Youth citizenship: An intersectional analysis

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

Given the nature of citizenship, and its historical, social and political contentions, there remains a lack of consensus on what constitutes citizenship. The legal definition of citizenship defines the term as “the position or status of being a citizen of a particular country, with elements such as a passport, or a national identity.”

Citizenship can also be conceptualized as a process that gives ways to relations of power and inequality within a given society that is “contingent upon the subordination of specific bonds of gender, race, class,” and plays an important role in shaping the experience of the individual citizen [1]. 

Citizenship is the individual’s relationship with the wider society; it claims who belongs where, who has obligations, who benefits from rights, and who is entitled to services [3].

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Citizens of tomorrow, but not today

The concept of citizenship is heavily confined to the employment-oriented model that grants citizenship ‘the respectable economically independent citizen’ or the ‘socially constructive citizen’ [3]. This narrow definition of citizenship serves to exclude young people from enjoying the full benefits of citizenship because of their inability to fully contribute to the economy. 

Youth’s citizenship status is viewed as ambiguous or lacking, “on the assumption that young people are politically apathetic and ignorant of their rights and responsibilities” [3]. As a result, social policies have managed to keep youth out of discussions on community initiatives and community development strategies that have the most bearing impact on young people’s lives.

Since citizenship is an important element of having access to the social, economic and political institutions, the status of youth’s citizenship remains an important element of youth work.

How youth are viewed as citizens affects “how they are treated, how youth policy and services are developed, and how young people feel about themselves and their value in society” [3].

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The popular conceptualization of citizenship has an even dire consequence on urban youth.  It imposes a double-edged sword for urban youth— underserved, poor, marginalized, ethnic minority youth— whose lived realities are not only disproportionately impacted by poverty, but also face other structural constraints such as racism, social isolation, violence and stigma [2].

Accordingly, urban youth, especially those living in poverty, continue to be seen as second-class citizens and face twice the stigmatization. Their inability to contribute to the economy as both young and poor robs them of their rights to full citizenship.

These young people’s rights to participate in the social, political and economic spheres of society is “mitigated by the stigma of their identity” as incompetent and troubled that need to be controlled and punished [1].

Thus, it is important to consider the ways in which young people’s identity, such as their race, class, gender, and culture, undermine their citizenship and to recognize the powerful role these social constructs play in the lives of urban youth.

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Active citizenship and youth engagement

Young people remain a powerful, but often untapped, resource in promoting change to benefit children, youth, and families, and communities [4]. Increasingly, there is attention being paid to the role of engaging youth in school, community, and social change by acknowledging them as a vital source in the transformation of their communities [2]. 

When young people are given the opportunity, knowledge, and skills needed to participate as active citizens, they are capable of identifying issues in their lives and coming up with effective solutions.

Active citizenship allows youth to be considered as a legitimate source of information for policy making, planning strategies, and creating community programs targeted at effective social change.

Young people’s voice in community decisions can provide significant insights and contributions that are essential to building healthy communities. From informing local planning and policy with their unique knowledge and insight to providing human capital for community initiatives and reaching a bigger audience through advocacy work, the importance of youth engagement remains paramount.

Not only youth engagement fosters community change, but it also fosters social capital, increase young people’s self- esteem and help them build leadership skills that can further improve their lives [4].

Through involving youth in community initiatives, policymakers can gain perspectives on the lived experiences of youth, as well as cultivate leadership spirits for young people to help them create a better future for themselves, their communities, and our nation as a whole.


[1] Field, Ann-M. (2000). Contested citizenship: renewed hope for social justice. Canadian Woman Studies, 20(2): 78-83.

[2] Nygreen, Kysa, Soo Ah Kwon, and Patricia Sanchez. (2006). Urban youth building community: Social change and participatory research in schools, homes, and community-based organizations. Journal of Community Practice, 14(1-2): 107-123.

[3] Smith, Noel, Ruth Lister, Sue Middleton, and Lynne Cox. (2005). Young people as real citizens: Towards an inclusionary understanding of citizenship. Journal of youth studies, 8(4): 425-443.

[4] Campbell, David, and Nancy Erbstein. (2012). Engaging youth in community change: Three key implementation principlesCommunity Development, 43(1): 63-79.

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