Tokenism happens whenever adults put youth in formal and informal positions without any substance, purpose, or power in order to say they have youth on board. Appointing youth this was is a symbolic gesture towards Youth Voice that is meant to demonstrate youth engagement and appease youth and adult advocates. It is supposed to stop people from complaining.
However, tokenism actually reinforces adultism by demonstrating adult power and highlighting young peoples’ inability to do work of substance. 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. Its important to teach young people about tokenism and how it can affect them.
Following are 34 signs youth are being tokenized, and 10 ways to stop tokenizing youth. There are also some resources at the end.
34 Signs Youth are Being Tokenized
- Without: When issues affecting youth are talked about by adults without asking youth, youth are being tokenized.
- Spotlight: At a meeting it is tokenism when adults consistently ask youth to speak about being a youth.
- Done To: An organization that will do programs to youth and won’t host programs done by youth is tokenizing youth.
- Highlight: At a youth organization celebration dinner it is tokenism when there are only 10 youth and 1,000 adults.
- Issues: In a community organization it is tokenism when youth are only interacted with on youth issues.
- Opportunity: In a government agency it is tokenism when youth are told they have a voice and given the way they’re expected to express it.
- Authority: On a board of directors it is tokenism when youth are put in historically adult positions without the authority and ability adults have.
- History: Adults constantly telling young people about their experiences when they were young people is tokenism.
- Scheduling: When a youth’s busiest times of year are holidays, summer vacation, and youth service days, it is tokenism.
- Purpose: At a conference it is tokenism when adults don’t tell youth directly the purpose of their involvement.
- Control: Throughout a community it is tokenism when adults control who hears, sees, or communicates with youth.
- Knowing: It is tokenism when before youth walk into a meeting, everyone knows there are youth attending without knowing their names, where they’re from, or what school they attend.
- Representation: During a meeting it is tokenism when one youth is expected to represent all youth.
- Perception: In an organization, if youth or adults perceive that youth are tokenized and thereby they undermine their abilities, it is tokenism.
- Favors: When youth are treated as if or told it is a favor and not a right for them to participate in decision-making, it is tokenism.
- Preparation: In a panel, it is tokenism when youth are given little or no opportunity to formulate their own opinions before speaking.
- Attention: At a forum, it is tokenism when adults give youth time to speak and then ignore what they say.
- Attendance: If one youth speaker speaks at a conference of adult speakers and attendees, it is tokenism.
- Acknowledgment: When 100 youth attend a rally with 10,000 adults it is tokenism when they are pointed out for their attendance, it is tokenism.
- Quiet: In a planning session it is tokenism when adults only invite youth who are not likely to assert themselves, make demands, or complain.
- Honors: It is tokenism when adults take youth away from regular activities or personal lives without a compelling reason to that young person for being gone.
- Charm: If 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, it is tokenism.
- Imbalance: It is tokenism when adult/youth power imbalances are regularly observed and not addressed in your program or organization.
- Disempowering: It is tokenism when community organizations adults don’t use youth knowledge to build the abilities of young people and their communities, instead focusing simply on prevention and intervention.
- Pictures: When adults take a lot of pictures of youth for their website without ever listening to what they have to say, it is tokenism.
- Singling-Out: If one particular youth is asked over and over to participate in adult activities, it is tokenism.
- Fame: At a program, organization, or conference it is tokenism when adults seek out one, two, or ten youth as the most famous or as especially expert youth instead of identifying many qualified youth.
- Problems: When youth-led research is used to back up adult problem-solving without engaging youth in problem-solving, it is tokenism.
- Explanation: It is tokenism when nobody explains to youth how they they were selected for an activity.
- Social: When adults allow youth to talk on their organization’s facebook page and not at their board meetings, it is tokenism.
- Burnout: If youth become burned out from participating in historically adult activities, it is tokenism.
- Obviousness: If youth think its obvious they have a lack of authority or power or that their authority is undermined by adults, it is tokenism.
- Understanding: If youth don’t understand which young people they are supposed to represent, it is tokenism.
- Delivery: When a group of youth is asked to create something for the community that never leaves the program or organization they’re in, it is tokenism.
Understanding you are experiencing tokenism is challenging, but it is just the beginning. Here are 10 ways to stop tokenizing youth.
10 Ways to Stop Tokenizing Youth
- Difference: When looking for youth to become involved, choose different youth from a range of identities that demonstrate diversity of experiences and opinions.
- Beginning: Invite a group of youth to work together in your program, organization, or conference. Get them active early in the planning cycle.
- Breadth: Engage youth in a broad array of activities, programs, organizations, and conferences that have fun built into them, but aren’t focused solely on having fun.
- Diversity: Reach out individually to youth too, but not only to youth you personally know.
- Socializing: Provide opportunities for youth to connect with each other outside traditionally adult activities so they can see that they’re not the only youth there, and that they have things in common past their age-based identities.
- Depth: It is in youths’ best interests to develop young people with real knowledge, skills and traits to help them to be effective and empowered.
- Numbers: When giving examples of youth in a particular area, provide a list, not just the single easiest youth you can think of.
- Individualization: Don’t expect youth representatives to speak for all youth: each youth is an individual, and will have their own stories.
- Capacity: Build the capacities of youth to lead their own activities and participate as equitable partners with adults.
- Opportunities: When highlighting youth, demonstrate practical opportunities they have to share broad interests and skills, preferably non-stereotypical and perhaps interacting with each other.
All issues are youth issues. It is the ethical responsibility of adult allies of young people to acknowledge the capacity of youth to decide which issues are important for them to engage within, and to increase their ability to be successful in their interactions with those issues.
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.