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‘Grown-ish’ star Yara Shahidi wants everyone—including companies—to do their civic duty

The actress and activist has always used her platform to spotlight social and political issues, which 2020 has only magnified to the nth degree.

‘Grown-ish’ star Yara Shahidi wants everyone—including companies—to do their civic duty
[Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images for New Zealand Film Commission]
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At this point in her career, Yara Shahidi is equally known for her activism across social and political issues as the roles she plays in TV and film.

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But to her, those two facets of her life were never meant to be separate.

“I come from a humanitarian family in which it’s always been very clear to me that whatever your path is, it is important that it services somebody outside of yourself,” Shahidi says. “I have this particular platform—how am I utilizing it to have a larger impact?”

In addition to leveraging and engaging her social media following, Shahidi also founded the voter education platform Eighteen x 18 and recently announced an overall deal with ABC studios and her production company 7th Sun that aims to spotlight underrepresented voices and stories.

While many of the issues Shahidi addresses on her platforms are nothing new, this incredibly tumultuous year has magnified their importance—and, at the same time, Shahidi’s resolve.

“The two things that have always felt important, but have become clear to me, is needing to cultivate community as well as the importance of constantly instilling hope,” she says. “[My generation] was born into a world in which we are hyperaware of the atrocities of the world at a particularly young age. And so a lot of the work of being active is how do we maintain this sense of hope, such that the work that we’re doing is sustainable and there isn’t a feeling of burnout?”

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It’s little wonder why someone like Shahidi would be invited to speak at any number of panels and discussions that’s she’s been a part of over the years. But her most recent panel was of particular interest to her.

Last week, Verizon announced it would hold its inaugural Citizen Verizon Assembly, a virtual town hall designed to spark discussion around social, economic, and environmental advancement. Shahidi was invited as a panelist on the topic of inclusion.

“What was really special about [the Citizen Verizon Assembly] is the fact that it is involving corporate responsibility. I think it is important that we have large conversations with corporations about their civic duty,” Shahidi says. “It’s my personal belief that not everybody’s supposed to do everything, but I do think that there are certain skill sets that every corporation, every individual has that can help solve a problem in a way that only they can.”

The larger idea Shahidi is aiming to hit with her panel is the fact that these issues need to be unpacked in more than one way.

“The past couple months have clearly illustrated the fact that when we’re looking at any of these issues, whether it be Black Lives Matter or environmental change, none of these movements are a monolith,” she says.

And that, she goes on to mention, can be accomplished by keeping the conversations going, as repetitive as they may seem to become.

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“So much of our time can be spent having the precursor to what’s important,” Shahidi says. “What’s been very cool—if I say anything is cool about the time that we’re living in—is the fact that a lot of people are encouraged by the consistent engagement in conversation and education; being in a space of learning and knowing that not every conversation will just touch on every topic.”

One way Shahidi is keeping the conversation going is through her acting, and more specifically, her new production company.

Shahidi notes that coming into a show like Black-ish that has never shied away from addressing topical and racial issues gave her a framework at a very young age on the power of narrative.

“I feel as though imagination and creativity is an important tool, and it’s become increasingly important to me to talk about having space to imagine and to dream,” she says. “There’s so much that you have to endure to get through a day that oftentimes you’re not left space to dream.”

Enter storytelling.

Shahidi’s 7th Sun production company’s mission has been described as “projects that touch upon themes of history, heritage, culture, and joy.”

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“We live in a world in which our next steps will be in creating a world we’ve never seen before, but that takes the work of serious imagination,” Shahidi says. “I try and participate in that, not only in the day-to-day work of, how can I be of service and lifting the burden of discrimination, but also how do I partake creatively in the work of pushing forward our imagination and pushing forward spaces that we have not been allowed into?”

It’s a lot to consider for a 20-year-old—but that’s been the MO of Shahidi’s generation.

“I feel pretty lucky that I was born in the generation that I’m in, where I feel as though we’ve inherited the movements of the past and continue to innovate on the tools that we’ve been given to be more accessible, to be more inclusive,” she says. “I see that we’re doing the work of figuring out how do we hold ourselves accountable? How do we make tangible change?”

About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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