Actress, model and activist Yara Shahidi took the Jorgensen stage Saturday night to share her message of equality and inspiration to University of Connecticut students in a moderated conversation hosted by SUBOG.
The Spring 2019 Metanoia theme is Youth for Change and is defined on the UConn Metanoia website as “a discussion of the most pressing issues facing young people today, as well as a set of workshops on how youth (people under 24) can effectively act to change the world.”
Wawa Gatheru, the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) vice president and sixth-semester environmental studies major also serves as the student co-chair of the metanoia. She opened up the moderated conversation with Shahidi by introducing the metanoia theme.
“The metanoia is about … change itself,” Gatheru said. “It stands to reclaim a centuries old narrative that has shifted and shoved youth aside. We will come together to discuss and create our own solutions and reclaim that narrative.”
The conversation with Shahidi was moderated by Milcah Sajous, an eighth-semester human development and family studies major, the vice president of the UConn NAACP, SUBOG community development chair, an RA on campus and an active member of the H. Fred Simons African American Cultural Center (AACC), which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
Shahidi and Sajous primarily focused on her activism and how it relates to her career in the acting industry. Shahidi’s values on family, education and equality were also central to the conversation.
Shahidi, who stars in her own spin-off series, “Grownish,” on Freeform and was a leading cast member on ABC’s “Black-ish,” spent much of the evening talking about growing up in Hollywood and with notable family members. Her mother and brothers were present in the audience and Shahidi attributed her family dynamic to her outspoken nature today.
“I grew up in a space where my family valued my thoughts and encouraged us to change and develop our opinions,” Shahidi said. She also noted that a pivotal moment in her career and realizing her platform was an NAACP symposium she attended at the age of 14. “As a 14-year old, they wanted to hear my opinion. And I thought ‘I can exponentialize that for my generation.’ I wanted to create that space. ‘How many ways can I give my generation some resources to be heard that I’ve been given. How do I pass the mic?’”
Shahidi constantly addressed her privilege throughout the night, expressing humble gratitude for all the opportunities she’s been provided and the platform she’s been given to act as a voice for young people.
“I had the privilege of seeing myself in other mediums. I realized as a teen that that wasn’t everybody’s norm,” Shahidi said of being a young black actress. “Life is made to make you feel unsteady. I was taught that sometimes you have to give 200 percent to get to the same position but I was grounded in the idea that it is possible … There’s so much that I can’t do that my peers can, that’s why we’re all in this together.”
She spoke on the media as a nuanced institution with different levels of representation and the importance of television infrastructure matching the stories a show is going to tell.
“Authentic stories are told by finding people that look like us,” Shahidi said, noting the importance of having diversity behind the camera as well. “[‘Grown-ish’] is opening doors for other shows to tell stories that we don’t even know how to begin.”
Shahidi is beginning to branch out into producing, as well, with credits on her series but also with short films like “X.”
Shahidi praised her own producer, Kenya Barris. She acknowledged her own intersectionality when she spoke about the importance of reflecting different stories on TV and in movies.
“I can’t choose between being a person of color and being a woman. I’m both when I wake up,” Shahidi said. She also talked a lot about her love of history and understanding other cultures, and understanding her position in a global society.
“The idea that patriotism is attached to borders is faulty,” Shahidi said. “It should be that patriotism is attached to people.”
When asked about the recent criticism that this generation lacks any powerful black leaders, such as Malcolm X or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Shahidi shared that she doesn’t think there is a need to replicate those public figures, but to learn from and be inspired by them.
Shahidi spoke a lot about her influences, including relatives, educators and people like Lena Waithe, Kenya Barris, Iddris Sandu and more.
“My list is always expanding with family, peers, people I admire from a distance and people I haven’t met at all,” Shahidi said of her mentors.
When she spoke about her future being “policy-adjacent” and working in a space where she informs policy and content creation, it’s clear why she was accepted to Harvard. Shahidi is humble and intelligent. After the evening was over, the audience had a whole new reading list, as well as podcast and essay recommendations.
During the audience Q&A portion of the evening, there were questions about her role as Zoey Johnson on “Black-ish” and “Grown-ish” but also inquiries on her recommendations for improving the campus. There was also a touching question from a young girl and her mother about embracing her natural hair, in which both Shahidi and her mother offered support.
“Your curls are so special to you,” Shahidi responded with a smile. “You have a fun journey ahead of you, your hair can do a whole lot of things.”
During a sit-down with Shahidi after the event, she spoke to the Daily Campus about the importance of coming to universities like UConn and connecting with college students.
“What I really love … part of it is just the audience, to have such an engaged audience. One thing I know that’s true of the college experience is everyone is very busy, all the time. Like, you definitely have a lot on your plate and so I always feel like it’s the most engaging audience because you have to actually make time to be here,” Shahidi said. “It was really obvious that I was surrounded by a lot of like-minded and really motivated people, and I always want to place myself in spaces like that.”
She also discussed the importance of her show being set on a college campus and taking the time to address topical social issues.
“I think television gives you the ability to have authentic conversations. So many times we hear about socio-political things through the news in which way, depending on what you’re listening to, there’s already a lean to how you’re supposed to intake information. Sometimes it can be really dehumanizing in terms of how certain issues are talked about,” Shahidi said. “Television brings the humanity back to the conversation … Since college campuses are already so highly politicized, it was really natural to the show it wasn’t us even trying or attempting to be topical per se but in saying, ‘Okay this is a large group of kids who are fairly aware of the world around them, they couldn’t not talk about this.’”
There was one key message that Shahidi wanted UConn students to take away from the conversation hosted by SUBOG and the AACC.
“Honestly, I hope one of the messages was not to quantify the change that you can make,” Shahidi said. “I feel like so many times it can dissuade you from action… Just recognizing that we each have our platform and they may be of theoretical differing sizes but of equal impact. I feel like the other thing is of course you want to step out of your box of comfort but also be so authentic to you because not everyone is supposed to be doing the same work. Embrace whatever skillset you have or want to acquire in the creation of what you want to do to engage with the world around you and that’s how you make the largest impact and I think the most meaningful impact.”
Shahidi turned 19 the day after visiting UConn. Judging by the enthusiasm with which the audience sang “Happy Birthday” to her, she has the support of college students.
“Yara was incredible. It was an honor to be a part of such an important conversation that focused on the impact our generation can make on the future through the pursuit of education and social awareness,” Suli Serrano-Haynes, a sixth-semester English and secondary education major, said. “ Yara was articulate, purposeful and engaging while answering questions. She was absolutely inspiring and should be considered a role model to young women all over the world.”
“Part of our mission is to focus on educational as well as cultural programming, and this event came directly from identifying that mission,” SUBOG President Adam Sherif said about Shahidi’s visit. “In Yara, we found a speaker that was poised and affluent in many areas our students connect to, while being so young and relatable. Her blend of identities are those that many attendees relate to. While speaking, Yara spoke about the importance of representation. For us, that’s exactly what we see when planning an event like this.”
As a young person herself, Shahidi is certainly affecting change, especially concerning apathy, policy, equality and representation. It’s clear she will continue to be an individual, an influencer and a powerful voice for our generation in only the most positive light; the university was lucky to have her contribute to the metanoia this semester.
Julia Mancini is the associate life editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at Julia.firstname.lastname@example.org.