When you turn that magic age of 18, there is no manual for life. There isn’t something that breaks down each of the next steps after becoming an adult. Of course nowadays, people can Google any question someone has.
The same could be said for fulfilling your civic duty. Our civics education leaves a lot to be desired. While some high schools require community service, many do not. While some high schools have political science courses, many do not require it. Government curriculum barely scratches the surface. If you had students take a citizenship test, usually given to immigrants, I bet many would fail.
When I was a member of the Maine State Board of Education I fought for a greater inclusion of civics education and while I’m working to change this dynamic as a legislator with the introduction of service learning as an optional graduation standard and future proposals getting us closer to a more well-rounded educational experience, students have the tools to take it upon themselves now to empower themselves and their peers through afterschool activities.
A club has formed at Thornton Academy that aims to engage students in the political process. I was pleased to address the new club, the Thornton Academy Political Action Group, and meet with the student who started it, Porter Washington, and its teacher advisor, Colin Kolmar, someone I went to school with. This group will organize speakers to come to our high school and interact with students, organize field trips to city hall and the statehouse, hold voter registration drives, and start coming up with ideas amongst themselves for possible legislation.
Having an outlet to figure out the importance of government, civic involvement and how you personally define your political beliefs, is crucial for young people to become active and engaged citizens in our society. Too often young people, especially in high school, are told either directly or indirectly that their opinions don’t matter because they can’t vote yet. This is the wrong approach if we ever want them to participate as voting-age adults.
I’ve always believed that part of the role of leadership is empowering the generation to step up and assist with finding their voice. I would love to see more young people run for office, but ultimately it’s not about grooming new elected officials, but more about inspiring highschoolers to feel like they have a stake in how their future unfolds. Making sure they understand that no one will fight for them unless they make their voice heard. The decisions being made today will affect them down the road. The sooner they learn the intricate processes of our government at every level, how to register to vote and their political affiliation, the sooner they can contribute to the conversation to make a real difference.
As our Legislative Youth Caucus begins to meet and propose new bills about keeping young Mainers in the state, I hope students across the state will join us in being a part of the process. This could be through our Page program, allowing young students to staff our chamber while we are in session, visit the statehouse, become an intern, or even just talk with a legislator or elected official. Some of my best volunteers out on the campaign trail were younger than 17, some even as young as 8. That brings me a lot of hope for the next generation to see that kind of excitement and energy.
When I spoke to student leaders at the Maine Youth Action Network’s annual conference, Boy Scouts, students at various schools, including Thornton Academy Middle School and Saco Middle School, and Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership ambassadors, I found it really helpful hearing from students about their ideas and bouncing my own ideas off them. Many would later tell me that they felt excited about government or at least having a greater confidence to make a difference in some capacity. This greater sense of self and one’s role in the community is an important piece in growing up to be a mature adult and active voter.
I’m looking forward to seeing some great things come out of TA’s new political action group and other student groups throughout our community schools that mobilize a new wave of volunteers, activists, voters, and elected public servants.
Justin Chenette is serving his second term as state representative for Saco District 15. Outside theLegislature, Chenette is the owner of Chenette Media LLC, a multimedia public relations company, and is the president/CEO of the Saco Bay Center of Civic Engagement, a 501c3 nonprofit service organization. Follow updates at www.justinchenette.com, Facebook.com/JustinChenette, and Twitter.com/ JustinChenette.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco