In a wide-ranging conversation between Yara Shahidi, the 18-year-old actress and activist who’s best known for starring in “Black-ish” and now stars in her own spin-off series, “Grown-ish,” and Tory Burch, topics ranged from getting out the vote among 18-year-olds, being a role model among teens, to favorite podcasts and books.
The chat took place as part of the Tory Burch Foundation’s first “Embrace Ambition Summit: Confronting Stereotypes and Creating New Norms” which was presented by Bank of America and held at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in New York on Tuesday.
In September, Shahidi will become a freshman at Harvard, where she plans to study history and economics in the hopes of becoming a history teacher.
Burch asked her what she’s worried about and what she’s most looking forward to in college.
“I’m majoring in history, which is the social studies major and African-American studies. Honestly, I think ‘Grown-ish’ has opened my eyes to all the other things that happen in college. I really was expecting to just go to class and go to sleep — I realize that won’t be the case, but I’m really looking forward to being in an academic community amongst people who have different trains of thought and it’s unlike any environment I’ve been in prior. I’m also a professor stalker and it looks like I’ll have some awesome professors, so I’m very excited,” she said.
Shahidi said that education has been such a top priority in her life, even as everything else was happening such as career and family. “My love of history really contexualized where I am in this universe,” she said. She is the founder of Eighteen x 18, which is a platform to encourage her peers to vote in the upcoming midterm elections. Burch noted that only 52 percent of Americans voted in the last election.
Shahidi noted that her organization is primarily focused on first time voters. “We have midterm elections this year in November and they’re a very big deal. Oftentimes, politics aren’t marketed to my generation…it’s convoluted and theoretical and not focused on the human. It’s really important to get as much support from young voters as possible. Right now voting is a middle class hobby,” she said. Burch added that people don’t want to be docked pay and often don’t go out to vote.
Asked what it means for her to be a role model for other teenagers and the voice of her generation, Shahidi believes that intergenerational relationships are very important. She believes that social media is a new tool that has changed the context of the world in which we’re living. She said you constantly have to be right and constantly have to know everything. “It freaks me out being a role model, at the same time, it’s cool, but if anything I’m doing helps inspire, thanks.
“As outspoken as I am, I’m inspired by the fact that I have so many peers to turn to who are just as outspoken and are just as vocal,” said Shahidi.
Shahidi said she was taking a history class and reading about the women’s role in the French Enlightenment, and her teacher turned to her and said that she didn’t have to learn about the women because they weren’t going to be tested on that.
“What it spoke to was the idea that we have been institutionally taught history that is not inclusive,” she said. “People of color, immigrants and women, and people of different sexual orientation and gender expression, we’re not giving them the space they live in today and we’re not a part of their narrative. Because our narratives are so separate starting from when we enter kindergarten, we have to undo this, and show this layer of interdependence. To say that the Civil Rights movement didn’t affect everyone in this room would be a lie. We are dependent upon one another. And equity is something that is achieved only when you acknowledge everyone as having been inalienably given the right to exist and to thrive,” said Shahidi, to thunderous applause.
Burch turned to Shahidi’s recent visit to the The National Museum of African History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and asked her what she learned that day.
“If you guys haven’t gone, I highly recommend you go. It was a life-changing experience,” said Shahidi. She said it was an eye-opening journey discovering the many leaders she wasn’t aware of. “I was there and a group of Daisy Scouts came up to me and gave me a huge hug. And it was just that beautiful moment of being able to look at the future while standing in history. It was the larger idea of being hopeful.”
Burch then asked Shahidi her thoughts about women earning 70 cents on the dollar compared with men. “What’s fascinating is seeing the 70 cents turns to 64 cents and even lower with different ethnic groups.” She would like to have society invest in women’s work as much as women invest in themselves. “It speaks to the idea that we are not worthy of or equal,” she said.
As a ceo, Burch said she feels responsible and would like to mentor other ceo’s on pay equity. “Do the analytics. Are the men in this company paid differently than the women? I would like to mentor some businesses. I’m sure they would love that.”
Burch then asked what her advice is for young women struggling with their self-confidence. Shahidi said they need to have a support network. It can be their family, your friends, a teacher, someone on Instagram “if you know that person is who they say they are. My support network as been crucial,” said Shahidi.
“We both have very wonderful mothers who support you and build you up,” added Burch.
Finally, Burch questioned whether Shahidi listens to podcasts and which are her favorites. Shahidi listed several. “‘Code Switch’ by NPR is fantastic, ‘Pod Saves America,’ ‘Hidden Brain’ is great. There are so many good ones. Oprah’s podcast, ‘The Nod,’ ‘Planet Money,’” she said. And as for some of her favorite books? “Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin, “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison and “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward, she said.