Today's teens refuse to be silenced.
They're not settling for sounding off on social media, nor are they accepting the labels that society has assigned to them. They're defining themselves for themselves, and refining their voices so that the world actually stops and pays attention to what they have to say.
At least that's the case for the 2,500 teens that packed into the Omni Dallas hotel last March for the National Keystone Conference. No, it wasn't a cult gathering, though adolescents on a mission to master their voices and bring about change may seem a little unorthodox in today's world of seemingly narcissistic selfie-takers. It was, however, an assembly of those who will one day become world leaders, game changers, and industry disrupters. But no need for them to save the planet just yet, today the discussion centered around building confidence and taking ownership of their paths. It's a topic that actress and humanitarian Yara Shahidi is unashamedly passionate about.
“It just affirmed many of my beliefs, just seeing teens so active in their community," she says, reflecting on her own empowering speech, which she compares to a Ted Talk event. “It proves that we're more than just an anomaly—teens that can be heard and teens that have an opinion. We're not the anomaly, but we are turning into the norm."
If you thought teens were just social media masters fishing for the latest celebrity gossip, guess again. They're actually culture consumers who are as well versed on racial discourse as they are radio rhymes. In other words, they're woke. And like Yara, many just want their voices to not be counted out of progressive discussions. According to the youth leader, the platforms are present; it's just a matter of changing people's perspective. “I think often times even when it comes to media, it's hard for adults to even relate to teens because we're going through that phase where we want to be independent, so what they may only see is us on our phones when we're [really] talking about different things that matter to us," she says.
Talking to Yara, it's almost easy to forget that the child star is only 16 years old. She speaks with an air of confidence normally reserved for those ten or twenty years her senior. Yet there still exists a youthful enthusiasm that insinuates that she hasn't quite experienced enough to balance that vigor with a dose of reality. Her conversations are laced with hope and possibility, which is certainly needed in a world where activists and change agents grow weary in their fights for social and societal freedom. In actuality, Yara is right where she needs to be—culturally aware but not culturally confined, and willing to voice her frustrations without fear of being silenced.
"I feel more comfortable sharing and I feel like I want to be heard."
“I've always had strong opinions and my opinions have changed over time, but I think I feel more comfortable sharing and I feel like I want to be heard,“ says Yara. “I think it really started with [the show] Black-ish, and getting the opportunity and platform to speak about things that matter to me, because when you talk about Black-Ish, you're talking more than just any TV show; you're talking about subject matters that we touch."
On the hit television show Yara plays the sassy and seemingly self-absorbed oldest daughter, Zoey. Though they are similar in age, she says that the fictional character is no way a reflection of her, but that she does take advantage of the opportunity to bring depth and pieces of herself to the character. “I want her to be more than just the seemingly shallow girl that is on her phone all the time. It's okay for her to have that bravado and confidence, that I definitely do not want to take away from her, but just adding in the facets of confidence and translate it in all areas of her life. It's okay to grow with the character. It's okay to not know exactly our end goal, let's just continually have her evolve. Let's make sure that she doesn't stay stagnant, and definitely [writers] listened. Even though Zoey is not me and I'm in no way Zoey—they paid attention to who we are alike and see how we can take the different facets of Yara and translate them and put them into Zoey's language."
Photo Credit: Teen Vogue
While Zoey grows in character, Yara is also constantly evolving herself as she expands her intellectual palate. On set she's being educated on everything from racial injustice to black family traditions that are often frowned upon (e.g. spanking). But off set she's taking in more worldly ideals centered around humanism. Traveling around the world since the age of seven has given the history buff a new perspective of what life means beyond the confinements of her African-American and Iranian heritage—and it turns out, it doesn't involve race at all.
“I ended up doing this program at Oxford, and there were people from Singapore, China, Latvia—all over the world. And what was interesting was that there were some unique cultural differences or our social norms were different for each of us based on where we grew up, but to bring teens into one place for a month, we all ended up clicking. And it wasn't that we clicked based on where everyone was from, but more so the commonalities that run throughout us all. I feel like travel supports and reaffirms the idea that we are all people. I shouldn't speak for everybody, but I feel like sometimes what causes problems and separation amongst different communities is this idea of not humanizing them."
"What causes problems and separation amongst different communities is this idea of not humanizing them."
She ties it back to why she loves acting and having the ability to understand what makes us who we are as people and not just as separate entities—the universal desires that make us more related than we are separated. “[In auditions], they give you a character breakdown. And when you get the character breakdown it's always at least a paragraph. And seeing how ethnicity is two sentences or two words in the paragraph, it's a part of who we are and a part we should always respect and cherish, but it's not what makes or breaks us. And I feel like understanding and connecting because we are a community of humans is really inspiring for everything that I do."
“Even being a part of Keystone, people travel from around the nation to get here, and it's because it's a bigger picture," she goes on to say. “It's not, 'well I'm this race or that race so I guess we shouldn't support each other,' but we're teens going through the same share of experiences so given this experience, how can we empower one another?"
Photo Credit: Instagram
As one of the next generation's budding humanitarians, Yara has one thing correct—we're stronger together than we are divided. While it may seem that the actress is far more advanced than the average teen, there are moments throughout our conversation where she divulges her innocence while simultaneously reminding me of my own age.
“I think I'm secretly a 90s kid," she says coyly. “Deep down inside, if there was a way for me to coexist in both generations, I will do it. This morning I was listening to my early 2000s playlist. I have a complete retro file."
Who would've thought that music from nearly two decades ago is now considered retro? It's a subtle hint that soon we'll be stepping aside to usher in the next generation of leaders. But in the meantime, we'll continue to watch as teens like Yara balance being influential—speaking around the country at leadership conferences and panel discussions—with posting light-hearted dance videos to Rihanna records.
Yes, she's undoubtedly growing, but she's not grown just yet.
Watch Yara's powerful speech at the Points of Light conference below: