Ambitious Girl: Meena Harris Changes the Narrative with Her New Children’s Book

Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Phenomenal. 

Raise your hand if you’ve bought from one of their collections or at least been incredibly tempted to do so.

Raise your hand if you’ve seen the book “Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea” at your local bookstore or even on the bookshelves of kids in your life (or on your own).

If you raised your hand in response to any of the above, congratulations, you’re familiar with the work of Meena Harris.

If you have yet to find your way onto Meena Harris’ corner of the Internet, allow me to introduce you to her. Meena Harris is a Harvard educated lawyer and the founder and CEO of Phenomenal, a black and brown owned, women-led lifestyle brand that sheds light on various timely social causes. She is a mom of two and The New York Times best-selling author of the children’s book “Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea” inspired by a true story from her aunt, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her mom, lawyer and policy expert, Maya Harris’ childhood. 

Her first book was released in June but, she’s already got a second book called “Ambitious Girl” set for release. “Ambitious Girlfollows a young girl who sees a powerful woman on TV get labeled as “too assertive” and “too ambitious,” sending her on a discovery journey through the past, present, and future about the challenges faced by women and girls and the ways in which these women can reclaim and bring new meaning to words originally intended to knock them down.

We at Brown Girl Magazine had the chance to ask Harris some of my questions about her new book, “Ambitious Girl” and here’s all of the awesome scoop we’ve got for you:

But first, let’s talk about Bharathnatyam dancing.

Not many people know you are a Bharathnatyam dancer. How long have you been learning for and why did you pick that up?

Bharathnatyam and my identity as a classically trained dancer are really special to me. My grandmother, who was an influential figure in all areas of my life, introduced me to Bharathnatyam when I was young. For her, I think it was not only about always finding ways to expose me to and teach me about our cultural heritage, but also, it was something she wanted to pass on that had deep personal significance, as she was a classically trained carnatic singer. I come from an artistically gifted family on my Indian side, and in fact, I’m named for my great great grandmother, Meenakshi, who also was a Bharathnatyam dancer.

Now, back to the book.

[Read Related: Book Review and Interview: ‘Well-Behaved Indian Women’ by Saumya Dave]

Apart from reading your books, do you have any advice for parents looking to teach their kids the importance of community involvement and civic engagement?

I grew up in what I like to call a “social justice family”—which means I learned at a very young age what activism looks like, and what it can achieve. My grandmother was no stranger to protests and political rallies, but she was also a great example of living out everyday acts of resistance. She taught me I should always try to make an impact, wherever I was, however I could—big or small. That idea became the central line of my kids’ book, Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea: “No one can do everything. But everyone can do something.” 

I think that’s such a great lesson for anyone with kids. The world only gets better when we all take steps to make it that way. But those steps don’t have to be big. You can start small—even in your own backyard, just as Kamala and Maya do in the book. Organize a food drive in your apartment building, send letters to elderly neighbors stuck at home, clean up your local park, start a community garden. There are unlimited ways to make a difference and don’t wait for anyone to invite you to the table. Just show up! No one is too young to get involved in their community. 

Do you have any advice for women who are having to deal with the challenge of being told that they are “too ambitious”?

“Ambitious” is not an insult. So the first step is to understand that and reject that premise. You could spend your whole life hiding from these words. Instead, we need to reframe and reclaim them. As my family taught me, and as I’m hoping to pass along to others, we need to encourage ambitious girls because ambitious girls become ambitious women. And ambitious women can break barriers, shatter ceilings, and change the world. 

I also think that we need to talk about the men who are telling women that they’re too ambitious. And other men who hear these conversations and don’t speak up. That is one of the reasons why when I talk about my new book, I am very clear that it’s intended for all. I want little boys to read it, and frankly and a lot of grown men too. 

What does ambition mean to you?

In my family, ambition was never used negatively. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that not everyone sees ambition the way I do. To a whole lot of other people, ambition—women’s ambition, that is—is code for taking up space that wasn’t intended to be yours.

To that I would say, ambition means courage. It means dreaming big. It means claiming your space. Ambition is a word that is powerful and good, and it should be available to all of us—we should all be proud of our ambitions.

What did the process of writing your second book look like from coming up with the idea to promoting it? Did it vary from the process of writing your first book?

Being a second-time author is sort of like being a second-time parent! Now I feel like I know the ropes a little better, but it’s still a ton of work.

