Youth Tokenism Pt 2.

A while ago I wrote a post trying to make plain what youth tokenism is. Here I’m trying to simplify it. Following are signs youth are being treated in simplistic ways.

Signs Youth are Being Tokenized

  • Adults talk about issues affecting youth without talking to youth. 
  • Adults consistently ask youth to speak about being a youth.
  • Adults will do programs to youth and won’t host programs done by youth.
  • Communities celebrate youth with events where there are only 10 youth and 1,000 adults.
  • Adults only interact with youth regarding youth issues. 
  • Adults tell youth they have a voice and give youth the way they’re expected to express it.
  • Adults put youth are put in positions historically held by adults without the authority and ability adults have.
  • Adults constantly telling young people about their experiences when they were young people without listening to the experiences of youth today. 
  • The busiest times of year for a young person are holidays, summer vacation, and youth service days.
  • Adults don’t tell youth directly the purpose of their involvement in a formal setting like school, youth organizations, service projects, conferences, etc. 
  • Adults control who hears, sees, or communicates with youth throughout a community.
  • Before youth walk into a meeting, all the adults know there are youth attending without knowing their names, where they’re from, or what school they attend.
  • One youth is expected to represent all youth.
  • Youth or adults perceive that youth are tokenized and thereby they undermine their abilities.
  • Youth are treated as if or told it is a favor and not a right for them to participate in decision-making.
  • Adults give youth are given little or no opportunity to formulate their own opinions before speaking in a formal setting.
  • Adults give youth time to speak in formal settings and then ignore what they say.
  • One youth speaker speaks in a formal setting filled only with adult speakers and attendees.
  • 100 youth attend a rally with 10,000 adults and are pointed out for their attendance.
  • Adults only invite youth who are not likely to assert themselves, make demands, or complain.
  • Adults take youth away from regular activities or personal lives without a compelling reason to that young person for being gone. 
  • Adults choose articulate, charming youth to sit on a panel with little or no substantive preparation on the subject and no consultation with their peers who, it is implied, they represent.
  • Adult/youth power imbalances are regularly observed and not addressed in a program or organization.
  • Adults don’t use youth knowledge to build the abilities of young people and their communities, instead focusing simply on prevention and intervention.
  • Adults take a lot of pictures of youth for their website without ever listening to what they have to say.
  • One particular youth is asked over and over to participate in adult activities.
  • Adults seek out one, two, or ten youth as the most popular or as especially expert youth instead of identifying many qualified youth.
  • Youth-led research is used to back up adult problem-solving without engaging youth in problem-solving.
  • Nobody explains to youth how they they were selected for an activity.
  • Youth are given leadership roles in activities that aren’t supported to succeed.
  • Adults allow youth to talk on their organization’s facebook page and not at their board meetings.
  • Youth become burned out from participating in historically adult activities.
  • Youth think its obvious they have a lack of authority or power.
  • Youth create websites, art, music, or other work that is kept for adult purposes only.
  • Youth think their authority is undermined by adults.
  • Youth don’t understand which young people they are expected to represent.
  • A group of youth is asked to create something for the community that never leaves the program or organization they’re in.

To learn more about what you can do to end youth tokenism, I strongly encourage you to read Guidelines for the Ethical Engagement of Young People by First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada. It is a powerful, concise, and effective how-to for this work. To find other materials, visit The Freechild Project Reading List featuring Tools for Action with Young People.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Published by Adam F.C. Fletcher

I'm a speaker and writer who researches, writes and shares about youth, education, and history. Learn more about me at

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