Yara Shahidi Open Up to Oprah Winfrey About Balancing 'Grown-Ish,' Harvard and Social Activism

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Yara Shahidi at THR party
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for THR

She's not even 18 yet, but Yara Shahidi already wears many hats, including actress, activist and scholar, all of which has led Oprah Winfrey to describe her as one of "the most profound 17-year-old alive."

Shahidi sat down with Winfrey on Wednesday at the historic Apollo Theater in New York City for an upcoming Oprah Winfrey Network special called Oprah at the Apollo, where she spoke effortlessly about the complex subjects that Black-ish and Grown-ish, the spin-off she stars in, tackles, and her generation's place in our culture. In fact, it's not surprising that Shahidi, who turns 18 on Saturday, is already planning to attend Harvard University.

The pair talked about the incredible access to information that new generations have and how empowering that can be, marveling at how young people were the driving force during the civil rights movement.

"Our generation realizes that age has never been a limit in terms of social activity and being able to look back at the civil rights movement... and see that it does not matter how old you are to get engaged," Shahidi said. "If anything, it is so important to make it our mission, especially if you have the privilege to do so, to be socially aware and to help our global community."

Yara Shahidi talks with Oprah Winfrey at the Apollo Theater for  "Oprah's Super Soul Conversations"
JoJo Whilden/OWN

She also talked to Winfrey about her own background, having been born to an African-American and Choctaw mother and an Iranian father. She said that her family experiences have shown her "how similar culture is at its core."

"I think so many of the problems that arise today are by these arbitrary borders that we put up, these arbitrary distinctions we make between people. And so many of our issues, whether it is economic, whether it is discrimination that has been integrated into systems, centers from somebody deciding that a difference is worth making a political statement," she noted.

Social justice is a cause so important to Shahidi that she's even planning on launching an initiative called "18 by '18" to increase voter turnout among young voters in an effort to turn activism into "quantifiable action," which Winfrey responded to by joking, "I don't think I ever knew the words 'quantifiable action...' when I was 17."

In discussing Black-ish's place in contemporary culture, Shahidi said it was part of a "renaissance of black TV," and also one that has been "an integral part in who I am," because she initially signed onto the show just before turning 14. One of the aspects of the ABC sitcom that she is most appreciative of is that it's important to everyone involved in the show to portray black families in a realistic manner.

"It's about making sure that we are so intentional in the stories that we tell and that we aren't trying to perpetuate stereotypes because that's when stereotypes become reality," she said. 

Grown-ish chronicles her character, Zoey Johnson's, journey in college, but Shadidi doesn't have a definitive answer yet on if she'll defer Harvard since the show has been picked up for 20 more episodes. 

"Everybody from the writers to the production understands how much I value my education and we’re doing our best to figure out how we want to make it work, but I feel pretty lucky to be able to make a commitment to a school... and to a show," she said. "I'm doing my best to figure it all out."

The audience seemed awe-struck at the young actress' beyond-her-years poise, intelligence and awareness, breaking out into frequent applause as she spoke. Winfrey herself was no less impressed through it all.

"Your future is so bright it burns my eyes," Winfrey said. 

Oprah at the Apollo will air on Feb. 27 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network and will be available via podcast at Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations.

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