“Life as a teenager can be down right chaotic,” the actress Yara Shahidi, 15, told an audience last month at Cipriani 42nd Street, where she was being honored by the Young Women’s Leadership Network. “We must also realize that it is up to us whether these years will feel like a melancholy struggle or an opportunity for growth or experiences of a lifetime.”
For Ms. Shahidi, it’s certainly the latter.
As the actress who plays Zoey, the smart but entitled daughter on ABC’s “Black-ish,” a situation comedy about a prosperous black family wrestling with racial issues, Ms. Shahidi certainly has a platform to be heard. But she has not stopped there.
When she’s not taping “Black-ish,” she is a full-time social activist, inspiring young women to excel academically, volunteering at medical clinics and starting her own mentoring club.
“I’m filming nine and a half hours a day five days a week, but whenever I have a free moment, I’m talking to the U.N. or working on how to get Yara’s Club launched,” Ms. Shahidi said, referring to a mentoring program with the Young Women’s Leadership Network. “Giving back is not just something you do as an adult.”
There are few African-American actresses her age who are having the kind of cultural and social impact that Ms. Shahidi is, both on and off screen. This year, she was nominated for a Teen Choice Award for best breakout star. She won a N.A.A.C.P. Image Award for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series.
She was also recognized by the N.A.A.C.P. for her commitment to service and scholarship. Last month, Ms. Shahidi met with UN Women, an organization dedicated to gender equality. And before that, she spoke at the Paley Center for Media on a panel titled “Cracking the Code: Diversity, Hollywood & STEM.”
Plus, she was featured in the Brooks Brothers fall 2015 advertising campaign.
“I think one of the things that makes Yara so unique is that she is really breaking down a lot of stereotypes for people, but she is also such a normal teenager,” said Colleen Wormsley, a public relations and talent manager for DoSomething.org, a nonprofit group that helps young people take action on social change.
This year, Ms. Shahidi recorded a public service announcement for the organization to encourage young women to go into what educators call the STEM fields (for science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
Activism runs in her family. “I was raised by a bunch of humanitarians,” she said, referring to her African-American mother, Keri-Salter Shahidi, a commercial actress, and her Iranian father, Afshin Shahidi, a cinematographer. Her maternal grandfather was involved in the civil rights movement.
Born in Minneapolis, Ms. Shahidi has been in front of the camera since she was six months old, appearing in a print ad for a life insurance company.
These days, she is breaking the mold of the self-absorbed, vacuous and angst-ridden teenage star. While she does post plenty of selfies on Instagram, none of the photos so much as bare her midriff. “I frequently wear things that are far too conservative for a teenager,” Ms. Shahidi recently told InStyle.
Indeed, her Instagram biography describes her as a “current humanitarian.”
She also takes her academics seriously: She is enrolled in AP calculus and honors chemistry and maintains a 4.6 grade point average. She is tutored on set and is enrolled in the Dwight School Open World, an online program.
While she plays a technology-addicted teenager on “Black-ish,” the driving force in Ms. Shahidi’s social life is not centered around her iPhone 6 (pink case, lots of stickers), but in giving back.
She says her mission to advance equality includes her character Zoey, who is also 15. “Before I auditioned for ‘Black-ish,’ I received scripts that portrayed black people in a negative and stereotypical way,” she said. “But ‘Black-ish’ is a more positive portrayal of what it’s like to be black in America.”
Source: The New York Times