Yara Shahidi Is Shaking Things Up, One Young Voter at a Time
“How do we change this culture so that we no longer have to repress our humanity?” No, that’s not the central idea of New York Times op-ed or a lengthy academic dissertation. It’s a question posed by 17-year-old actress and activist Yara Shahidi to Hillary Rodham Clinton at the inaugural Teen Vogue Summit in Los Angeles.
The event took place in December 2017, just over a year after the presidential election that installed Donald Trump as our 45th president. And after a year of watching Trump’s presidency unfold, it makes sense that the repression of humanity would be weighing heavily on Yara Shahidi’s mind as a young woman of color. Shahidi spent the better part of 2017 speaking out against the discrimination and injustice visited by Trump’s signature policies. Being half black and half Iranian, Shahidi and her family were directly impacted by actions like the Muslim ban, but also subject to the ambient outrage of watching white supremacists gain a new foothold in the global conversation (not to mention literally marching through the streets).
Shahidi has always been politically engaged and outspoken about her views. Scroll through her social media accounts and interviews, and you’ll find James Baldwin quotes alongside casual references to Cold War isolationism and gerrymandered redistricting. But this year marked a significant shift in the tenor and orientation of Shahidi’s activism. Not only were there pressing issues for her to speak out about as the Trump administration did its level best to repress the humanity of women, minorities, and anyone else it pleased; this was also the year that Shahidi could finally look forward to doing something about it. Namely, voting.
This year, Yara Shahidi (and roughly 4 million other young Americans) will turn 18. That means they will be inheriting their right to vote just in time for what is shaping up to be a very significant round of midterm elections. As Democrats have racked up unexpected wins in Virginia and Alabama, many people are looking forward to the 2018 midterm elections with high hopes for a Democratic wave. But Yara Shahidi isn’t just hoping for change in 2018, she’s actively working to make it happen. She’s launched a new philanthropic campaign called 18 by 18, which will encourage first-time voters to get involved in the 2018 elections. Midterm elections historically turn out far fewer voters than presidential elections, and turnout for young voters tends to be especially dismal. But Shahidi wants to shake up that status quo with information, education, and action.
“A lot of the issue I personally see with how we educate this generation is that it's as though we don’t have to have a political opinion until it’s time to vote,” Shahidi said in a recent interview on the Daily Show, “And so we inherit this system that we have no idea about, and we have no clue how it properly functions. We theoretically vote based on ideology, with no real backup for why we support certain ideologies, and really no correlation between how our passions translate into policy change. And so to be able to create a platform which can easily spell that out, and for us to truly be able to take control of this political system I feel like is really important.”
Many outlets and interviewers seem taken aback by Shahidi’s thoughtful eloquence when it comes to her political views. And while it is remarkable to hear a 17-year-old girl speak directly to the issues of the day, that isn’t because other teenagers don’t have opinions worth expressing—it’s because they don’t have a platform to do so. Despite the fact that teenage girls have a massive influence on our culture—from speech patterns to trends in fashion and pop culture—they are most often written off as unserious. But outlets like Teen Vogue—whose 2016 election coverage was consistently on-point—and activists like Shahidi are doing their part to disprove that preconception.
To be fair, Shahidi’s life experience does not quite match up with that of the typical 17-year-old girl. She’s been working as a model and actress since she was in the single digits, and now stars on two TV shows: Black-ish and the new spinoff following her character from that series, Grown-ish. She was accepted to Harvard on the strength of an application that included a letter of recommendation from Michelle Obama. She is aware of the fact that she has a big, powerful platform, and she uses it to great effect.
Yara Shahidi may not be a typical American teenager, but she is out to prove just how powerful her fellow American teenagers can be in this precarious political moment. The first-time voters she’s out to inspire are our future, after all. And if Shahidi is any indication, that future is one that we have every reason to look forward to.
Photos: cover by GETTY IMAGES, Yara Shahidi (L) and Secretary Hillary Clinton during The Teen Vogue Summit LA (in Playa Vista, California). Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images