Don’t ask Yara Shahidi to choose between being an ingenue and a serious intellectual; the 18-year-old is already one of several young black actresses breaking the mold when it comes to young Hollywood talent—not only for being non-messy, but for being socially conscious and civically-minded.
In a cover story for the August 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter (THR), the soon-to-be Harvard freshman dispels the myth that being a celebrity should be her sole source of fulfillment, pushing back against what she says is “this idea that people perpetuate that you have to choose between education and entertainment.”
It was the theme of one of her college essays, which, along with a perfect GPA and a letter of recommendation from no less than Michelle Obama, resulted in admission to not only Harvard, but every school she applied to, including Stanford, Yale and Spelman. But despite her high-profile acting career, Shahidi’s post-college forecast is surprisingly not centered around entertainment; instead, she tells THR she envisions a future career that is “policy adjacent.”
And that’s unsurprising, given that even as a newly minted eligible voter (as of her 18th birthday on February 10, which she celebrated with a voting themed party, complete with a registration booth), Shahidi is deeply politically active, launching the Eighteen x 18 platform to inform and encourage her peers in Generation Z to engage in the political process.
“My passion really stemmed from having gone through the 2016 election, where myself and many of my peers were unable to vote,” she tells THR. “[T]here was that feeling of being lost. Like, ‘What can we do to contribute to our sociopolitical landscape?’”
Activist and mentor Michael Skolnik seems sold on the 18-year-old’s activism, telling THR, “If Yara wants to be president one day, she will be.”
But for now, Shahidi seems content to be balancing a deeply curious mind, a very public and influential platform and a very hot career—though she initially balked when asked to star in Grown-ish, a spinoff of Black-ish (which she also still appears on).
“I knew being in almost every scene of a show that could go multiple seasons would require a level of investment that I’ve never needed to make before,” she says.
But Shahidi took on the challenge, and it paid off: filming of the second season of the hit spinoff begins next month, which the ridiculously well-read freshman will balance with her (semi-remote) course load at Harvard. She’s also launching an NPR podcast with the working title 18 x 18 with Yara Shahidi, where she’ll feature and interview young women like herself who are changing and challenging the prototype in their respective fields.
But while it’s easy to imagine that Shahidi’s seemingly boundless energy is a luxury of the very young, she urges us all not to count Gen Z out when it comes to their engagement, interest or impact, telling THR:
“The thing that people have yet to fully understand about my generation is just how multifaceted we are ... Oftentimes, we like to oversimplify what my generation believes in or does, I feel like there’s so much more to the picture and what I’ve seen from my peers is that we’re socially engaged and curious about the world.”