Tokenism! How do we avoid it?

Hey all!

With International Youth Day coming up in August, we’ve been talking A LOT about Meaningful Youth Engagement (MYE) and how we might do it well at the intersection of human-centred design and adolescent sexual and reproductive health (HCD+ASRH). :handshake:

This has also been a topic that is weaved pretty consistently through conversations that come out of the Youth Leadership Hub. From conversations that I had a few months back with the first cohort, MYE was (is) clearly something that almost all members cared a lot about - some had experienced it being done really well, and some had experienced it being done really poorly. For those who had witnessed youth engagement missing this mark, the word that came out was “TOKENISM.” That stood out to me then, and it also stood out to me when I heard it again during our most recent community call. :scream:

Last week, we gathered with the community to co-create the first draft of a statement on MYE in HCD+ASRH, and I heard this word “tokenism” again. From what I understand of tokenism, it means doing something for no other reason than to say that you did it. It is sort of the antithesis (opposite) doing something meaningfully. Tokenistic youth engagement definitely might happen when organizations are told to engage with the younger beneficiaries throughout the project process, but don’t have the capacity, direction, resources, knowledge, etc. on how to do it well. So what can we do about it? :thinking:

As we are drafting this statement, I would love to hear stories from the community about how to shift from tokenistic to meaningful youth engagement. Your thoughts will help us to shape a statement that the HCD+ASRH ecosystem can turn to for guiding principles. What are the principles and approaches that you have used, experienced or witnessed that you think should be adopted field-wide? What do we need to avoid or get rid of? From ASRH world and from HCD world? :bulb:


Thank you for articulating this super important point Liz, you hit a very specific pain point that definitely needs to be addressed.
It makes me think of Youth Engagement on a scale from Tokenistic to Meaningful :sweat_smile:

I would like to think that organisations doing any kind of youth engagement have the intention to do so. Their efforts fall somewhere on the scale from tokenistic to meaningful on different parameters not because they intended it to be so but because the outcome of their efforts resulted in the same. It seems like the intent of being meaningful may be common yet not enough to result in a meaningful outcome. :confused:

That is because we often look at MYE from the pov of the process and not the young person herself. Which is why checking the checklist isn’t enough. :woman_shrugging:t4:

I believe we need to do MYE in a human-centric manner- understand the needs of the young people we are looking to engage, and constantly keep reflecting and evaluating on how meaningful is the engagement for them. :relieved:


Meru, I really like your “tokenistic - meaningful” scale! I’d also like to think that organizations working with youth have the intention of engaging youth meaningfully. I really like to think that folks are coming to this work as good people and with good intentions. Your point of MYE being viewed as a process with steps or a checklist might be why good intentions can fall short of being meaningful!

I’d love for you to explain a little bit more about how we can look at MYE from the point of view of the young person themselves - have you seen this done well before? To avoid that “process” thinking, are there mindsets (rather than steps) that need to be adopted to really shift along that scale towards “meaningful?”


I believe you are right @liz_mcneil, perhaps it’s mindsets instead of steps that can shift along that scale towards “meaningful". And I think human-centred centred design offers these mindsets- empathy, experimentation etc. I see the solution as designing the young person’s experience in the team (in a human-centric manner) instead of using a template. I understand that may take time and effort and capability that need to be accounted for when planning the project.


Now that I’m thinking about it – I really hope that the statement we are co-creating with the Community on MYE in HCD+ASRH projects offers some guidance on how to shift this mindset, and how to centre young people. And when I say this, I mean both as young team members and as potential beneficiaries. Change starts at home!


This is such a fun discussion! Totally agree with you @liz_mcneil - mindsets are a crucial part of how youth engagement can be made meaningful because that is what really imbibes the values we are trying to achieve when we have a MYE checklist. Often in defining the actions we tend to forget about the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ and the mindsets may be able to point us to those. To add - I think it might also be useful to talk about the actions needed for MYE to happen alongside the mindsets that inform them or should inform them. That might show a correlation between mindset and process/action which will inspire both how MYE happens, and the approach that needs to be taken while doing this action.


@Rimjhim, you’ve really captured this need to balance of the how and the why.

I think as we are advocating for more meaningful (and less tokenistic) engagement of young people all across the program/project life cycle, it’s great to start with the mindsets :brain: – helping folks to understand really the extent and value of what it means to “meaningfully” engage youth/adolescents – and then also offer some kind of principles, guidance and/or tools on how to put this into practice :wrench:

I like this ordering of perhaps starting with the why and then moving onto the how (this is also reminding me of that famous Simon Sinek video of starting with the why to get people to buy into things! :sweat_smile:)