How Yara Shahidi Is "Undefining" Activism & Continuing To Be A Role Model For Future Generations
Yara Shahidi has always been in the mindset of investing in the next generation. From her organization Eighteen x 18, aimed at encouraging young people to register to vote, to Yara's Club, a digital meet-up for high school students to discuss topics like self-improvement and higher education, the 19-year-old has repeatedly prioritized inspiring her young fans to be the best versions of themselves. But when Shahidi was told that her likeness would be captured for Barbie's new "Sheroes" collection celebrating global role models like tennis champ Naomi Osaka and filmmaker Patty Jenkins, the actor's initial reaction went like this: "'Oh, haha, very funny. I know that's not happening."
But it was happening, and in honor of the company's 60th anniversary, the Yara Shahidi Barbie was recently unveiled, alongside 19 other "sheroes." She's honored to be a part of this group, and clearly humbled that she would be chosen, but like any hero, she knows that being considered one means "your work continues after you. It's so much bigger than me as an individual."
Shahidi emphasizes the importance of looking back at those who came before her, as well as looking around to appreciate her peers' ongoing efforts. "The movements of the past are the reason why we're even able to be here and exist as we do already," she tells Bustle in an interview that fittingly falls on International Women's Day.
"Intergenerational support" is crucial to Shahidi, who admires and leans on plenty of strong women — from Oprah Winfrey (who said she could be president someday) to Tracee Ellis Ross (her on-screen mom on Black-ish) to her own mother (who, she says, "has always been extremely transparent in her personal journey, which has contextualized mine in a way that I'm really appreciative of"). She categorizes these women as "space-makers."
"They've made space for me and my generation in ways that are both large and small," Shahidi explains. "It's inspiring to see that they've invested in me the potential and possibility of continuing their work, and it's just crucial to actual joy." As she points out, "The only way you can do this work is if you're joyful."
When it comes to capturing a combination of Shahidi's activism and joy, her Barbie pretty much sums it up. The doll is wearing a suit, along with a brightly colored "VOTE" shirt. "I felt like it was really authentic to Yara, and if I could wear anything that represents who I am, this would be it," she says.
That same authenticity is what fuels her fanbase. "What has always made me grateful is this idea that people have supported me for being me," Shahidi explains. "And as much as they can support Zoey [Johnson] or Black-ish or Grown-ish or even Eighteen x 18, it's not a facet of myself that they support, but just Yara as a whole." For that reason, being labeled as a "role model" isn't an added burden. "It definitely alleviates the pressure," she says, "because this is what I'd be doing anyway, whether anyone was looking or no one was looking."
This notion of staying true to yourself is echoed in how she views her very socially-active generation, which she finds "really comforting" to be part of. "We all get to contribute to this larger movement of equity, in whatever way we find natural to us." She suggests shifting your focus from the "biggest" thing you can do to the most "authentic." When people put energy into what they truly care about, they can share that passion with others. Shahidi says, "Everyday I'm learning more and that's thanks to my peers."
Conversely, when it comes to what she'd like to teach the generation after hers, she thinks they'll be set, acknowledging, "They're so aware and paying such keen attention to what we're doing." And moving forward, she's hoping they continue what she calls "undefining." "We're constantly in a position of reclaiming terms, which I appreciate most definitely. But the definition of 'definition' is to specify, and [by] specifying, you already inherently leave someone out," she says, explaining this can happen "even in your attempt at being inclusive." She adds, "When we look at what we're aiming to achieve, I feel like it's important to undefine it all, and to make it so expansive that you can't help but to fight and advocate for everyone."
Amidst all this advocacy and her ever-growing résumé, Shahidi understands feeling the need to keep doing more. And while she's still figuring this out herself, she'd tell her peers, "Don't be as hard on yourself and contextualize. So many times we look at other people and we are able to acknowledge all of the amazing things that they're doing... but hardly do we do that for ourselves."
"Many times we oversimplify what we're achieving on a daily basis," she says. "So I feel like it's important to celebrate each other first and foremost, but then celebrate yourself on occasion." Considering Shahidi is so humble about all she's done so far — and all that's yet to come — she can definitely benefit from that advice, too.