My second book came together much quicker than my first (which I spent multiple years working on) because I felt a real sense of urgency. When I heard people criticizing one of the women in our family for being “too ambitious,” and it was amplified by the media, it stopped me in my tracks. Not because I hadn’t heard something like that before, but because as a parent, I felt a new sense of determination to make sure my young daughters, and children all over, would have the tools to reject, reframe, and reclaim words that might be used against them. I got to writing, and working with a great team of ambitious women from our editor to our illustrator and more, we got this book out into the world. 

Do you plan on or would you like to explore writing in other genres or for other age groups down the line?

I love writing children’s books. In part, because I’m a mom of two young girls and I’ve seen firsthand the power of books. Also, there simply aren’t enough kids’ books out there with main characters who look like them, so as an author, I can take tangible steps to address the lack of diversity in children’s literature. As far as other genres and age groups, stay tuned! I’m just getting started.

 

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Many of us likely didn’t grow up seeing many BIPOC characters in the children’s’ books we read. Even with parents and guiding figures who made an active effort to expose us to BIPOC narratives, there simply weren’t that many for us to be exposed to. In fact, we could probably all count the number of times we saw characters that looked like us or had experiences we could relate to on our fingers.

Harris is changing this narrative. 

By taking matters into her own hands, she is making it so that children no longer have to wonder why there are more purple characters and trolls that live under bridges in their books than kids that look like them. And this is something worth celebrating.

“Ambitious Girl” is set to hit shelves on January 19, 2021 and you can preorder it now and also get your hands on a limited edition signed copy.

You can connect with Harris on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok

Meena Harris was born into a family of strong women whose legacy continues to inspire her. Her grandmother, Shyamala Gopalan, was a cancer researcher and civil rights activist; her mother, Maya Harris, is a lawyer and policy expert; and her aunt is Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Meena herself is a lawyer and entrepreneur. In 2017 she founded the Phenomenal, a female-powered organization that brings awareness to social causes. On January 19th, 2021, Meena will release her second children’s book Ambitious Girl from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. She currently resides in San Francisco with her partner and two daughters.

 

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Introducing Vaksana: Guyana’s First Sustainable Women’s Retreat

Menakshi Babulall

Sustainable development practices can be utilized as a model for addressing gender inequities worldwide. Empowering women with the resources to gain opportunities, learn skills and collaborate in a safe and welcoming environment is crucial to women’s growth and development as individuals. 

After witnessing the first-hand effects of gender-based violence growing up in Guyana, Menakshi Babulall founded the Canadian nonprofit A Different View Project (ADVP) to promote and implement sustainable development methods across Guyanese communities. Vaksana, which means “nourishing/refreshing” in Sanskrit, is a branch of ADVP exclusively aimed at developing Guyana’s first eco-friendly women’s retreat center.  The retreat will offer wellness activities, training services, regenerative farming and community outreach programs. 

[Read Related: Philanthropist Nirmala Ramprasad Champions Sustainable Development Through Green Dupatta]

Babulall was inspired by Guyana’s rich rugged beauty as a child. Her dual passion for preserving the environment and aiding underserved communities contributed to her studying International Development at Toronto’s York University before launching a public service career.  This eventually led her focus back to Guyana. Babulall talks to BG about her journey as the founder of ADVP, the progress of Vaksana and her perspective on sustainable and ethical charity work.

How and when did you create ADVP? 

“ADVP was founded in 2016 with the vision of empowering communities and fostering sustainable development. The idea stemmed from my desire to create an organization that could address pressing social and environmental issues through innovative and collaborative approaches. One thing that fills me with immense pride is ADVP’s unique ability to bring together diverse stakeholders, including those from the diaspora, to create impactful projects that make a tangible difference in people’s lives while also providing them with an opportunity to connect with their homeland.”

ADVP has worked on projects within Guyana’s fertile Pomeroon-Supenaam region, a vast expanse of hills and villages that dot the Essequibo Coast. Past projects include building a centralized outdoor recreation space for families and facilitating peer tutoring groups for children affected by COVID-related school closures. They also engage with the children of Queenstown Village through storytelling and interactive activities to nurture their passion for the environment. Overall, the focus of ADVP’s projects is geared toward education and sustainability while developing meaningful and positive relationships with the local community. 

