Actress-Activist Yara Shahidi on Her Ambition for Teenage Voters & Social Unity

It would be disingenuous to fall back on clichés when it comes to talking about Yara Shahidi and comparing her with teenagers her age — not only for her sake, but for her peers. I had to check myself from making sweeping statements such as “while other 18-year-olds were busy posting selfies on Instagram, Shahidi organised a political outreach programme and was accepted to Harvard”, because they ring hollow in light of recent events. Just mere days after witnessing the deaths of 17 of their friends and teachers by the hand of a former schoolmate, the survivors of the February high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, organised #NeverAgain, a national anti-gun movement to promote gun control. They also faced off with lawmakers about their inaction over the hazardously lax firearms regulations, and inspired fellow teenagers to march, protest and stage school walkouts across the United States.

Therefore, instead of pitting Shahidi against an entire population of young millennials, it’s more appropriate to view the actress-activist as one of the leading voices of a new generation of politically inclined and socially involved teenagers. Born to an Iranian photographer father and an actress mother with African-American and Native American ancestry, Shahidi began acting as a child, eventually landing the role of Zoey Johnson on the ABC sitcom “Black-ish” and subsequently as the main character in “Grown-ish”, a spin-off detailing Zoey’s college experience.

Polo Ralph Lauren jacket and trousers.
 

However, what sets Shahidi apart from the milieu of young actors is her luminary off-screen activities. Compared to her political one, her fashion resume almost seems frivolous, and they’re not: she is the US brand ambassador for Chanel, has fronted campaigns for GAP, Aerie and Beyonce’s Ivy Park label, and was dressed for the red carpet by Prada, Ralph Lauren, Giambattista Valli and Etro, amongst others.

And yet, Shahidi is not defined by her sartorial presentation, but by her keen intelligence and stellar involvement in activism. She has rubbed shoulders with not one, but two First Ladies: Michelle Obama, when she was working on the educational initiative “Let Girls Learn” (the former First Lady wrote her Harvard recommendation letter), and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with alongside whom Shahidi was the keynote speaker at the Teen Vogue Summit in December 2017. She most recently launched “Eighteenx18”, an initiative to encourage fellow teenagers of voting age to vote in the upcoming midterm elections, and has written eloquently about her experiences as a person of colour, a young woman, a teenager, and an actress for Google and The Hollywood Reporter.

Shahidi is wearing a Polo Ralph Lauren jacket.
Shahidi is wearing a Polo Ralph Lauren jacket.

In an exclusive interview with T Singapore, Shahidi shares her bold ambition for a more involved generation of would-be voters, her own unique upbringing within the film and television industry, and just what it means to be defiantly and proudly undefined.

Polo Ralph Lauren shirt and trousers.
 
Saint Laurent romper; Jimmy Choo c/o Off-White boots.
Saint Laurent romper; Jimmy Choo c/o Off-White boots.

How did you end up being the keynote speaker for last year’s Teen Vogue Summit?

Well, it came about actually when Elaine Welteroth, the former editor-in-chief for Teen Vogue actually texted me. She was like, “Hey, I have this really cool opportunity, don’t know if you’re down but I’m so excited, just telling you and your mother, but know it’s going to the rest of your team soon.” And I didn’t know what it was, but when she texted me, it was one of those moments that is kind of surreal — the fact that somebody would consider me for that kind of opportunity!

Prepping for it was so much fun. I had read James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time”, because Baldwin always gives me inspiration for whenever I write or whenever I have to speak, and so, after reading the book, I wrote a piece about Baldwin and that piece led me to the questions that I wanted to ask Secretary Clinton. Then, in the actual moment when I was sitting right across from her, I was nervous at first because it was a big opportunity and people trusted me with this opportunity and I was sitting in front of my peers. But as we began talking, it was such a natural conversation and I realised how much I enjoy being in or amidst a great discussion and so it flew by.

I think one of the most impactful things about the experience was the fact that there was a symbolic passing of the baton during that moment. There was the symbolic moment of trusting somebody from Generation Z and so, not only was it the literal passing of information from generation to generation, but also to see all of my peers in the crowd see me as the person who is in conversation with Secretary Clinton. It was a moment in which I realised Generation Z is and has been coming into their own and it’s pretty powerful for an organisation, magazine and platform to recognise that.

Saint Laurent romper. Jimmy Choo c/o Off White boots.
 
 

What was it like meeting and interacting with the former First Ladies?

Meeting First Lady Michelle Obama and being able to speak with her was incredible. She’s always been an inspiration and role model of mine. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to work with her educational initiatives and whenever the White House called, I answered. She is not only a representation of grace under pressure, but so much more. She represents what it’s really like to revolutionise the position of First Lady, and to be a symbol for girls, especially young black girls, out there everywhere. She is the representation that we all needed and she really took it upon herself to create these initiatives, which make such an impact and continue to make such an impact.

And then of course, what I said about Secretary Clinton: she is somebody who has had so much experience in this political arena and so, to be able to speak to two powerful women — again, two women who took it upon themselves to make the impact that they want to see is inspiring, to say the least. To say that I’ve been able to talk and be in discussion alongside them is surreal, but most importantly, inter-generational support is so important to me. To continuously engage with people, who in one way or another I am inspired by, is something that I do not take for granted.

 
 

How did you manage to stay grounded all these years when you were exposed to the film and television industry during your formative years?

If anything, being a child actor was at least retrospectively quite a breeze because of my parents. My parents were very intentional, especially in my elementary and middle school years. I wasn’t really pulled out of school, there were a couple of times that I was homeschooled. It was a personal choice because I appreciated the academics in a certain programme, but I was still in school, had hobbies and all of that, and acting was something that I went off to do with my family. I still very much had these beautiful experiences associated with acting, of just growing up and so it never hindered me.

It wasn’t until “Black-ish” that major changes were made because I was in high school and high school was a little harder to balance. I ended up enrolling in a distance learning programme with The Dwight School. “Black-ish” was an adjustment, but it’s a beautiful environment and once we adjusted, it was really figuring out how to live in between takes. We have so much fun on set, but it’s still so integral and crucial that I had a life outside of work. My parents have always given me that and demonstrated that, and have always said that acting is something that we do, and it’s not who we are. That’s something that has really spoken to me because it’s about making sure that I allow my other interests to flourish so I never look back and say: “Well, if it wasn’t for this, I would have been doing XYZ.”

Oscar de la Renta dress; Céline coat; Chanel boots.
 

What was the catalyst for your interest in politics and activism?

I’ve always said that my family is a group of humanitarians, which they are. I’ve always been introduced to books starting at a young age. I was reading “The Odyssey” and then later, I was reading James Baldwin and other books about religion, culture and being multiracial. Culture has always fascinated me because I come from two very seemingly distinct cultures and through my growing up, I’ve realised how similar they are. So, “Black-ish” not only provided me with an opportunity to speak about relevant and socio-political topics on the show, it also allowed me to continue the conversation outside of the show. It was really when I started “Black- ish” that people started viewing me as “qualified” and asking me, as a 14-year-old then, my opinion on what we thought “Black-ish” was covering. That was when I personally realised that along with the work that my family and I were doing, in terms of donating and always trying to be socially aware, that the platform was in tune for me to do the same on a larger scale.

Oscar de la Renta dress; Céline coat; Chanel boots.
 

You’ll be matriculating at Harvard later this year. Are you excited about college life, now that you’ve experienced it somewhat as Zoey on “Grown-ish”?

Yes, and no. I’m excited because being on “Grown-ish” and being on that set, I’ve made some pretty amazing friends, not just as Zoey but as Yara, which has been really special to me. I absolutely adore the people that I get to work with every day and if I can have that kind of relationship with anybody in college, really, I’ll feel like I’ve hit the jackpot.

Zoey’s college adventure, while it will most definitely not be mine, has paralleled my life in so many ways because Zoey getting to bond with her friends is me getting to bond with my cast and my friends. It really is kind of like college because we get to see each other every day. There are some weeks it feels like we’re living together because we’re on set for so long. If I get to be a part of that kind of relationship-building process in college, I’ll be so excited. I’m actually really excited about taking classes. I’m so excited about figuring out what I want to do and fine-tuning what my interests and what my concentration will be.

Oscar de la Renta dress; Céline coat; Chanel boots.
 

Are there any plans to move into the political sphere, especially seeing how deeply you are involved currently?

I’ve always said I wanted to do policy, or be a political adjacent, because I love politics but at the same time, I see how extremely tolling it is on the person. If I was able to do the ground work in one way or another, if I was able to take something that I love, like what I’m already doing with “Eighteenx18”, I’d be happy. Being so connected to my generation, and being so connected to the direct results of my work and what I’m passionate about. The goal is not to be on Capitol Hill but to be right next to it, whether that means I’m in the non-profit scene or finding something else to do. I’d love to really be working as an organiser of some kind.

