Yara Shahidi on what it really means to be a young woman in 2019

Posted by for People

Our ninth guest editor, the actor, activist and student Yara Shahidi, is steering the conversation on what it means to be a young woman striving to create a brighter future in 2019. 

The number
 of celebrities who have turned up to
 a Stylist photo shoot straight from a day of studying at university comes in at a perfect zero. But Yara Shahidi does things differently.

The day we meet in Boston it is freezing. The type of cold that makes your teeth and gums ache and, unlike her student peers who I imagine are all heading to their cosy dorm rooms or to the student bar, Yara, 19, is finishing off a day at Harvard University by modelling Chanel and Balenciaga,
 while dancing round a 
photo studio to the sound
 of Juto. Her mum, Keri,
 who’s here from their 
hometown of Los Angeles,
 sits chatting animatedly
 to Yara’s make-up artist,
 subtly trying to ensure
 her daughter makes 
time to eat. 

At just 19 years old, Yara Shahidi is just getting started.

The dichotomy of 
Yara Shahidi’s life is not
 lost on her. On top of her
 studies, she regularly 
films Grown-ish (the
 sequel to Black-ish, which
 she’s starred in since she
 was 14), the sitcom about
 a young woman heading
 off to college away from 
her family, and recently
 starred in Hollywood film
 The Sun Is Also A Star.

She also works for her 
family’s production company, Seventh Sun, and oversees the platform Eighteen x 18, which encourages teenagers to vote. Eloquent, savvy and engaged,
 she has become as renowned 
for her activism as her acting. Oprah Winfrey has said, “I hope I’m still around when she becomes president of the United States”, and only last month, President Obama himself sat in conversation with her at the Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago.

Just 48 hours ago she was
 in New York to attend the US Glamour Women Of The Year Awards, where she delivered
 a rousing speech about the power of no – more on which later – before hurrying back up the East Coast to get to lectures. When we finally leave the studio at 10pm, ready for a glass of wine and bed, Yara is about to hit the books for a long night of studying. 

Yara is juggling an actor career with studying and activism...

Yara is incredibly private about her studies. I don’t even know what course she’s taking. “I don’t talk about school often, and quite intentionally because I appreciate this world being one of my own.”

It’s hard not to compare the student I was at 19 (spending my loan on Buffalo boots and staying out till dawn) to her, but I get the impression that’s the last thing she’d want. And though she’s mature there’s still a youthfulness to her. I see it in the way she dances around the studio utterly freely, in the Adidas tracksuit she wears with no socks – “I’m a barefoot bandit,” she laughs. It is clear that, despite all her achievements to date, Yara is just getting started… 

As the end of the year draws near, do you get reflective?

I’m somebody that looks to the next year. I’m a big list person. We’re also a family of manifestors. In my room on my corkboard there are lists ranging from things I want to have accomplished to people I want to work with or experiences. That’s how we use the holidays; take a moment of gratitude to acknowledge how much has been accomplished last year and set intentions. When you set your intentions, they’ll subconsciously come to life in everything you do when you don’t even realise you’re working towards something.

What’s your favourite Shahidi festive family tradition?

I love Chaharshanbe Suri, which is Persian New Year [Yara’s father, Afshin, is Iranian-American]. You jump over small bonfires and recite a poem, which says: I’m giving the fire all of my ills and taking life into the New Year. It’s really grounding and a good track of how tall I am based on how high over the fire I can jump. 

Has 2019 felt like a good year?

One thing that is evident in our most chaotic times is the most beautiful art comes out, the most incredible movements emerge, the most interesting communities. 

This year has globally felt like such a paradox, it’s not just that one thing is happening, I feel like everything that could possibly happen in the world is happening right now. And those range from really beautiful moments of global community to moments of acknowledging that there are still people living under the fear of genocide. There’s still climate disaster. It’s hard sometimes to feel optimistic but that’s where I’m really grateful for how global and accessible the world feels right now. Because that’s when I get to immerse myself in the best art and the best responses to what’s happening.

That’s interesting. It can be very hard to stay optimistic when the world feels troubled…

It’s about staying in conversation with people. One thing that has prepared me well for being out in the world is the foundation I have at home. At a young age I was asked about how I felt about the world. I was given the space to figure [that] out and [know] that my opinions will evolve and change. Being in conversation has become particularly therapeutic. That’s how I process and plan. I like it to be productive. Not in the sense there has to be something accomplished at the end but to move forward in my train of thought, not to just affirm what I already know. 

...and she's somehow making it look effortless.

Like us, the US has a big election coming up. Will you come out in support for any presidential candidates?

I think running Eighteen x 18, and in order to achieve my goal of getting young people to vote, it’s important that we remain a nonpartisan platform. People know generally how I align, and
 so how I’m approaching this election is by identifying the values I deem necessary for candidates, which is a value-based system of saying, “OK, this is what we generally stand for in support of our global community, in support of the maintenance of human rights.” It’s pouring more into our education system, working with and for communities. And also being more aware of how people propose solving our problems. 

You spoke at the Glamour awards about how groundbreaking it is to say no. When did the power of that word crystallise for you?

The speech itself was something I didn’t think about till I was on stage. Sometimes when I know that I’m going to experience something that will influence me, it’s hard to write as though I’m already in that moment. So I try and wait it out. But for the larger concept of no, I actually called this my year of no. Which at first sounds a little counterintuitive because we see so much on the power of yes, which I absolutely do believe in.

My year of no really stems from [the fact] I’m fortunate to have a team around me, both familial and professionally, that protect me and advocate for me. My year of no was a reminder to advocate for myself equally as strongly, and feeling OK about being particular and insisting that something should change. When I’m thinking about movements, a lot of them stem from saying
 no, but it’s about making your no an action. So rather than merely saying, I’m not OK with how you’re operating as a government, we come globally from a history of people who say no and then go and do something. 

