Yara Shahidi gives voice to a new generation

From CNET Magazine: The Grown-ish star wants everyone her age to speak their truth, get active and vote in this year's elections. She's using the internet to make it happen.
Mark Mann

Yara Shahidi may not seem like a typical teen, but that just means the world needs to change how it thinks about teens.

Sure, Shahidi stars as the oldest kid in the Johnson family in ABC's Black-ish and in the spinoff series Grown-ish, built around her character, Zoey. And yes, former first lady Michelle Obama wrote her a letter of recommendation for college. Shahidi, 18, is attending Harvard after taking a gap year and plans to double major in sociology and African-American studies.

But when you ask Shahidi what she sees herself doing in the next few years, she says she wants to be "politically adjacent." It's not as odd as it sounds when you think about her generation's interest in social and political issues and their use of social media and tech to get their voices heard.

"What I love about the internet is that not only is it a platform for our voices to be shared, it's a platform to disseminate information," says Shahidi, the child of a mom who's African-American and Choctaw and an Iranian-American dad. "It has allowed us to claim our own history, and more than that, share our own history with each other — especially in a world where so many of our histories and stories have been intentionally left out."

Her views explain why Shahidi celebrated her 18th birthday by hosting a get-out-the-vote party and encouraging her friends to register in time for this year's midterm elections. It's also why she started Eighteen x '18, an online platform to help teens learn about the issues affecting them. That includes creating videos on topics they're passionate about and making it easy for them to share their ideas and ask questions.

When I ask her what superpower she'd like to have, I'm not surprised that she says it would be the power to persuade.

"How easy would it be to resolve conflict? To be like, 'You know what? I think you shouldn't,'" Shahidi tells me ahead of filming season 2 of Grown-ish, airing next year.

Here's an edited transcript of our conversations.

Let's talk about Eighteen x '18. What was the idea behind it?
It started after the unrest of the 2016 general election. So many of my peers, including me, couldn't vote. It really stemmed from this idea of how do we engage in our government systems? How do we make sure we stay informed, especially when you are either a new voter or somebody who hadn't voted yet?

There are so many times you realize the news isn't quite marketed for us or to us. Whenever somebody likes a CNN or a BBC, they're viewed as the anomaly. Like "Wow, you're a kid who's into the news," versus feeling like, "OK. You're affected by this." Especially my generation. By the time so many of these policies are implemented, we'll be young adults. What does that mean for us? How do we really, truly break down and understand what's happening?

Yara Shahidi
Mark Mann

So many people are turning 18 or 19 this year. This will be their first year of voting. How do we make sure we disseminate information properly and also answer those simple questions — like, "If I'm in college where do I go to vote? Where is my polling place? What's an absentee ballot?"

You also call Eighteen x '18 a creative platform with an open invitation to other young adults. What do you hope they'll share?
At a certain point, we'll be able to start disseminating videos that aren't all from me, but from my peers across the country. A lot of times with politics, if it doesn't affect you, it seems very theoretical and foreign. I feel like it will help us be more informed voters.

One thing that's already been happening that I love is [people] sending in their own questions. I feel like so much of this is supposed to be a relationship based on reciprocity. We want it to really answer something you are worried about.

Some people have been telling young activists they shouldn't be speaking out. What do you think about that?
Politics affect every single person who exists, and United States politics affect the entire world. So this idea that we shouldn't have a voice — or that our opinion is invalid — is invalid in and of itself. The best that we can do is be as informed as possible. When they say, "Well, why do you even believe that?" [You can say] "Well, here are the facts, and this is why I came to this conclusion."

So your online platform plays into that?
What I love about the internet is it's a platform for our voices to be shared and a platform to disseminate information. It's a platform to really understand the stories and the narratives that aren't included. Information was very formal in the way it used to be disseminated. If it's in a textbook, how did it get into the textbook? What was the level of vetting that it had to go through?

This is a way in which we can share personal stories firsthand, to be our own sources [of truth]. Now of course you have to be wary and you have to do your own personal checking. But it has allowed us to claim our own history, and more than that, share our own history with each other — especially in a world in which so many of our histories and stories have been intentionally left out.

Yara Shahidi
Mark Mann

Is there something about tech you dislike?
I feel like right now we're enduring a lack of transparency. So many people in my generation are a little wary [about] the algorithms that really determine what we see and when we see it. And then there's the other end of it: How unfiltered it is — it really can be a place where you get your feelings hurt.

There is a certain instantaneous messaging aspect that means you don't have to think about what you say. You don't have to think about the consequences of when you say it because — ingrained as it is in our lives — if you say something, you can turn your phone off and throw it somewhere else. It's that weird feeling of it being such a crucial part of our life and being able to turn it on and off as needed, which can be a Catch-22 to try and maneuver.

So it's figuring out where the lines are?
How do we use technology as a true educational device? How do we get rid of the stigma or fear of not knowing everything? Or the fear of making a statement because of the backlash — because then it really is a powerful tool. I've [found] so many of my own friends from Instagram, from Twitter, because we've connected over certain topics. We're no longer having to define our friendships or our interests based on geography.

How do you fix it then?
Well, I think part of it isn't even the technology. It's more so the culture surrounding it. One [way] is getting rid of that clapback culture. As interesting and as hilarious as it can be, it creates an unnecessary idea that a conversation isn't about finding some sort of common ground or conclusion or having some constructive criticism or feedback, but to make a witty remark, which impedes our ability to hear one another.

Yara Shahidi
Mark Mann

If the concern is who's more clever, you aren't getting anywhere and no one really wants to listen. How do we say, "You know what? I disagree with you, but this is why." Or, "This is my personal story."

You know what you could do? Link to an article. This is how I've developed my own opinion. Because it is a space in which we get access to more information than we've ever had.

You'll be a freshman at Harvard this fall and you've said you want to be "politically adjacent." Can you tell us what that means?
I know for a fact that I don't want to be on Capitol Hill or a senator or anyone in that kind of position. But I still want to be able to contribute, I think, in the nonprofit world and in the — for lack of a better term —professional activist world. There are so many ways to make policy changes. And if anything, there's more freedom in doing so because you're not dealing with certain structures and bureaucracies. That's kind of the realm that I know I want to live in. I don't know exactly the details of it.

If you could have Silicon Valley invent a service, a piece of tech or a gadget just for you, what would you want?
I'd want to create, basically, a gadget to help with the supplementary curricula for schools, and it'd be titled "AP Common Sense." It would be a gadget that would put us in touch with any piece of information or connect us with common sense information. Like, move to a new city, where do you get your groceries? How do you pay your bills? How do you maneuver through the world?

The big-picture aspect of it is the things you have to learn to become a young adult because they aren't included in regular curricula.

You're now the star of Grown-ish, in which your character from Black-ish — Zoey — heads off to college. What can you say about it?
Well, we're about to go back to shoot season 2, which I'm really excited about. They're having storylines relating to how Zoey relates to the world, and I love the duality that's addressed in certain episodes: the image she projects to the world through her social media, through her being a quote-unquote public figure, and then her personal life. Sometimes they line up and are fabulous, and sometimes they aren't, but it's really cool. In season 2, we really get to explore more of who she is now that we have the environment established and we know who her gang of friends are.

Yara Shahidi Winter 2018 cover

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Mark Mann

Books versus movies?
Both, because I'm a very auditory person. I love movies. I love podcasts. Podcasts are my personal obsession. I'm always listening to them, always on the NPR site "This American Life." And even when I watch movies, I'll sometimes flip my phone or computer or television around and just listen to it, because it's similar to music in that respect. And I love a good book. When I was little, we used to go to bed listening to audiobooks, and then we'd wake up and read the actual book.

Are you a fan of superhero movies?
Yes, I love Marvel because the comics were related to the civil rights movement and then the LGBTQ movement. I love the idea that comics were used as a way to really talk about everything, from discussions around conversion therapy to the different methods of tackling one's needs. There's so much there in the comics. I love Black Panther. I've seen Black Panther, I think, five times.

If you could be a superhero, what power would you want?
I have thought about this a lot — the power of persuasion. How easy would it be to resolve conflict? To be like, "You know what? I think you shouldn't." [laughs] 

Do you want to play a superhero or a spy in a movie?
Yeah. That's one of my personal dreams. The Influencer [laughs] — or Persuader.  

This story appears in the fall 2018 edition of CNET Magazine. Click here for more magazine stories.