Conversation with Yara Shahidi

At 18 years old, actress and activist Yara Shahidi works 60-hour weeks on set for the Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated TV show “Black-ish,” and its spinoff “Grown-ish.”

And on top of that, she’s also leading an initiative called Eighteen x ’18 to mobilize young voters for the midterm elections.

Shahidi spoke to a crowd of UIC students, employees and guests at the UIC Forum Feb. 19 as the keynote speaker for Black History Month.

Her roles as both an actress and activist intersect at her goal to make a positive contribution in the world.

“All the projects that I invest my time in have to have a certain level of nuance to make sure that it is adding to the conversation at large,” she said.

In her character “Zoey” on “Black-ish” and “Grown-ish,” Shahidi has the ability to portray the complex realities of identity and growth.

“What I really appreciate about the show [‘Black-ish’] is that characters come in with their own bias. In no way are any of the characters perfect, or even close to perfect. But I love the idea that they can be progressive and liberal and really open in some areas of their life, and we still see that they have growth in other areas,” she said.

“I think it’s so important to have those more nuanced conversations because it isn’t as clear-cut or clean-cut as we think it is. [In ‘Grown-ish’] I’m really looking forward to going even deeper in addressing college culture.”

Her initiative Eighteen x ’18 is an extension of her goal to contribute to society in socially meaningful ways.

“Eighteen x ’18 was also realizing that the themes of the (2016) presidential election were not new,” she said. “Xenophobia isn’t new. Racism isn’t new. Discrimination isn’t new. Sexism isn’t new. Eighteen x ’18 was really a call to response.”

She credits the late African-American novelist, poet and social critic James Baldwin as one of her inspirations.

“James Baldwin is a huge influence for me. I started my obsession when I read the short story ‘Sonny’s Blues,’” Shahidi said. “It’s really beautiful because that story highlights community, and it really highlights even why humanitarian interests are such a passion of mine because it was talking about the idea of wanting to reach for the stars, but realizing our possibilities have been limited; not by our own desire, or want, or lack of trying, but because of the barriers society put on us.”

Though Shahidi’s words and wisdom were well beyond her years, she also showed off her more playful and amiable side by discussing what hair products she uses, accepting a birthday card from a student and taking questions from children in the audience.

Shahidi plans to attend Harvard University next fall, after deferring her acceptance this year. At Harvard, she plans on majoring in African American studies and social science.

Her plans after graduation are just as impactful and meaningful as the work she is doing now.

“After college I’m of course looking forward to continuing acting and such, but I’m really looking forward to like moving to D.C. and possibly working in the nonprofit space,” she said.

Photos: UIC Creative and Digital Services and Amod Mahadik

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