Shahidi entered the cultural lexicon at 14, playing Zoey Johnson on the ABC sitcom Black-ish, but she cemented her position there offscreen, by speaking out on issues of social justice. The first word used to describe her is as often activist as actress, and no less an eminence than Oprah Winfrey has said she hopes she is still alive when Shahidi becomes president, because “that is going to happen if she wants it to happen.” (For her part, Shahidi says she would prefer to remain “policy adjacent.”)
For her 18th birthday she hosted a voting party, with a registration booth, and launched a national initiative called Eighteen x 18 to galvanize young people to vote, a project she continues to focus on. “With midterms coming up it was, of course, our priority,” she says. “But now it’s about impressing upon people that there’s no such thing as an off year.”
That’s as true for Shahidi herself as it is for anyone else. In addition to starring in her own spin-off series, Grown-ish, which follows Zoey as she navigates college life, Yara is a student at Harvard (Michelle Obama wrote her a recommendation letter) with plans to study anthropology, history, and economics. Her first starring film role, an adaptation of the YA novel The Sun Is Also a Star, will be in theaters May 17, and with her family she has started a production company, Seventh Sun.
Yara’s engagement with her 3.4 million Instagram and 375,000 Twitter followers is a road map for how to be a multifaceted member of Generation Z, one that pushes back against the idea that you must be either joyful and silly or socially engaged. “I can say, ‘My friends look great today, let’s take a picture,’ and be equally concerned with issues globally,” she says. Her Instagram pendulum swings from a message of solidarity with the victims of the Christchurch mosque shootings to a video of herself dancing to Lizzo while on vacation in Anguilla. “There’s power in just displaying joy,” Shahidi says.
She credits her civic engagement to growing up “in a humanitarian family.” Born in Minneapolis as the daughter of an Iranian father, Afshin, and an African-American mother, Keri, Shahidi says her passion for history comes from her paternal grandfather, and her understanding of the power of activism from her maternal grandfather, who spent time with the Black Panthers.
“Because of my family’s background, I understand how interconnected cultures are,” she says. “Traditions may be different, but in terms of shared values they’re transcontinental.” She speaks with an almost poetic cadence and seems not to breathe between sentences, yet somehow she is never flustered, issuing a rapid-fire eloquence instead. “My love of history, or even being socially engaged, stems from having, firsthand, people to care about around the globe and at a young age expanding my community beyond these fake borders we put on each other,” she says.
The Shahidis moved from Minneapolis to a suburb of Los Angeles when Yara was four. Both of her younger brothers are also actors, and their father is a cinematographer and photographer who for a time worked as Prince’s personal photographer. It wasn’t until Yara was asked to audition for Eddie Murphy’s Imagine That a third time (the first two times she said no thank you) that she made the leap to independent child actress.
In the meanwhile she had skipped first grade, because she was already reading and doing math at a more advanced level. (The school wanted her to skip to third grade, but her mother felt that was extreme.) “Which has been the story of her educational life,” Keri says, “putting her in situations where it’s like, ‘Let me just preface this: She’s highly intellectually motivated.’”
Yara is currently reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and has just finished Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America. “It’s been a constant, strangely, of people wanting us to prove a level of intellectual capability,” says Keri, in awe of her daughter. “We’ve even seen it in interviews, where people may think she has planned answers. But if you’re around Yara for more than an hour, you’ll see, she will be like, ‘Oh my gosh, I read Voltaire, and it reminds me of this song from Frank Ocean.’” The two start giggling; even Q, a family friend sitting nearby, sentinel-like, chuckles knowingly.
It becomes clear that Shahidi’s activism is rooted in being open to the experiences of others, rather than in hubris, as is the case with some well-intentioned people who just want to proselytize for their agenda. “I think it’s normal now to be on the cusp of many different emerging identities, which makes it more important not only to advocate for the things you’re familiar with but to intentionally educate yourself and expand,” she says.
Expansion is yet another thing at which Shahidi excels. Indeed, she seems to do it in real time, as she chooses organizations to work with, like the Third Wave Fund, a gender justice organization led by people under 35 that her family’s foundation has supported. The family discusses almost everything and has since the children were young.
“The exchange is back and forth,” Keri says. “There is no hierarchy of information exchange.” Yara’s parents also got the kids involved in their own finances. “I remember when we first got an investment banker, he would meet with me and my brother at 10 and seven,” Yara says, laughing. She turns to Keri: “I think from the time I got my first check, you said, ‘You have three jars: You have saving, you have spending, and you have donating. What do you want to put in each jar?’ So it’s already kind of infrastructurally set up—you get, and then you give some.”
Feature Image: DANA SCRUGGS