It was a phrase Meena Harris referred to multiple times: Understanding the power of language.

Recognized as an influential voice for women’s equality, Harris—the founder and CEO of an apparel company and a New York Times bestselling author—was the keynote speaker Friday for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s annual MLK Day 2021 celebration.

Speaking to the UTC campus community via Zoom, Harris answered questions on a wide array of topics, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and mission and her journey as an activist, entrepreneur, attorney, author and parent.

“Most of what I do is inspired by family—the family I grew up in and family that I’m now raising,” Harris said. “I was taught that ambition meant purpose, determination, hope, vision, having a dream and going for it, having a big dream and believing in it and believing in yourself to achieve it.”

In June 2020, she published a bestselling children’s book, Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea, which is based on the story of her mother, Maya Harris, and her aunt Kamala Harris, now the vice president of the United States.

Her recently released second children’s book, Ambitious Girl, is “really about the power of language, but it’s also about the way in which language can be weaponized and used as a tool of harm and oppression,” Harris said. “It’s about the word ambition and ambitious, which we know is often a double standard in the way that it is used negatively against women.

“Fast forward to me going into the working world after college and seeing at that point for the first time that society tells us something very different. It’s a double standard that we talk about—ambition or female ambition—that is in a way that is negative, almost like a dirty word. ‘She’s really ambitious, right.’ It’s meant at the basic level to cut women down to diminish our accomplishments.”

And how does she envision changing the culture?

“I want to be very clear and start young,” she said. “Starting young also means not only with our girls but with our boys. This is all about changing culture and how society views and respects women. It’s very basic.

“I joke that my next book is going to be an alphabet book. Ambition is obviously not the only one. Bossy. Competitive. I could literally go down the alphabet and easily name words that have been unfairly used against me, and I know a lot of other women can relate to that. So the essence of it is understanding the power of language.”

Harris is the founder of the Phenomenal brand, which produces apparel emblazoned with social and motivational phrases. The Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign is a civic engagement and cross-media marketing platform that supports women’s causes.

When asked about when she first became aware of King’s mission, Harris responded, “Can I say the womb as the very first understanding of his work and importance and legacy?” She said she grew up in a social justice family, with fighting for equality always at the forefront.

“Going back to my family, understanding that to dare to succeed in a world that tells you that you are less than, or that you were different, or that because you are different, or because no one who looks like you has done what you were daring to do, that is by definition daring you to be ambitious, right?

“We have no choice but to be ambitious. That goes back to understanding what (King’s) message was and what he was about. And it was about being bold and radical and yes—having an ambitious dream and vision for the future. And further to that, not just having a dream and a vision, but doing the work to get there. And following that up with action and demands and accountability and all the things that we know are necessary to create a more just and equal world.”

Before Harris’ appearance on Zoom, renowned spoken word artist and educator Alex Tha Great—the keynote speaker for an earlier program geared toward local high school and UTC students—showed off her extraordinary poetry skills.

Alex Tha Great (given name Alexandria Gurley) has traveled around the country promoting social justice since 2011. She is the author of three books, the runner-up for the 2018 National Civil Rights Museum Drop the Mic Poetry Slam and a 2017 Women of the World Poetry Slam finalist.

Her poem to the UTC campus community spoke to the power of King’s legacy.

We are standing here on the precipice of a new day, eyes welling up with angst. Anxious for what it is, the dawn will hold.

At sunrise, we set our sights on a vision for change, looking out on the horizon armed with prayers and mighty faith, feet mired in the murky waters of muddled politics. And there is not one of us who can count ourselves unharmed.

But I dream of rivers calming, still ever-flowing a new day of reckoning. Water, fresh and purifying.

In my most vivid of dreams, I live in a state of pure euphoria where fantasy crosses over to reality, where we extend each other good grace, free from restrictions.

If we could love without limits, remove the iron branding of hate, and learn to celebrate all our differences. The only real division we need is between compassion and disdain.

Not color or creed, for what we bring to the table far but outweighs with each of our voices, we contribute to the recipe. Therefore, we are all entitled to a plate, an adequate seat at the table, and we feast sitting knee-deep in the belly of the beast.

We commune together full of courage and hope, leaving power in the ballot, in our right to vote, putting faith in our democracy.

We are shapeshifters, transference of energy, changing the narrative and rewriting the scripts that we dare not cusp or rehearse this pain tomorrow. We bring new opportunities.

We are descendants of the King. We are truly manifestations of his legacy.

The truth is we are always approaching the sunrise, never not waiting on a new day. Standing here, open arms, embracing the change, we are a joyous people. Find it in our hearts to forgive. We laugh and cry and find new ways to live. And we survive.

Together, we press forward and thrive. I ask this question of you: Will you go and do the work you were called to do? Whether it be writing poems or upholding the law.

Whether it be teaching students or sending them off, lungs filled with courage, mouth full of purpose and heads to keep lifting as we climb.

For we know that as we empower the least of us, then truly all of us will survive.

MLK Day 2021 was sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Affairs in partnership with the Office of Equity and Inclusion, the Department of Communication, the Center for Women and Gender Equity, the Office of Alumni Affairs and the Office of Student and Family Engagement.


Media Relations Contacts: Email UTC Media Relations or call 423-425-5119.

Chuck Wasserstrom is an executive staff writer in the UTC Office of Communications and Marketing.

Tagged with: