Creating Lasting Change

Senior Emma Duhamel pursues social justice through organizations that have had a lasting impact on Shaker


Emma Duhamel

Senior Emma Duhamel will attend The University of Cincinnati in the fall and plans to do an ethical analysis of current events. “There is no one else like Emma Duhamel. She is what gives me hope for the future,” said Staci Cohen, director of youth engagement at Fairmont Temple.

Senior Emma Duhamel is an agent of change. Throughout her time in Shaker, she has helped influence the community for the better, creating programs at the high school such as Women’s Studies Club and the St. Baldrick’s event, as well as leading a team of teenagers fighting for gun legislation reform.

“There is no one else like Emma Duhamel. She is what gives me hope for the future,” said Staci Cohen, director of youth engagement at Emma’s synagogue, Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple.

Working with teens statewide, Duhamel is provoking change by lobbying for reform of Ohio gun laws.

Gun violence has always been an important issue to Duhamel. Off the top of her head, she rattled off a few statistics. “A black man is 13 times more likely to be shot and killed than his white counterpart, and 62 percent of people who die by guns are victims of suicide,” she said. 

After the Parkland shooting, Duhamel, along with 12 other students from across Ohio, formed Lobbying For a Safer Tomorrow, a program designed to help teenagers get in touch with state senators and representatives to lobby for gun control.

Duhamel said the students and victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and other advocates inspired her to act. When a friend from Cincinnati texted Emma, “Hey, want to try to get a bunch of teenagers to go lobby at the statehouse after the walkout?’ she knew how she could help.

“The next thing I knew, we formed Lobbying For a Safer Tomorrow,” she said. This plan was carried out after the nationwide school walkout on March 14, designed to honor the 17 victims of the Parkland shooting.

“We got over 200 students from all over Ohio to go lobby their congresspeople and senators,” Duhamel said, “And LAST is still growing. We’re helping a group in California start, and we’re working on getting a town hall event here in Cleveland.”

Duhamel said it’s been cool to see some real change. “This morning, I found out that a senator we spoke to [Sen. Sandra Williams] put forward a new piece of gun control legislation,” she said.

“Our representative, Janine Boyd, actually started crying while we were talking to her. It was that moment where I realized that these people were actually listening to us. They weren’t just meeting with students for optics; they really cared about what we were saying,” Duhamel said.

Emma Duhamel
Senior Emma Duhamel is creating change. In just four years, she created Women’s Studies Club, the St. Baldrick’s event at the high school and Lobbying For a Safer Tomorrow.

Although Duhamel enjoys extracurriculars, she loves her classes at the high school. She is a senior in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme and enjoys working in her Art Portfolio class. “I love everything about my portfolio class. We have such freedom to express ourselves in ways that we haven’t had the opportunity to in the past,” Duhamel said.

She also appreciates her IB Literature HL/AP Literature class. “In this class, we talk more about theories. It’s really interesting tying books into a more intellectual world, rather than just talking about the book itself,” she said.

In school, Emma is not afraid to show her tenacity, the same tenacity she employs in her work with LAST.  “She’s not afraid to speak her mind in class and often stands up for other students,” senior Rachel Podl said.

Duhamel said she enjoys high school, but that these years are a stressful time for everyone. “We care too much about what other people and what they think,” Duhamel said. “No one quite knows what they’re doing, or who they are. I’m so different than the person I was during freshman year.”

During her sophomore year, Duhamel, along with Meredith Modlin, Julia Shin and Hunter Fiesler, founded the Shaker Women’s Studies club. Emma became interested during a unit in English class focusing on women’s literature. She decided to start the club in order to learn more and teach others.

No one quite knows what they’re doing, or who they are.

— Emma Duhamel

The main focus of WSC is to help people understand the dimensions of gender in America, how gender functions on its own, and how it can influence people, according to Duhamel.  Modlin said the club has evolved into a discussion and activity-based club.

But Emma was hard at work even earlier in her high school career. As freshman class president in 2015, Duhamel helped organize the first St. Baldrick’s event at Shaker. She became interested in the foundation after a personal experience that changed her outlook on cancer.

During eighth grade, Duhamel worked in a kindergarten class at her temple. A girl in that class passed away on her sixth birthday due to brain cancer.

“When that 6-year-old girl died, I really understood that cancer’s an issue that is bigger than I had realized. It’s not just pink ribbons —  it’s real people,” Duhamel said. “My family on both sides has a strong history of cancer, and I never really understood what it meant and how much it really impacts people.” 

“Even though I didn’t really know her very well, I still felt really shaken up by it. I needed a way to process it. I saw that her family participated in St. Baldrick’s, and I saw that as an opportunity for me to process my emotions and feel like I did something to help,” Duhamel said.

