Meet Meena Harris, the Designer and Activist Behind the Viral 'Phenomenally Black' T-Shirt
PEOPLE caught up with the founder and CEO of Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, Meena Harris, whose popular statement tees are more impactful than ever before
Across social media, people are using their platforms to expose racial injustice and promote ways to enact change. And many famous faces are sharing their activism while sporting the same black T-shirt. Kerry Washington, Octavia Spencer, Terry Crews, Gabby Sidibe, Mya, Storm Reid, Laura Harrier, Cynthia Bailey, Kandi Burrus, Loni Love and more stars have photographed themselves wearing the "Phenomenally Black" statement tee from the brand, Phenomenal Woman, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In the wake of George Floyd's death, which has sparked social unrest and Black Lives Matter protests in all 50 states, celebrities have been stepping up to join the cause by marching, by donating to social causes and by spreading awareness on social media through their "Phenomenally Black" statement tee.
In each of their captions, stars encouraged protestors fighting against anti-black racism and police violence to keep going. "We have to keep doing the work," Washington wrote in her caption. "Keep up the fight. Keep being seen. Keep being heard. For our phenomenally black community."
The brand Phenomenal Woman is giving all proceeds from the tee to the Black Future Labs, a non-profit working to build Black political power that was founded by Alicia Garza (a co-founder of Black Lives Matters). The "Phenomenally Black" shirt ($35), which was added to the Phenomenal Women offering last year to recognize Black Women's Equal Pay Day, saw a huge resurgence in sales in recent weeks (it's currently on backorder and will ship in two weeks).
And the "phenomenal woman" behind the brand is none other than founder and CEO Meena Harris (who also happens to be the niece of Senator Kamala Harris). Her line of statement tees and sweatshirts all have one thing in common — they celebrate the wearer with sayings like "Phenomenally Asian," "Latina Power" and "Girl Dad" to name a few.
PEOPLE caught up with the activist and entrepreneur who said she felt "both humbled and proud" by seeing so many influential celebrities making a statement in her designs.
"A statement T-shirt can seem so small and insignificant, especially compared to the enormity of the social change that's happening before our eyes," Harris tells PEOPLE. "But there is substance and meaning behind it. And the most basic meaning is people proclaiming to the world that they are worthy, deserving of dignity and proud. When we are talking about things like systemic racism and systematic oppression of underrepresented communities, it's a reminder that the world needs to see and hear over and over until there is full accountability, equality, and justice for all, not just a privileged few."
This fundamental urge to help give others a voice is the reason she started her brand back after the 2016 presidential election.
"Like a lot of people, in that moment I found myself wondering what I personally could do to lift up women, make my voice heard, and support issues I cared about," Harris tells PEOPE. "Phenomenal started as a very small initiative to raise money for women’s organizations — I had made a handful of Phenomenal Woman T-shirts (inspired by the poem by Maya Angelou) for the first Women’s March in 2017, and they were popular there, so I decided to take it a step further and sell them on International Women’s Day 2017 as a fundraising initiative. We thought it was going to be a small thing, but we ended up selling 2,500 shirts in one day, and I knew right then that we couldn't stop there."
As an activist and Harvard Law School grad, she previously worked at Uber as the Head of Strategy & Leadership and advised other brands on corporate citizenship, social responsibility and diversity and inclusion, and never quite saw fashion design in her future.
"I've always been a creative, entrepreneurial minded person, and I've always been inspired by other creatives, including fashion designers. But I never thought it was something I would formally pursue," she said, adding that her business wasn't intended to become as big as it has.
"It was never supposed to be anything more than a side project, a one-month fundraising campaign, and I certainly didn't think back then that I would be here over three years later still talking about it. Likewise, I never set out to start a brand. So it's been an unexpected and wild ride, to say the least! But it's really gratifying to pour your heart and soul into something, work your ass off, and see it in the world embraced by the communities it's intended for."
As she expanded her business, she also extended the list of organizations its proceeds support, which is now up to nine different groups, including Including Native Voices Rising, The Council on American-Islamic Relations and Justice for Migrant Women.
"While a lot of the issues we raise awareness around are related, we want to use our platform to draw attention to the fact that the impact they have on different communities is often distinct," she explains. "Working with different communities and organizations allows us to raise awareness in a nuanced and impactful way, while also giving us broad reach."
When asked what advice she would give others in the fashion industry who are committed to active allyship, she says it's as simple as staying committed.
"That means showing up passionately, consistently and continuously, and not just in a particular moment," she shares. "Also know that sometimes the best thing you can do as a responsible ally is to step back and listen rather than lead."
And to those who want to continue to support the Black Lives Matter movement, Harris encourages brands to amplify the work of black activists on the ground. "Seek learning and understanding directly from them, donate to their organizations, and lift up their voices."
For Harris, she is committed to continue to fight for women’s equality, and for her, that means starting with girl’s equality. And her new children's book, Kamala and Maya's Big Idea is an example of that. "My book is one of many steps in that direction, starting with listening to girls, supporting their big ideas, and following their lead."
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