Meaningful youth engagement: Multiple contexts, multiple realities, multiple approaches

Meaningful youth engagement

“Meaningful youth engagement is an inclusive, intentional, mutually-respectful partnership between youth and adults whereby power is shared, respective contributions are valued, and young people’s ideas, perspectives, skills, and strengths are integrated into the design and delivery of programs, strategies, policies, funding.” – YouthPower

In its most basic form, youth engagement is about getting youth to participate in the shaping of their communities, and the decisions that affect their lives.[2]  Furthermore, youth engagement provides young people a means for positive development. There are many benefits to youth engagement. Effective youth engagement leads to positive outcomes for young people, from their own individual lives, to their social world, and on a broader systemic level. [4] Some examples include skill building to become productive adults, a reduction of risk-associated behaviors, increased civic awareness, cultivating a sense of belonging, and better youth-service delivery. [2]

Meaningful youth engagement helps young people actively recognizes oppressive power structures that prevent them from achieving their needs and priorities, while also building their leadership capacities. Various studies have found that meaningful youth engagement reduces risk-associated behavior among young people. [2] When youth have access to a support system, and resources to develop the knowledge and skill sets needed to be active citizens, they can become critical social change agents that challenge social inequalities.

Meaningful youth engagement is an important factor in positive youth development that can strengthen young people’s civic commitment, extend their social capital, help them create meaningful relationships with adults, and foster strong self-esteem and build a sense of self and collective efficacy in young people. [1]

WATCH:  A 5-minute video that explains youth engagement from Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health.

Meaningful youth engagement not only acknowledge youth as full citizens with rights and responsibilities but it also provides young people with opportunities for their active involvement beyond platitudes and tokenism. Such meaningful youth engagement is important not only for positive youth development but also for systemic changes to provide effective support to high-risk youth and families. [3]

Meaningful youth engagement goes beyond just engaging youth to address social and economic forces, such as racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism, that oppress young people and impact their day-to-day lives. Given the diversification of youth and communities, meaningful youth engagement gives us the necessary tools to employ a social justice lens to support young people from disenfranchised communities.

Engaging marginalized youth through meaningful youth engagement practices

Engaging young people from high-risk, marginalized communities poses a significant challenge given their disconnection from, and lack of trust they often experience in society. [3] Youth from marginalized communities are often at a high-risk of homelessness, social exclusion, violence, racism, discrimination, mental health challenges, and stigma.

Paradoxically, marginalized youth are often far removed from accessing community programs and services that are available to them because of various constraints and access barriers. Such exclusion and disengagement, in turn, magnifies the disadvantages they face and contribute to their poor developmental outcomes. Marginalized youth remain systematically prevented from accessing opportunities and resources that are critical for reaching their full potential and become contributing members of society.

The lack of meaningful youth engagement from service providers and organizations often create barriers for young people to navigate the services available to them as they often lack the necessary relationships and resources. [3] However, there are some useful practices youth organizations and service providers can implement to assist in meaningfully engaging youth.

Practical ways to meaningfully engage youth

Youth empowerment is an effective strategy to foster responsibility and power within young people. In doing so, youth become effectively incorporated into policy-making activities to confront issues in their communities, including education reform, youth employment initiatives, and crime reduction strategies.

Other practical strategies include:

  • Involve young people in the planning process and incorporate their inputs and ideas into the program.
  • Provide young people with meaningful roles.
  • Assess needs on an ongoing basis as young peoples’ needs change over time, and be aware of their support needs.
  • Cultivate authentic relationships between youth and service providers and/or service allies, and other young people.
  • Create a safe space to have a dialogue regarding structural barriers, including racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, geographical location and other constraints that affect young people’s lives.
  • Listen!
  • Reassess, and challenge, one’s own assumptions about youth from different groups.

RESOURCE: Youth Engagement Toolkit


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

[2] A Guide to Youth Friendly Practices – Youth Engagement

[3] Iwasaki, Yoshitaka, et al. 2014. “Youth-guided youth engagement: Participatory Action Research (PAR) with high-risk, marginalized youth.” Child & youth services 35(4): 316-342.

[4] Youth Engagement Toolkit

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