Our democratic society depends on active, educated, and engaged citizens. When you turn 18, you don’t magically become informed, know how to vote, or what your values are. It’s critical we work to empower and educate the next generation about how their government works and the importance of getting involved in the political discourse through advocacy, running for office, and voting.

When I served on the Maine State Board of Education, it is something I pushed hard for. Our schools are a natural place for this learning to take place. I remember back in high school at Thornton Academy, I took a political science course. It was voluntary. Out of a graduating class of around 350, only about 40 or so took this course. Basically, hundreds of young adults were going out into the world without a firm understanding of our political system. It put me on a path of correcting it. Promoting civics-based education at every level, with every new position I was in.

Since then, we’ve passed increased measures to ensure civics gets weaved into the curriculum and many school districts even go further. Our fourth grade teachers at C.K. Burns School in Saco for instance, do a wonderful job instructing about the different levels of government. They even take all of their fourth graders up to the State House to see government in action. I love seeing all the students in the Senate chamber. There is usually an expression of awe. I always bring each student up to the rostrum and allow them a chance to bang the Senate President’s gavel with the phrase, “And that’s a vote.” Gives them a chance to feel a part of it and they really enjoy it. Students can also be honorary pages, which puts them right into the mix while session is going on. I’ve had eight students shadow me at the State House and become pages this past year. Open invitation to any student in our Senate district to do the same.

When we engage youth, even at very young ages, they are statistically more apt to register to vote, actually vote, run for office, volunteer on a campaign, and be overall a more active citizen in their community later in life. This benefits everyone. The positive impact this has on our society is well worth the effort. It is also a positive way to combat apathy and soundbite politics. If youth are educated about the process and more importantly how their voice can play a critical role, they will feel connected to something much larger than themselves individually. They will develop a vested interest in paying attention and participation.

My passion for youth engagement and the overall importance of civics education are the reasons I recently published a children’s color book.

“The Great Whoopie Pie Debate: How Your Idea Becomes Law” is a coloring and activity book to teach the next generation about how their own government works. Each page is a lesson in the steps of the legislative process with fun facts about the Pine Tree State. This educational activity book has children solving puzzles, mazes, crosswords, fill-in-the-blanks, and more to offer an entertaining way to learn about Maine’s political system. It’s a 32-page coloring book that visually demonstrates how a law is made from start to finish with a real-life illustration of when Maine legislators debated the state dessert.

I find the whoopie pie state dessert example is the best way to illustrate an often complex and boring topic. The kids connect to it in a way they better understand on their level. When I go out and visit with classrooms throughout our area, it’s extremely fun to see the kids take to the subject using this example. This past year alone I’ve visited with 25 classes. I usually bring a few students up to the front of the class to be the committee members. They have to hear all the arguments as to which top two flavors of whoopie pie should be selected as the state dessert. Then the group debates, votes as the House and Senate, and I even throw in a gubernatorial veto to mess things up.

My hope for this coloring book is that it becomes an important and ongoing resource for teachers and parents alike.

All the proceeds from the coloring book benefit college scholarships for area students. Another great passion of mine. Copies can be ordered on Amazon.com, at Whoopiepie.org, and are available at the Saco Scoop located in downtown Saco. Hopefully the child in your life benefits from this learning experience and puts them on a path of civic leadership.

Justin Chenette is serving his second term in the Maine Senate representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington and Buxton. He is the chair of the Government Oversight Committee, co-chair of the Democracy Reform Caucus, a member of the Environment and Natural Resources and Ethics Committees, and serves on the Maine Climate Council’s Coastal & Marine Working Group. He is also a Citizen Trade Policy Commissioner. Outside the Legislature, Justin is in real estate at the Bean Group, Marketing Coordinator of Saco Sport & Fitness, Owner of Chenette Media LLC, and is vice president of Saco Main Street. Follow updates at justinchenette.com.

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