl, the ambitious girl, to be looking up to and, you know, seeing the world through, it was someone like Ayanna Pressley, who I think is just such a, you know, not only important figure for all of us, but, as you said, she - you know, she carries herself and leads with unapologetic ambition and unapologetic authenticity and - right? - and power. And she's who I just imagined as the woman that we're, you know, seeing this journey sort of through.
On the quote, do not - you know, don't let anyone tell you who you are. You tell them who you are. That is actually something my grandmother used to say often to my aunt, my mom and to me. And it's really about, you know, you are the only person who has power to define who you are, what your ambitions are and what your, you know, impact on the world will be. No one else should have the power to do that.
MARTIN: Do you think it's important also to lift up women in public life? I mean, apart from your personal connection to elected office through your aunt, do you think there's something particularly important about that?
HARRIS: Absolutely. I mean, it's about women in leadership, right? It's about women with power. And I think that we've seen, especially in the context of politics, that that is something still that, you know, our patriarchal society is not comfortable with. And we need to continue to elect women leaders and to, you know, appoint women to positions of leadership. And when we do that, again, at the most basic level, we're talking about it - seeing it through the eyes of children. It's about representation and seeing what's possible, right?
And that is, again, aspiring to an ambition of what can be in your future. And that's what this is about. And I think about this book almost when I first sort of conceived of it as, like, a manifesto - right? - that my girls would - or this, you know, kind of self-affirmation exercise - right? - that would really impact, you know, girls, you know, waking up the next day saying, I'm ambitious. I'm going to go out into the world and just do what I want.
MARTIN: (Laughter) That was Meena Harris. Her latest book, a children's book, is called "Ambitious Girl," and it will be available January 19.
Meena Harris, congratulations. Thank you so much for talking with us.
HARRIS: Thank you for having me.
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