What is Tokenism and how does it affect work in the youth serving sector?

Oct 22, 2022 | #YouthEngagement, #YouthVoice

by Stacie Smith |

What exactly is Tokenism? Tokenism is the involvement of youth that is surface level—that is, individuals are involved in the decision-making process in a way that keeps them voiceless, uninformed, and excluded from conversation. Some organizations may do this unknowingly, as they are uneducated on the concept of tokenism.  

Tokenism happens a lot more often than we care to think, and can affect everyone involved, with many ending up frustrated and disheartened. The most important individuals to consider in these situations aren’t the organizations, but the youth being engaged. Organizations that are engaging with youth on a regular basis need to be able to recognize when their efforts are tokenistic so that they can move in the opposite direction and build authentic relationships with young people.  

When it comes to engaging youth, tokenism has three different outcomes: 

1. Adults will feel as if they’ve done something positive to engage youth—but without taking on the real challenges or making the adjustments required for a meaningful initiative, that engagement won’t create lasting impacts or improvements. 

2. Youth will feel undervalued and taken for granted. Tokenistic involvement not only fails to develop true leadership capacities among youth, but causes frustration, and may lead to future disengagement. 

3. Organizations will have created an intergenerational partnership without any lasting benefits. A token youth may look good when promoting the work being done, but the youth probably won’t become a permanent supporter or promote the organization to their friends and family.  

Hart’s Ladder of Participation (1984) is a useful tool for assessing the different levels of participation by youth. One of the most beneficial levels is around youth/adult equality, which includes shared decision making. This happens when projects or initiatives are begun by youth and decision-making is shared between youth and adults. These projects can be empowering, giving youth a key say in the project while also allowing them to access and learn from the expertise and experience of adults. Youth/adult partnership plays a large role in the success of these projects.  

Another level that works well in many situations is completely youth-driven projects. The Young Canadians Roundtable on Health (YCRH), an organization I currently lead, is a great example of a successful version of a youth-driven initiative. The YCRH is a national, youth-led organization that provides youth voice on health issues impacting children and youth in Canada. Our mission is to close the gap that exists between youth and policy makers regarding youth health and to be the collaborating organization that represents diverse Canadian youth. While we receive financial and administrative support from The Sandbox Project (a national charity), we make our own decisions about what topics we focus on regarding children and youth health, as well as our overall activities as a group.  

There are many ways to ensure tokenism doesn’t exist while engaging youth or partnering with them. First, youth should be given the opportunity to have a leadership role and be included in the organization’s work. This will allow them to build skills in leadership, critical thinking, problem solving, and time management. When youth have the responsibility to lead a project or portfolio, they will have the autonomy to make decisions and decide what direction they’d like to take with the topic area. This has worked well within the YCRH, with director roles giving youth the opportunity to lead work in a specific area that they are passionate about. This also allows them to build skills that they can use in their careers. One example of this was when the YCHR led a project engaging youth in advocating for a national school food program. We held focus groups with youth in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and British Columbia, to get a sense of their current insights into the current school food landscape in Canada, as well as their thoughts on introducing a national program.  

Second, adults and organizations need to be willing to facilitate youth empowerment and give youth the opportunity to be independent. Giving youth the autonomy to make their own decisions and decide on the projects or initiatives they’re involved in will create a more positive outcome for the finished product, as their passion and interest in said project will push them to take more care in completing the project.  

Next, organizations need to focus on issues that are important to youth. Youth will not be interested in providing their expertise on issues they aren’t passionate about. The issues need to resonate with them and be something that they have experience with or want to create change around. Some youth may decide they want to focus on an area that they don’t have experience in, and adults may be hesitant; however, this would allow the youth to learn about a new area and take away new skills to use in their future careers.  

Finally, adults and youth need to co-evaluate what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to their working partnership. There needs to be compromise on both sides of the table to make the relationship work. Both adults and youth can learn from each other during this process. Adults may have the experience, but youth have learned newer skills that adults may not have been able to learn early on in life. We do this regularly with The Sandbox Project and the YCRH, touching base to provide updates on our work and receive feedback from them around any improvements that could be implemented.  

In my work with the YCRH, we have experienced tokenistic relationships in the past. While we try our best to avoid them, they can happen without us realizing. One example is when we were part of a project that we did not contribute to in any way, and where the decisions around the format of the project were made by adults, yet our name was attached to it. We did try and bring our ideas to the table, but they wanted to use their ideas only for this initiative. We felt like our voices were not heard and that our opinion didn’t matter; it will make us think twice before partnering with this organization again.  

Another example of tokenism from my youth mental health advocacy work was around providing recommendations to improve youth mental health and suicide prevention services, which have been lacking in New Brunswick, as part of a youth advisory council. While the youth advisory council was able to give input at meetings, there were specific structures and processes that we didn’t have any say in. Providing our input around changes to the format would have allowed us to account for youth who needed different supports than others when contributing to the conversation.  

As a final example, I was a part of an election team that was helping to advocate for an individual’s candidacy. We were set to engage youth as part of this campaign, with the creation of some discussion-type events. Due to COVID-19 and other unforeseen circumstances, we couldn’t hold these events. I couldn’t contribute as much as I had hoped, and the person I was advocating for did not reach out to check in or try and find a way to involve me. And yet, I was still used to garner the youth vote; they included me in the promotional video at the beginning of the campaign to share why I supported this candidate, but that seemed to be their only interest in my involvement.  

Superficial youth engagement projects like the ones described above are still commonplace. For example, an organization may invest in having some youth in attendance at a media event or announcement. This will make it seem like the youth are being valued, even though it’s only to keep up appearances. When people ask questions around how these youth have been involved, they will be redirected and instead offered a story about how great an investment was made to engage youth.  

Tokenism can be hard to recognize for the bulk of organizations, but, as stated above, tokenistic practices are rarely intentional. There is a need to reflect on youth engagement processes and ask for outside perspectives if needed. If organizations ensure that youth are followed up with on the use of their input, they will feel more valued and that their voices can be used to create change. When youth feel like their voices are valued equally to adults, they will want to find more opportunities to provide their perspectives on topics that are important to them.  

Avoiding the tokenization of youth will increase the chances of youth participating in the future, as well as having the youth feel trusted in their relationships with adult allies. There is a need to be open to getting authentic feedback to make sure that the organization is engaging youth in a genuine manner. I hope to see more authentic partnerships between youth and adults that not only play a role in creating a successful project or initiative, but that are useful experiences for youth and that will help them succeed in the future.  

Stacie Smith

Stacie Smith

CEI Youth Advisory Group Member, 2021-22


Stacie Smith graduated from Dalhousie University Kinesiology in 2020 and from the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton in Education in 2022. She works for Partners for Youth in Fredericton as a Youth Mental Health Project Coordinator. She is the Executive Director of the Young Canadians Roundtable on Health. She is passionate about school food, food insecurity, youth mental health, and youth engagement.