Babulall’s remigration to Guyana during the pandemic to oversee Vaksana was a humbling experience. Living in rural Guyana allowed her to witness the benefits that wellness and eco-tourism can bring to a community, but also highlighted entrenched socio-economic struggles. It heightened her senses of resilience, adaptability and empathy; all key facets she believed essential to an effective leader. She soon realized the importance of cementing Vaksana as a catalyst for positive change in the region, particularly as a safe haven for women and gender non-conforming individuals who may face discrimination.

Explain the concept behind Vaksana

“The idea of Vaksana was born out of extensive research and a deep-rooted passion for creating a transformative space that combines wellness, eco-tourism and community development. The journey began with a vision to create a place where individuals could experience holistic well-being, connect with nature and promote sustainable living.

Vaksana’s foundation is built on three essential elements: tourism, community outreach and regenerative farming/agriculture. These elements were thoughtfully chosen to ensure a holistic approach to personal growth, community empowerment and environmental stewardship. By integrating these pillars, Vaksana becomes a powerful force for positive impact, both within the retreat center and the wider community.”

Vaksana is an ode to Babulall’s Indian heritage that was originally displaced and irrevocably transformed upon arrival to the Caribbean. Like its namesake, individuals have the opportunity to reclaim and reinvigorate themselves. Future plans for Vaksana include a kitchen/restaurant alongside sustainable farming, a workshop/training facility and a multipurpose room offering wellness classes such as meditation and yoga in consultation with a behavioral psychologist and holistic therapist. Collaborations with local businesses and partnership with the University of Guyana ensures that Guyanese citizens are actively involved in every aspect of the project, providing employment opportunities and allowing them to take on leadership roles.

What is the current progress of Vaksana, and where do you hope to see the project in one year? 

“As of now, Vaksana is in an exciting phase of planning and development. We have made significant strides in securing the land and are eagerly awaiting the approval of the lease for our carefully chosen site. Our dedicated team is diligently working on the architectural design and construction plans to bring our vision to life.

In one year, we envision Vaksana having completed its initial construction phase, with the retreat center standing proudly amidst the natural beauty of Guyana. We anticipate being fully prepared to open our doors and welcome our first guests to experience the transformative journey that Vaksana offers.”

Babulall believes in transparency regarding the difficulties faced with running a non-governmental organization. She has overcome several obstacles such as limited resources and bureaucratic hurdles by seeking collaborations, leveraging available resources and engaging in open dialogue with members of the community.

When asked about the misconceptions of running an NGO, she replied, “Many NGOs actually strive for financial independence by implementing income-generating initiatives and fostering partnerships that create long-term sustainability. Another misconception is that NGOs are not as efficient or effective as for-profit organizations. In reality, NGOs often have lower administrative costs and are driven by a strong sense of purpose and commitment.” 

She also disagreed with the belief that NGOs only focus on aid/handouts and says, “Many NGOs prioritize community-driven development approaches, working with local stakeholders to identify their needs/strengths and supporting capacity-building initiatives that enable communities to thrive independently.”

By debunking these perceptions, NGOs such as ADVP can continue to attract like-minded individuals to participate in the diverse work they undertake to address social challenges and advance a more equitable future.

How would you suggest those get involved in ethical public sector/charity work?

“I would recommend starting by identifying your passions and areas of interest. Research and connect with organizations that align with your values and goals. Volunteer your time, skills or resources to make a tangible impact. Stay informed about social and environmental issues and advocate for positive change. Collaboration and learning from others in the field are also crucial for personal and professional growth.”

What is your ultimate goal and future plans for ADVP and Vaksana?

“My ultimate goal is to continue building ADVP as a leading organization in sustainable community development, promoting social and environmental justice. With Vaksana, we aim to establish a renowned wellness and eco-retreat center that serves as a model for sustainable tourism, community empowerment and holistic well-being. We envision expanding our impact, fostering collaborations and creating positive change at both local and global levels.”

Guyana’s raw and authentic lifestyle has left a profound impact on Babullal as an individual and a leader. While embarking on the Vaksana project has not been without roadblocks, she is grateful to have gained the strength to confront difficult realities head-on in hopes of creating a safe place for individuals to learn and flourish. She has found contentment in the beauty of Guyana’s lush surroundings and hopes that others find its premise rejuvenating and inspirational. 

To learn more about ADVP visit their website here or follow them on Instagram.

To donate to the Vaksana project, visit their GoFundMe page.

Featured Image: Menakshi Babulall | Photo Courtesy of Menakshi Babulall

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