From tokenism to authentic youth involvement

Youth engagement has gained a lot of momentum in many fields that work closely with young people, including youth programs and services, youth organizations, schools, and other institutions working to help young people thrive. 

These organizations thrive to implement youth engagement practices that capture the voice of young people they serve. While it is important to recognize the importance of youth engagement, the issue of youth tokenism remains an important issue in the field of youth work. 

What is youth engagement?

Youth engagement is the practise of getting young people to participate in bettering their communities and the decisions that affect their lives. The recognition of young people as important resource for systemic improvement, and as active contributors to their communities, empowers young people to get involved in responsible and challenging actions to create positive social change.[1]

Youth engagement creates a sense of agency and empowerment for young people. As such, it is important that young people are provided with the tools and resource that they need to understand, act on, and bring about positive change in their personal lives and social contexts. Engaging youth in social initiatives can help youth see that they can make a difference in their own life, family, school, and local community and in the broader national and global community.[1]

What is Tokenism?

Tokenism happens when youth are given in formal and informal positions in order to say they have youth on board, but they are given minimal purpose or power. Tokenism is a symbolic gesture towards youth engagement without including all the elements of youth engagement.

Tokenism happens through policy and practice every day. Youth tokenism is so deep in our society that many organizations never know they’re tokenizing youth, and youth don’t know when they’re being tokenized. Because of adultcentrism in our society, young people can often internalize tokenism and not be able to see when it is existent. It’s important to teach young people about tokenism and how it can affect them.” [3]

34 Signs Youth are Being Tokenized

Furthermore, not only tokenism fails to help youth develop true leadership capacities, but it can also cause frustration and may lead to future disengagement.[4It is important that we recognize that engagement is not just a feel-good activity designed to boost morale. Rather, it is a function that prepares and empowers youth to challenge their social position and ensure a better future, for themselves, their communities, and their nation.

How do we achieve genuine youth engagement?

Effective youth engagement goes beyond just having youth physically present, and ensures young people are “intellectually immersed, socially connected, and emotionally centered.” [1] Above all, authentic youth engagement helps them gain a sense of control over their own lives and gives them the opportunity to take on an active role in shaping the programs and activities around them through their inputs. Youth organizations are responsible for ensuring that their programs and services are relevant, engaging, and responsive to young people’s needs to achieve authentic youth engagement. [2

Below is a short infographic I made highlighting four ways we can achieve authentic youth engagement!



  • The goal of youth engagement should be to empower young people so they have more confidence and control over their lives.
  • Tokenism is a symbolic gesture towards youth engagement that fails to prepares and empowers youth to challenge their social position and ensure a better future, for themselves, their communities, and their nation.


[1] Joselowsky, Francine. (2007). “Youth engagement, high school reform, and improved learning outcomes: Building systemic approaches for youth engagement.” Nassp Bulletin 91(3): 257-276.

[2] Ashenden, Anna. (2013). “Moving Beyond Tokenism – A Youth Perspective On Making Youth Participation A Reality.”  Retrieved from:

[3] Fletcher, Adam. Are You Tokenizing Youth? Retrieved from:

[4] “What is Tokenism and How to Avoid It.” Retrieved from:

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