Gucci jumpsuit.
 

What are your thoughts about the risky fate of public education right now, and the tide of anti-intellectual sentiments currently in the US?

To watch this administration come in and actively dismantle everything the Obama administration has done was extremely devastating because there seems to be no basis for it, other than the fact that they didn’t want anything or any remnants of the previous administration. There were things that were dismantled like “Let Girls Learn”, and these other initiatives, which were so crucial and doing fantastic work that was ultimately non-partisan. And so, with this so-called tide of people not supporting higher education, I realised that it’s not about a lack of support for higher education itself, or a lack of support for the institution. It’s really a lack of support for the child, lack of support in funding and if anything else, it personally feels as though it’s been driven by greed and the need to save — the idea that I’d rather save my money than give to public schools, that I’d rather save taxpayer dollars than offer a child an opportunity for a scholarship to go to school.

And what I realised is that so many of these people proposing budget cuts and people in charge of making these instrumental changes that prohibit people’s access to education, it’s not because they are anti-education, [it’s] because they already have the funds to educate themselves. It seems as though they are now finding [that there’s] no need in spreading the education that has gotten them thus far to the world around them. Which really speaks to the importance of interconnectedness and realising that we all rise together.

There is no point in trying to increase the divide of the socio-economic, socio-political hierarchy, or even the wage gap. What I am inspired by, is the fact that education is now taking place in any and all forms, and what we are seeing are young entrepreneurs. We are seeing young people who are affected by this lack of access to education, who are turning around and helping their communities. This swing into the opposite, particularly non-progressive direction has led to a push to compensate and really overcompensate for the lack of support.

Hugo top, shirt, and trousers.
Hugo top, shirt, and trousers.
Hugo top, shirt, and trousers.
 

How do you feel about being hailed as a role model for young women?

It’s something that I don’t take lightly. First and foremost, the one thing that I recognise is that people support me for being Yara, which is inspiring. I look forward to always meeting people, whether they watch “Black- ish” or “Grown-ish”, or whether they follow me from something else I’ve done outside of it. I look forward to meeting them because I feel really lucky that whenever anyone comes up to me, it may be for the show but otherwise it’s for something extremely specific that I’ve done that’s made an impact. To say that I’ve made a particular impact to somebody in anyway shape or form is surreal. Even the fact that people have jumped out of cars to say: “I took AP World because of you!” It’s really one of those moments in which I see that the work that I’m doing does make an impact and is inspiring.

What’s even more inspiring is when people say: “Hey, because of what you did, look at what I’m doing.” I love being actively inspired by my peers. I feel that being a role model nowadays goes both ways, that we’re also being receptive to learning and viewing each other as role models. So, rather than positioning a select few as the ones to follow, we should really be looking at our generation as people with a plethora of information and love.

Hugo top, shirt, and trousers.
 

Being someone who is “black-ish” and “grown-ish”, how do you define yourself as a person?

In an ideal world, I would describe myself as undefined. Being African American and being Iranian is something I have so much pride over. Being Generation Z is something that I have so much pride about as well. Those are really the facts of my existence, the things that are undeniable and can’t be taken away.

In terms of behavioural characteristics, in terms of who I am outside of my ethnicity, I try to live fairly freely. As a young girl, I’m always searching for who I am, so it’s hard to describe who I am. I also think it’s counter-intuitive to try and describe who I am because I don’t want to box [in] myself. There are so many barriers in this world, and I’ve been really fortunate to be in an environment in which I’ve been supported and pushed past these barriers. But there are so many moments and institutions and subliminal messages you get, saying that you have to be one or the other in any facet of your life. So, I’ve tried to make it my own ideology that if I can, then I will, to the best of my abilities, try to live with no definitions of who I should or shouldn’t be, and allow my day-to-day motivation guide who I am.

 
 
Words by Joie Goh
Photographs by Dennis Leupold
Creative Direction by Jack Wang & Jumius Wong
Styled by Oh Jing Ni
Hair by Naivasha Johnson/ Exclusive Artists Management
Makeup by Emily Cheng
Digital Tech by Kevin Leupold
Produced by Haleigh Wojo
Photographer Assisted by Winston Kingstro & Lauren Thomas