Yara starring in hit US sitcom Grown-ish, a spinoff of Black-ish.

Saying no can often 
be so difficult though… 

It’s taken a minute because sometimes I’m pretty easy to please and it takes a lot to make me frustrated, but at the same time it was important for me to not confuse that with just not having standards of how I should expect to be treated. Something I’ve learned from mama is that you can always continue to insist on doing things the way that you believe are the right way to do things, especially when you want to have a conversation in a constructive way. It’s about saying, “I want to find a solution with you.”

You’re studying for
 a degree alongside
 everything else. What
 was the impetus for
 that when your career 
is going so well?

I’ve always had many things happening in my life, and
 that’s how I prefer it. I have always talked about the importance of school. I think 
part of that has been because I’ve always had education on
 my terms. I was in spaces that stoked my natural interest. 
Even the shows I watched were supplements for what I was learning or interested in. Because of that, I’ve had a very different relationship with education – it’s always felt like a relationship with reciprocity. I know so many times young people have to experience a system that doesn’t feel at all like it’s considered them. 

Do you sleep well?

Sleep is never something I’ve struggled with. I’ve slept through
 a tornado, a movie. For work,
 I infamously wake up one minute before my alarm and then attempt to go back to sleep as though that 60 seconds will do something for me. But I dream crazy. I end up experiencing things that I’ve dreamt. I have two theories: I’m either genuinely predicting what’s happening, or my brain is doing such a meticulous processing of all the patterns of my life that I’ll end up by accident creating a situation in my brain that will eventually come true because I’ve thought about my reality so much. I’m constantly saying this isn’t déjà vu, I dreamt this. But sometimes my dreams vary from seemingly eccentric to being in a meeting for six hours.

When was the last time you had a day with nothing to do?

Actually quite recently. I went to Camp Flog Gnaw, which is [US rapper] Tyler, the Creator’s festival. My entire team moved every flight I had because I was supposed to be in New York, but they knew how important it was to me to be there. That was a beautiful moment because I have figured out – and I’m still figuring out – how much I love music and how re-energising it is for me. I think the only reason
 I choose to stay up late is because there’s music playing.

"I dream crazy. I end up experiencing things I've dreamt."

How do you find new music?

Two things I worry about are that I’ll never be able to listen to all the music in the world and I won’t be able to even crack open a fraction of the books made in the world.
 I’ll walk into a bookstore, see so many interesting things, and know I’m not going to get to this. 

So, with books, where do 
you begin?

I love essays, particularly if you don’t have time. They break themselves up and it means I can immerse myself in a world without having to commit to 300 pages. But I’m infamous for choosing five books, sitting down on my bed, reading the first chapter of each and then picking the one I want. My mama challenged me last year to read more fiction. Last year in particular, with our election cycle and everything happening, I had only focused on nonfiction and politics, which were crucial things to know. But in terms of feeding my personal imagination and ability to think creatively you need fiction, you need something that isn’t so steeped in what we think is possible or not possible.

Do you like a physical book?

Yes. Not to be morose, but I know in my will half of it’s going to be where I choose to send my books. I like to annotate. I’m a highlighter, I opened a book recently and I had poems written on the inside of it because that’s what had hit me at the time. My copy of Romeo And Juliet [is covered too]. I was so peeved when I first read Romeo And Juliet because I was like, no one in this story is operating with any sense of reason. 

Yara interviewed Barack Obama at the Obama Foundation Summit in October.

This year we’ve seen many brilliant young women having their voices heard. Do you ever think we’re putting too much pressure on the shoulders of people like Greta Thunberg?

Greta was unable to attend the [Glamour] awards, but in her speech she highlighted the importance of intergenerational support. It’s important to invest in young people, but it’s also important to maintain a sense of responsibility in self. I know there are certain times in which there’s this feeling that something will no longer affect me, but something that has to be maintained is a sense of intergenerational support because, ultimately, there’s so much we can do but it does require a network of people rooting for us.

What’s your greatest hope for young people?

The one thing that I’ve always been really passionate about is wanting to be in a position to change our education system to be more global. When I was trying to think of what would create fundamental change, I think a lot of it is how we choose to learn about each other. I manifest that there’s an alternate curriculum being taught. I think the one thing that always becomes terrifying is, until we fully dismantle systems of oppression, are we still allowing the system to continue to replicate the issue in the first place?

I have hope when I’m watching how incredible young people are that we’re going to find ways to disrupt this system on a fundamental level. I see people really changing the system in
 the first place rather than operating in reaction to the system. 

Yara supports Greta Thunberg's calls for intergenerational support.

And what do you manifest for yourself next year?

Get some of our ideas into scripts and scripts into television shows, which is already happening. More music. I want to produce music, just to have the skill set. I’ve always thought, and I know it’s a funny hypothetical, but before the musician was there just silence? It seems like it’s a miraculous act to take something that’s blank and put something in its place.

I’m really excited with what we have planned for We Vote Next [a summit organised by Eighteen x 18], we’ve been discussing how we not only achieve our goals with this election, but achieve more general goals of talking about what it means to be civically engaged and increasing access 
to resources. And I’m really excited to be participating in finding other ways to feel like we’re making infrastructural change.

For anyone else keen to make a change, where do they begin? 

Start small and be specific about what you care about. There’s 
a reason we’re all different – if everyone’s doing the same work 
it would be redundant. We need somebody focusing on something I didn’t even think to care about in order for progress to be
made. Be unashamed to follow your passion. 

"Be unashamed to follow your passion," says Yara.

Photography: Rosaline Shahnavaz 

Additional images: Getty

Fashion: Jason Bolden

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