Emily Charest and her grandmother Barbara Keefe, of Falmouth. Contributed Emily Charest

Falmouth High School senior Emily Charest was inspired by both her grandmother and a civil rights class to curate a speaker series designed to open dialogues about difficult topics at her school and in her community.

The Let’s Talk event Sunday, Feb. 13, at the high school auditorium, is modeled after the popular TEDTalks videos, of which Charest is a fan. The topics will be race, women’s rights and consent education.

Charest’s goal is to bring the type of thought-provoking discussions she has with her grandmother to her peers and her neighbors. Every Sunday, her grandmother, Barbara Keefe, have brunch, when they usually discuss recent articles by New York Times reporter Maureen Dowd or Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, both of whom write about politics, pop culture and international affairs.

“(My grandmother) has been a big role model in my life. I want to bring that experience of having open conversations into the Falmouth community,” Charest said. “I was also able to take a civil rights class this year and I thought that some of the open conversations we had there would be really good to spread to the rest of the school.”

Keefe helped start what is now the Maine Women’s Lobby,  an organization that advocates for local, state and federal public policy to improve the quality of life for female-identifying Mainers. She also used to teach at the Baxter School for the Deaf in Falmouth and has spent her life advocating for those with disabilities.

“When she saw a barrier, she ran to break it down instead of waiting for someone else to fix the issue,” Charest said. “I remember from a young age she would tell about the importance of knowledge and self-sufficiency. When I was young, I was painfully shy and she encouraged me to work to have a voice, and that’s been the best form of encouragement in my life.”


Through Let’s Talk, Charest said she hopes people will realize “I’m hoping people feel like they can have these open conversations at school and people realize these topics can be a little more relevant and not something that you just talk about in a few classes,” Charest said.

“A big part of high school is finding your identity. I was hoping this might be something that could make being who you are as a student easier and make it so some students might not feel they need to hide aspects of themselves.”

She lined up three speakers for Let’s Talk.

Dr. Larissa Malone, an assistant professor at the University of Southern Maine and critical race theorist, will discuss the intersection of race and education.

“A high school setting provides an opportunity to reach a new generation and share an important topic that is often misrepresented in public discourse,” Malone said. “I hope that people take away from my presentation that in a racialized society, school settings are no exception to the challenges we face regarding injustice. We all have a role to play in building a more just world and I hope my presentation will inspire meaningful engagement on this topic.”

Anne Gass, of Gray, is the great-granddaughter of Maine suffrage leader Florence Brooks Whitehouse. She has written two books, one specifically about Whitehouse’s life and her fight for women’s voting rights in the early 20th century, and another historical fiction novel that’s based on a true story of suffragists on a cross-country road trip to Washington D.C. to demand the right to vote.


“One thing many people don’t know is that, almost a century after it was first introduced, the federal Equal Rights Amendment has still not become part of the U.S. Constitution. There’s a big discussion happening in Congress right now. Similarly, in Maine, women are still not equal under our State Constitution,” Gass said. “It’s hard to fathom. Women get taxed equally with men, and during the pandemic we owe women a huge debt for helping their families and our economy find a way forward. Yet our society doesn’t value women enough to make us equal under our country’s and state’s foundational documents.”

Gass also serves on Maine’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, which is a non-partisan advisory board that advises Maine policymakers on matters that impact women and girls in Maine. During her portion of Let’s Talk, she plans to combine women’s history with current issues facing women.

Charest learned about Oronde Cruger through his 2018 TEDTalk on redefining masculinity. Cruger is the program manager for Speak About It, a Portland-based consent education and sexual assault prevention nonprofit that partners with schools.

“I would love to help empower young people, especially young folks of marginalized identities who are taught they need to hide themselves. I want them to understand that it’s OK to want more for yourself and to thrive,” Cruger said. “For older folks in the room, I would love for them to see the ways in which we shut doors to communication without even realizing it, so helping older folks be a bit more intentional in the ways they approach conversations so everyone feels they can show up and be themselves.”

Cruger plans on making his presentation interactive with the use of a texting app that will allow participants to be anonymous when they text him questions about consent and healthy relationships that they otherwise would be uncomfortable asking in public.

Although he’s been avoiding public events during the pandemic, he couldn’t turn down Charest’s request because it is important to support “young people taking charge and making an event that serves the need they see,” he said.

Let’s Talk, from 6-7:30 p.m. Sunday, is free and open to the public.

Charest’s civil rights teacher Jessica White said she hopes the event draws a large crowd of young people “who are eager to listen and learn.”

Looking forward, Charest says this is the type of project she hopes to do again in college, where she’s thinking of majoring in psychology to pursue prison reform.

Comments are not available on this story.