The St. Baldrick’s Foundation aims to conquer childhood cancers. On average, the charity raises $38 million per year. Its mission is to find cures for childhood cancers and to give survivors long and healthy lives.

The organization holds annual head-shaving events in order to raise money. Events are commonly held around St. Patrick’s day in mid March. Events are held all over the world —  27 in Ohio alone — and the event at the high school was started in 2014.

“Even if the $8,000 we raised wasn’t going to cure cancer, we still started a tradition at this school,” Duhamel said.

Podl has been the volunteer event organizer for St. Baldrick’s at Shaker for the past three years. She said she does this because it is an important cause to support and raise money for, and it helps bring high schoolers and community members together.

I got a lot of people asking to touch my head.

— Emma Duhamel

Duhamel participated by shaving her head. “I got a lot of people asking to touch my head. Like, people who I did not know,” she said. “I got a lot of people tell me they wanted to get involved next year, or tell their own personal experiences with childhood cancer.”

“One of my favorite parts about doing it is telling the story and why I do it. It always gets more people interested and wanting to donate,” said Duhamel, who shaved her head each year for the first three years of high school. Her supporters joked that they were “just paying for Emma’s summer haircut.” Although she did not shave her head this year, she chose not to this year but still collected donations. 

Growing up in the Lomond neighborhood, Duhamel enjoys living in the “Shaker bubble,” the term used to reflect Shaker’s undeniably liberal climate. “I’ve never had to apologize for being gay, or Jewish or liberal. That’s not something I’ve had to explain,” Duhamel said.

“My elementary school upbringing has been really positive. The Shaker schools have provided me with anything I could want,” she said. “But I do realize that, due to my race and my economic status, I experience Shaker through a very different lens than other people. And it makes me sad, because I think everyone should have this experience.”

Duhamel lives with her two parents and her sister, Miriam, who is in seventh grade. Her dad is a lawyer and her mom is a volunteer at the Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank. “You could say she’s a stay-at-home mom, except she doesn’t stay at home,” Duhamel said.

Duhamel also praised her sister. “My sister is the smartest person I’ve ever met,” she said. “She’s brilliant.”

Duhamel and her family attend Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, which practices reform Judaism. Reform Judaism is social-justice oriented, and, according to Duhamel, a good fit for her. Her favorite quote is that of a famous Rabbi, who said, “I was praying with my feet,” while marching for change instead of attending an important service.

Ava Hillard
Duhamel formed a student-led organization, Lobbying for a Safer Tomorrow, in order to get in touch with state representatives.

“Emma’s religion is more than just a religion to her —  it’s a way of life,” Cohen said.

“She is naturally curious and engaged in her learning, and that goes for her learning during Religious School,” Cohen wrote in an email. Duhamel and Cohen have grown close over the years.

Anshe Chesed Temple Youth is Fairmont Temple’s youth group for high school students. The group comprises an elected board of students, and Duhamel has been president since May 2016. In order to become president, candidates write a letter of intent, and later give a speech to their peers, wrote Cohen. The members then vote for a candidate. The group meets once a month to plan programs and services for all the teens at Fairmont Temple. “Emma has helped future generations of teen leaders at Fairmount Temple be taken more seriously,” Cohen said.

Duhamel intends to become a rabbi in the future, hoping to go to rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College after earning an undergraduate degree. She decided this after turning to her rabbi during a difficult time in her life. “I realized that the amount of help I got from just being there was so significant, I wanted to be able to do that for other people,” Duhamel said.

“I see Emma fighting hard for issues of social justice and speaking out against things that are wrong with the world,” Cohen said.

Duhamel will attend University of Cincinnati in the fall of 2018, and earned a full scholarship to the Honors Scholars Program through the college of arts and sciences. She is considering combining three majors: philosophy, social justice and international human rights.

“I am confident that she will do whatever she sets her mind to in the future,” Cohen said. “I know that whatever she does do, it will help our world be a better place.”

This profile of senior Emma Duhamel, written by freshman Journalism II reporter Emerson Coffman, is part of the profile series we call Shaker Stories. In a novel activity, 42 Journalism II students — two juniors, one sophomore and 39 freshmen — devoted the third quarter to researching, reporting, drafting, editing and revising profiles of Shaker students, teachers, coaches, residents and alumni. Shakerite editors and Journalism II students suggested people they considered noteworthy. Journalism II students chose their subjects and invited them to participate. 

Subjects who accepted agreed to at least three, 20-minute interviews, suggested other sources to be interviewed, submitted photos — and endured dozens of follow-up questions. Journalism II students completed research as necessary to portray their subjects’ subcultures, whether Irish dancing, competitive cube solving or editorial cartooning.

Over the next six weeks, The Shakerite will publish the products of this unprecedented effort. We invite you to read, enjoy and share these profiles widely. We thank everyone who cooperated with this enormous effort. We also encourage you to suggest more people whose Shaker stories we should know.

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