Eighteen and killing it. That's one of many ways to describe Yara Shahidi, known for her most recent role as Zoey Johnson on both black-ish, and the black-ish A Different World - esque spinoff, grown-ish. During our talk she touched on everything that matters to Gen Z right now – pop culture, books, self-preservation, and changing the future. She's very aware of her space in the world, her privilege, and how she can create change by speaking up and educating her peers near and far. The most refreshing thing to hear from Yara, is just how much she cares and wants to see Gen Z win. She's been working since she was three years old, but this is literally just the beginning.
Read on for our insightful conversation with the teen activist herself.
How would you describe yourself?
Starting with the basics, I'm eighteen. I'm half Black and half Iranian; and I generally come from a family whose main purpose has been on purpose. And because of that, with everything that I do, with acting or what I've committed to outside of that, it's really been about how do we serve the greater good, using any and all platforms that we have, and how do we make it most efficient. Just being mixed, I was really granted a first-hand view of a globalist mentality of caring for one another, of understanding that we're a part of one large community.
You mentioned your family and how you grew up, and that purpose has always been instilled in you. Is there anything else that drives you to create change?
Starting selfishly, it is the kind of stuff that affects me – being a young Black person, a person of color in America – I mean these things affect my family first hand on both sides, whether you're talking about continual disenfranchisement of people of color, or whether they're talking about the Muslim Ban, or whether you're talking about healthcare and its effect on my Gen Z group and how it's going to affect my generation.
A part of me feels like when I do have something that I know I can contribute it will lead to more awareness. Whether it's a small action even, I try to contribute because I know how fortunate I am to have such a supportive family and the resources that I have. Also, in politics, we always talk about them very theoretically but they have a very personal effect on people's lives. And knowing just how detrimental the effect can be, especially now that we're living in an administration that seems to care about nobody.
I think it is most important to regain power by spreading awareness that Gen Z really does have power –whether it's buying power, or voting power, or our power to unite and rally. Just making ourselves aware of that power, but more than that, making ourselves really aware of the action that we can take through educating ourselves with what's happening. And then figuring out, "even if I can't vote, even if I'm underage - what can I do?"
So many times, a lot of discussion about policy is really exclusionary of my generation. It's really exclusionary of a whole lot when you look at the landscape of politics or social commentary. It's not only exclusionary of just any identity group, but very exclusionary of youth in particular. And there's this feeling that I think that almost everybody based on their identity can be familiar with of just general disenfranchisement. And also, just the expectation that just because of the precedent that's been set, that you can't be involved, and that there's no space for you to be involved, and that there's no point for you to be involved. I'm really pointedly talking to my peers and talking to everybody so that we better understand that this is a place for us.
You recently launched Eighteen x '18 - and you essentially just shared why. What else do you want people to know about the initiative?
Well the idea really came up because after the election I feel like it left a lot of people feeling baffled. And while we were well aware that it's not as though racism disappeared in the previous eight years, we were understanding that there was a president who genuinely had our best interest in mind. Who was more aware of the communities that make up America, and THEIR importance in the fabric of America, and was just trying to add humanity back in certain policies and just add humanity back in general. So, after having that experience for much of my young adult life and then moving into the Trump Era – it wasn't as though, "Oh my goodness, we're shocked that racism exists, xenophobia exists," but I think what was shocking was to see how many people forwardly and outwardly supported it and how it was normalized.
It was just shocking. After that, and also after looking at all the polls and demographics and charts that basically took it demographic by demographic to see ultimately how people voted – not only after the elections, you saw that we were voting with our community in mind. We looked at what policies we voted for, who we voted for and that's why we did get as much local change as we did in the past general election. Having a first Somali female representative in Minnesota – a place that actually proposed a ban on Somali immigrants.
I was raised in Minneapolis, so I think seeing the change that was possible on the local level and seeing the change that could have been on a larger scale is really what inspired it all, and also having a partner like Michael Skolnik. It's funny because we came to each other with the exact same idea of how we can create an educational platform, that really is not only on social media, but is extended to your real life to really discuss what's important to us and rather than starting by making it partisan – like are you a republican a democrat or independent – starting by making it human; by saying that these are the issues on the table and this is how they affect us.
