She may be young, but that's not stopping Saara Chaudry from making her voice heard.
At just 18 years old, the Canadian award-winning actress, known for roles in The Breadwinner, Combat Hospital, Degrassi, Odd Squad, Max & Shred, and Dino Dana, has already used her platform to inspire youth to take action on some of today’s most pressing social issues.
Juggling acting, her studies at Harvard University, and her activism with UNICEF, Chaudry is particularly vocal about the representation of people of colour in media and youth engagement in civic spaces.
In August, following an all-time-low turnout for the Ontario provincial election and a continued declining trend in voting rates federally, the Toronto native lent her voice to The Body Shop to support the brand's Be Seen Be Heard campaign. Carried out in partnership with youth engagement organization Apathy Is Boring, the initiative works to empower youth across Canada with the skills and resources needed to participate in democracy. This is especially timely with Ontario’s municipal elections to be held on Oct. 24.
Global Citizen spoke with Chaudry about the importance of engaging youth, effecting societal change, and how she uses her platform to inspire others to do the same.
Global Citizen: Tell us about where you grew up.
Saara Chaudry: I feel very lucky. I was able to grow up in Canada, in what I feel is one of the best countries in the world. My education and my family were the fundamental things that shaped who I am today. I feel fortunate to have had one of the best educations in the world [and to] have access to resources that helped me push my education further.
My childhood was [also] shaped by the stories of my family. Growing up, I constantly heard stories from my mom, my dad, and my grandparents — of the sacrifices they made to be where they are today, or the stories of my ancestors and the things that different generations that came before me and my family did to allow me to be in the position that I am in today … There are so many sacrifices that were made by my parents, my grandparents, and everyone before them for me to have the things that I do now, to sit in the position that I'm in, to be studying at Harvard, to have pursued acting. Everything had to line up perfectly for me to be sitting where I am now. So, I think my childhood was shaped by that understanding and caused me to view the world from a lens of gratitude and from a lens of "I have to take action."
How did you get into acting?
Acting kind of happened by accident. I went to a drama camp when I was little — I must have been 5years old at the time … It just so happened there was an end-of-week performance at this drama camp and agents were scouting in the audience, and they had come up to my mom, telling her, “You know, you should consider getting your kid into acting. It seems like she loves being on stage and she feels confident and looks like she's enjoying what she's doing.” This is the last thing that she expected me to do — the last thing anybody [in] my family expected me to do — but it happened organically. I found an agent and it and everything just fell into place. At first, I treated it like an extracurricular activity from school, the way some kids will play soccer or do debate club … It turned into a full-blown career by accident.
I feel grateful to have gone on that journey and for it to have happened so naturally. It didn't come easy … There were times I realized this is no longer just something I'm doing for fun. This is no longer a hobby. This is something I care about, something I'm going to put effort into, something I'm going to build and make into a career. When I signed with my agent at 6 years old, he pulled my mom aside and said, "I want to work with your daughter, and I see a lot of potential in her, but I do have to warn you that this industry is not fit for people like her. She's going to have a very, very difficult time.” And this is something I only learned recently. Kudos to my mom for being someone who has inspired me and kept me grounded and strong throughout everything. She never told me that story, and I think it was a good thing because despite having been warned of how people of colour and the BIPOC community ARE represented in this industry, she didn't let that deter her from allowing me to pursue my dream.
I owe a lot to her for that and for making me feel like I always could — no matter what. If I stepped into an audition room and all I saw were white girls, blond and blue-eyed girls, it was she who said, "It's okay. Yes, you're going to have to work twice as hard. Yes, you're going to have to prove yourself. Yes, they're not looking for a brown girl. But yes, you can do it and put your best foot forward. Yes, you can try your best and see what happens." And I think that attitude has shaped everything and has allowed me to get the roles that weren't necessarily written for me, for a girl that looks like me especially …
Representation in media is one of the most important things that we can do to shift misconceptions and ideas that we hold in society. If I'm able to play a small part in that — which I think I have — through some of the work that I've done, I've done my small part.
What advice do you have for people of colour who want to pursue acting (and might feel this tug of war between making a name for themselves and not pursuing roles that meet certain stereotypes)?
I think media can either be a window or a mirror, and this is something that people who discuss representation all the time are all aware of.
It can be a window in the sense that you’re invited to look into someone else's life with a different perspective of something you may not have before, or it can be a mirror, or it can be a reflection of yourself — you can see yourself in these characters, in a certain story that's being told. But even windows … offer a little bit of reflection. You're able to see yourself sometimes, and it's that beautiful dance that different stories play between either being a window or a mirror, and that's the importance of representation: being able to see yourself or learn from other people's stories. I never saw myself on screen growing up, so being able to be a part of that, to be that girl for other little girls means so much to me.
My advice to people would be to just start: the importance of what you're doing holds so much more weight than you know. In terms of stereotypes or upholding your values in the industry, that's one thing that I am fortunate enough [with]. I've had incredible people around me who have made me feel that when I am upholding my values; when I say no to certain projects; when I write certain things into my contract to make sure that I feel comfortable … Every time I advocate for myself or put those things in writing or I just outright reject certain things, I've had people around me affirm me and tell me, "You're doing the right thing for you."
That's the thing with this industry: as a BIPOC person, as a Muslim girl, as a South Asian girl in general, there are certain things that I will not do. Being able to say no is powerful because there are people who may not be BIPOC or Muslim, but there are still boundaries that they have as well and they're respected for it. So as a BIPOC or Muslim person, why should I not be respected for my boundaries as well? When you have boundaries, things that you will and will not do — when you have a level of self-respect and self-awareness of the things you value, that's more respectable than someone who will just say yes to everything because they want an opportunity so bad or a chance at it.
So you're showing that it's possible to reconcile all of these parts of you and still be able to live in that space.
When you say no, you're reclaiming justice. You are saying no to things that you don't believe in. If I got a super stereotypical, borderline racist role of a South Asian character, me saying no to that says something to those writers or whoever is creating the show: "No, this isn't a representation of my community that I feel does us justice, that is authentic, that presents us in a positive light." By saying, no, you're kind of resisting from within. You're changing the system from the inside, which is, really, really powerful, but difficult to do.
You've been an outspoken advocate for the fight against Islamophobia, both in Canada and abroad. What do you think we need to overcome to get to a point where Muslims are treated equally and where discrimination is fully addressed, whether in Canada or elsewhere?
This is more than a Canadian issue … I'm living in the US right now; I'm going to school here … Islamophobia stems from a fear of the unknown and its ignorance — that's the fuel to the fire that is Islamophobia.
The most powerful tool in fighting Islamophobia is education and leading by example. I certainly don't represent all 2 billion Muslims in the world, but I feel as though I am always representing my faith. I am a representative of my faith; I make it very known. By default, whether I like it or not, I am a representation of what it means to be a Muslim girl living in the Western world. I think it's important for us to be visible. Our stories need to be told. We need to be loud, outspoken, unafraid, and unapologetic about our identities, our stories, where we come from, and the things that we believe in so that the people around us get to know us as their friends and neighbours …
By educating others, by having representations of all kinds of Muslims — because there is no one representation of what it means to be a Muslim or what it means to be a brown person, what it means to be BIPOC — we start to fight Islamophobia. Media shapes how we view the world [and] understand other communities [and] other cultures. Especially if we're not able to immerse ourselves within a certain culture or religion, or if we don't have a friend of a certain descent, media is where we're going to gain that information from. If that perception is tainted, inauthentic, and not an accurate representation of whatever given community you're watching on screen, then then you're going to be ignorant [of] who they are, what that community is, and what they stand for.
Muslims are wonderful people. Islam is peace. Once we lead by example and use education and authentic representation as our most powerful tools in fighting Islamophobia, we'll be able to work towards a world in which Islamophobia is lessened, if not eradicated.
What made you want to get involved in The Body Shop’s Be Seen, Be Heard campaign?
My involvement in this campaign is driven by my want to spread awareness. Any time I can lend my voice to something that I care about and something that I believe in, I will, and this was one of those instances. This campaign was perfect because it was a partnership that was meaningful. It wasn't just about the brand; it was about something bigger, more meaningful than that.
The most meaningful way to cause change is by changing the system itself, and that's what this campaign is doing. They're spreading awareness [and] encouraging people to vote. The underlying goal of everything we're doing here is to drive change systemically, and the easiest and most impactful way to do that is by exercising our democratic right to vote.
We're encouraging people to vote at a municipal level, as well as the federal level, but things on a municipal level can cause tangible change, that you can feel. Often, things on a municipal level are the things that affect your everyday life. Those are the little things that you begin to feel. It's a gradual effect. They keep layering and layering on top of each other before things feel like they've progressed in a positive way.
What do you see as the biggest barriers to young people getting involved in politics, and how can they be addressed?
It's this feeling among young people of not knowing where to start. Our biggest barrier is just not having access to the right resources [and] the right information. It's a level of inaccessibility that's just constant across the board. I didn't even know how to get involved at first.
My activism and advocacy journey started in grade five. I must have been 8, 9, 10, somewhere around there. I didn't even know where to start either. Especially when you're so young, you can't vote yet. Often, people will look at you as inexperienced, ignorant, too young for whatever job or too young to understand a certain issue you're advocating for … I was lucky to have met people along the way that were able to open my eyes, [and] open doors for me to get involved, to get to be a part of initiatives, to work with different organizations like UNICEF, have partnerships like this one with the Body Shop. Not all young people are in the same position. Some young people just don't know where to start. And I think that's our biggest barrier.
Having a campaign like this, we're saying, "Here are the tools so that you can get involved. Here is the information you need. Here are the things you can be doing." Whether you're a young person that is now of age to vote, whether you're a first-time voter, whether you have never voted before, but you are of age to vote, whether you've been voting for a couple of years, here are still some things you can be doing. Here are some roles you can play in the world of activism that allow you to get involved …
Organizations like Apathy Is Boring and campaigns like this one with the Body Shop, Be Seen Be Heard, are working towards removing those barriers and giving young people the chance to become more engaged.
What are you hoping to accomplish with this campaign?
I want young people to feel like their voice matters — because it does.
Our voices are so much more powerful than we know. Often, young people are super passionate about the things that they believe in, and that passion, that drive, doesn't go unnoticed. Young people are often at the forefront of movements. When change happens, it's often young people we look to as the people that were the catalyst for change. I want young people specifically to walk away from this campaign, from this year's elections in the US, in Canada, feeling like they do have a voice — and a voice that people care about, that people want to hear, a voice that is valued and meaningful and can effect change.
When young people are valued and listened to, the whole world benefits. It's a matter of telling young people that their voice matters and giving them the resources through which they can use their voice, but also looking to the adults in the world that have power and saying, "Listen to young people. Let us have a seat at the table, listen to our voices, listen to what we have to say and do something about it." Because it's so easy for them to say, "Yeah, we're listening. Yeah, we hear you. Yeah, let's have a conversation. Let's set up a round table and we'll hear you out." But it's the time after those conversations that matter …
It's about actually going ahead and finding effective ways to affect that change. And so, it's definitely a team effort. I hope that young people walk away from this campaign feeling that their voice does matter, because it most certainly does, and oftentimes is the reason why massive change occurs in society in the first place.