Actress, academic and change agent Yara Shahidi is a leading voice for her generation—blazing the way for a more brilliant future for all.
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Yara Shahidi is on top of her game. The operative word being “her.” Shahidi is, among many things, a student, muse, model, actress, producer, friend, daughter and sibling with a flair that so few accomplish in a lifetime. Yet, perhaps what is most interesting about Shahidi is her profound grace as she balances it all. “Even though I feel too young to be considered a mentor, I reflect on my journey and realize how much it has been defined by people who were so willing to provide that mentorship for me,” she explains. A true Aquarian, she isn’t afraid to make her voice and the voices of others heard. Aware not only of her power, but her growing edges, her impact is seen on the big screen and reverberates from her strategizing behind the scenes. We caught up with Shahidi to learn more about where she’s going and what lessons she continues to hold most dear.
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Within the past year, we’ve lost so many icons of Black culture: Virgil Abloh, André Leon Talley, bell hooks and Sidney Poitier, to name a few. What are some ways that you feel committed to carrying the torch that you want to prioritize?
It has been surreal to lose so many people who more than made a personal impact—which they undoubtedly did—but also single-handedly helped change culture. The people you’ve named changed culture in such radical ways that the world that I’m living in is undoubtedly informed by their passion, dedication and sacrifices. I’ve always wanted to be mindful of what work I’m able to do while I’m here. That isn’t about necessarily bettering my immediate experience, but in continuing in the same vein of pouring into people that have yet to come.
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Culturally, there is an importance in not trivializing conversations about representation and diversity into sound bites, but ensuring that when we talk about them, that we’re talking about them as practices, not something you achieve, but something you practice. One thing that I take away from bell hooks, for example, was a passage... I’m going to so loosely paraphrase. She has this passage about not labeling herself as a feminist, but as somebody that practices feminism, and that was such an important way to reframe it because I think nowadays, there can be such a preoccupation with how you present yourself, what you say you’re committed to, that sometimes it detaches it from the practice of doing the work. I feel like what I’m committed to is holding myself accountable to doing the work. And so, whatever I do and commit to each of these people’s legacies really makes me reflect to say, ‘How can I dig deeper? How can I be even more effective?’
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Do you feel the pressure to be “the voice” of your generation?
I continue to say I’m not the voice of a generation. My generation can speak for itself. You know, I come from a peer group that inspires me regularly and even pushes past what I think is possible. The pressure comes from wanting to stay as far away from that title as possible because I know that I’m just a representative of a fraction of my peer group. And I hope to be considerate with everything that I say, to be as inclusive as possible with how I speak. But, ultimately, it’s better to say—instead of focusing [on] and hanging your hat on one person—let’s really expand so that we can honor this generation by giving everyone mics and not just handing out a select few mics to a select few people.
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How do you prioritize the causes you advocate for?
One thing I’ve really focused on is being extremely specific about what I advocate for. I think there’s a certain time in our social media culture—a double-edged sword—if you post about everything that’s happening in the world it can feel performative. Because I’m like, ‘What am I doing other than being a bad news reporter?’ It’s a tricky world that we’re all maneuvering. This year has been about honing in on things that I feel like I can really help. I think that’s really been exemplified in my work on inclusion and diversity behind the scenes in television production.
[Some of] the people that inspire me are prison abolitionists, and I want to be able to be a productive part of that conversation, and that requires education and stepping back and staying quiet for a second. I’m prioritizing it by getting really clear and knowing that there’s so many people with incredible voices, so there’s no need to speak out on every single thing.
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Who are some of the mentors in your personal life who have guided you?
If I were to list my mentors, I would start with, of course, my family, my parents; I’m lucky to be in business with my mama, Keri Shahidi. I have to say the same about coming from a wonderful extended family that I really depend on for support and advice. And then [in regard to] other people, it really ranges. I’m lucky to be in community with Patrisse Cullors, who has guided me in so many ways. I think no list can truly capture the extent of my community or the people who really informed who I am.
You have talked about the importance of boundaries. What are some key boundaries you’re working on for yourself right now?
I am still working on boundaries, and it is something that I am not great at. I’m grateful to have a team that really advocates and helps me set up the right boundaries, even when I’m not doing that work for myself, because it helps me learn along the way. I think a big boundary for me is that I’m a very ‘all in’ person, and I’m just coming to terms with the fact that some things don’t need all-in commitment. I’m starting to feel more OK saying, ‘This is what I can truly commit to.’ And then I think people have heard me talk about my ‘year of no,’ of being OK saying ‘no.’ I am somebody that will say ‘yes’ to a fault, and now I say ‘no.’ And it’s a joy to say ‘no.’
Photography by: Photographed by Juan Veloz; Styled by Jason Bolden; Makeup by Emily Cheng for Dior Beauty; Hair by Nikki Nelms; Manicure by Tracy Clemens