Spend a few minutes with "Black-ish" star Yara Shahidi and it becomes clear that beyond the screen time and red carpets, she was put on this earth to develop her own brand of activism.
As a cast member on ABC's groundbreaking sitcom about American life through the eyes of a modern Black family, Shahidi plays enterprising teen Zoey Johnson, who while always on her phone, is actually running a startup via her cell. Promoting positive images of women and minorities on television and the media is a growing field of advocacy and one that the high-schooler feels perfectly natural stepping into.
"That I make some kind of impact is cool!" she wistfully exclaims at one point.
Recently in Los Angeles, Yara joined "The Fosters" star Amanda Leighton, "Miles from Tomorrowland" creator Sascha Paladino and Google Engineer Omari Christian in a panel discussion entitled, "Cracking the Code: Diversity, Hollywood & STEM".
Presented by Google and The Paley Center for Media, the dialogue addressed growing calls for diverse representations of women and minorities on television. As the youngest panel guest and the only one currently studying STEM subjects in school, Yara easily related to the audience of middle and high schoolers.
"Teenagers are impressionable", admits Shahidi. "If we are surrounded by social media, TV shows, and advertisements that falsely portray what life is like, then there is this false expectation of who [we] should be, of what [the world] will be will like when [we teens] grow older."
Despite our mobile device driven society, TV programming still remains the primary way kids and teens consume media. Shahidi understands the negative impact if shows like hers ignore calls for diverse portrayals of STEM careers.
"Black-ish" has been hailed for doing its part — Shahidi's TV mom, played by actress Tracee Ellis Ross, is a doctor. Still, Shahidi, who is intrigued by all facets of the TV production process including the writing, thinks there is more her show can do, from working more math into Zoey's storyline to featuring ways she uses it to run her business.
"It's hard to solve anything if you don't talk about it," she shares. "You can't just push something into a corner and expect it to disappear."
She credits her show with being popular with a wide demographic because of the comedy series' willingness to start direct and uncomfortable conversations. "Just starting the conversation takes down the wall that was built up around these topics," says Shahidi.
Yara is also creating STEM awareness online through a new partnership with innovation giant 3M and Dosomething.org. As the spokeswoman for the Science Sleuth mobile text message campaign, Yara is setting her sights on getting students excited about STEM while simultaneously allowing them to raise funds for STEM classrooms in the midwest.
STEM is a real passion project for the 15-year-old, who describes herself as science obsessed and is currently studying AP Calculus and Honors Chemistry. It's a well known fact around set that she maintains a 4.6 GPA.
Always one to subvert expectations, Shahidi is now one of the game changing faces appearing in the Brooks Brothers fall campaign. It's a brand she's been loyal to since she was a tyke and she's excited about hopefully opening up the classic retailer to a younger audience.
"I hope [kids] think I am hip," she laughs when questioned about being a style pioneer.
Shahidi definitely pushes the boundaries with her own fashion — be it mixing high/low pieces, having a boys suit tailored to fit her tastes or including oxfords and bowties as accessories.
"I've been dressing in Brooks Brothers since I was nine." she says, recounting how she would steal her moms Brooks Brothers shirts for her own school uniform. "[Now] there are so many kids my age who are like 'Oh, we have to go to these certain stores to be hip and look cool'. [But] there are so many things you can do [at Brooks Brothers] that may seem totally not 'teenagery' but when you explore, there are many things you can create."
Shahidi is hyper aware that teens — especially girls who live in a landscape where the world tells them they can grow up and be anything — are just as easily labeled inauthentic for wanting to wear makeup or make unconventional fashion choices.
Her desire to advocate for teens in education and equality has the Young Women's Leadership Network recognizing her alongside the likes of Estee Lauder President & CEO Fabrizo Freda, Kimberly Hatchett of Morgan Stanley and Executive Vice President of Global Impact and Philanthropy Sesame Workshop, Sherrie Westin at its annual (Em)Power Breakfast in NYC.
"I am the only kid being awarded at this breakfast and to see that what I am doing is making some sort of difference, inspires me to keep on doing what I'm doing. They didn't just [hear] me ramble but got something from what I said and understood it and it helped in some way."