Throughout the year we're doing everything from live events to opportunities to register more young voters because we really want to be able to go into the midterm elections feeling empowered. Midterms are not something that's usually stressed much by our generation, but it's so extremely important that we gain as much power as possible to feel like our voices are being reflected in the best way possible. And moving into an election feeling empowered and knowing our rights, knowing WHAT our end goal is, and being united on that will only make way to a great primary and really set precedent to how we operate in a political system.
It's interesting to hear what a difference that can make because most young people don't pay attention to midterm elections or it's more so something that's not really talked about.
I don't think it's any of our faults for not knowing because it's just the way voting is set up especially when you think of non-presidential elections – it's kind of set up to be an upper middle-class hobby. Do you have the time? Do you have the funds to leave your job for however many hours that you need to? Do you know where you need to go? And for all the college students, well if you're not in state, where do you vote then? And there's so many things that are just not discussed, and it almost feels like a non-issue even though it's still very much an issue.
On grown-ish you guys touch on a lot of different uncomfortable subjects like race and class. How important is it for you to see that in grown-ish and to see that in your character; and to have those conversations with your cast mates, both on and off camera?
It's extremely important and I feel like grown-ish is definitely still growing, and it is reflective of a part of our world in a way that's reflective of everything that Gen Z does, everything that Gen Z believes in, and everything our world believes in. But we try to remain as authentic to the characters as possible. I really love the fact that we have different opinions and every character moves into this season or every episode with their own bias that has to be explored.
How does it feel to have young kids and teenagers or even people older than you come up to you and tell you how much they love grown-ish and your character on the show?
It's very cool. I mean of course I'm aware of the fact that there's A Different World and there were so many shows. There were shows in the past that have made way for this and has given space and room for grown-ish to be and exist. I think it's really powerful to see that we are reflective of a real experience.
It's pretty impactful to see that people are resonating with the show. And people are feeling that in one way or another the show is reflective of either somebody they know or their own experience, and the fact that it has that level truth to it is important to all of us.
What excites you most about being a woman of color right now?
I'm excited for midterms, because being a woman of color right now and being a part of a community that pays more attention to unity and trying to have one another's back whether we are outwardly united for one cause or whether we generally understand how important it is to support one another. I'm excited for midterms and the regaining of our voices, because whether it is Virginia or all of these other elections, you see black women really coming out, and saving certain elections, in some cases – in the case of Alabama. And I'm excited for our opinions and our voices.
I'm excited for our experiences as a non-monolithic group of women to be heard and to be turned into action. And overarching it's an exciting time for art and creativity for us. What I think is shifting right now – before policies shift – is culture. Whether it's through music or art, we are priming our society for what is next and for what is to be accepted, so if our administration doesn't hold the values that we hold to be true, then we are going to create a culture in which we value ourselves and which we value each other.
I'm excited to live in a world in which we are allowed to live as a part of one community but also as individuals. Allowing ourselves to fully embrace the fact that we are non-monolithic and allowing ourselves to fully embrace the fact that we are who we are just because and not having to explain that and not having to defend that on any level.
Who are three women who inspire you and why?
My mama for sure. I guess just going off of two people I've recently been thinking about - Michelle Obama and Zora Neale Hurston.
I was just reading more and more about Zora Neale Hurston and not only her contributions to literature and how overlooked those were – until late and after her passing – but to see what she represented and it's similar to my obsession with James Baldwin. But what she represented was the power of art and the power of our words in implicating social change, but just in connecting us all in a shared experience. And again she was a part of both the Black community, the female community, the LGBTQ community and she also represents – at least to me – the intersection of identity and the beauty of that.
What does self-care look like for you?
First and foremost, it's protecting my mental space. That is still something that I'm actively working on because me as well as my family, in general, we're just open people and I think given that we're a family of people who are socially aware and want to contribute, it means that we're viewers of the world as open people. And so just as a young girl, as a young Black girl, as a teenager, finding time is really important to me to have constructive conversations and also respecting the fact that I'm still growing and really just figuring out how to keep the positivity in my circle, especially with as negative as politics can be.
What's your advice to young women who are still finding their voices?
Honestly, I think it's about finding a support network. A support network could be online, it could be your friends. But I feel like it's really important to have spaces where you feel like you can have conversations, and have conversations without feeling any pressure, have conversations where you truly just explore your opinion and figure out what you want to do and really just I think being able to do it in a space where you feel respected and worthy of, really does, in my mind, exponentially help us grow.