Pitfalls of Youth Empowerment

Adults can engage young people who feel disengaged by honouring that disengagement. I think that’s where you start. There’s got to be a reason and someone needs to listen to that.


– Elementary principal

A high value is placed on youth engagement, youth leadership and youth participation in the contemporary field of education. Such terms encompass activities and processes that vary in the degree to which they are empowerment-based. Initiatives that purport to facilitate empowerment can disguise traps that instead give rise to impediments such as favouritism, elitist leadership and tokenism.


What is tokenism? Tokenism occurs when someone—in this case a young person—is selected by an adult to represent all members of their group, with little choice or influence over the proceedings. It is problematic for us to assume that one young person can speak for and reflect the needs and views of all young people.

Tokenism is a common trap for many marginalized populations. For example, students or adults who identify as First Nations are sometimes asked to represent their own communities, as well as Métis and Inuit communities. Even those three broad cultural groups constitute only some of the enormous diversity among indigenous peoples. Considering the enormous diversity among our students, ensuring real student representation is difficult unless measures are taken to ensure broad consultation.

Furthermore, when certain students are routinely selected by adults to play a leadership role, perhaps because of their personality or social standing, other students are deprived of an opportunity to develop such skills. Certain narrow views of the nature of leadership are reinforced by this approach and students do not learn to value differences, including different leadership styles, while the social status of an elite group of students is cemented.

Discussion and dialogue—that is, meaningful consultation—then becomes a key element of empowerment-based practices, though it is not without its pitfalls either. Asking to speak to only certain students, or asking and then not following up on the results can be disheartening. It can generate student cynicism and distrust. This is especially true if this occurs because the results do not correspond to adults’ expectations or needs.

Roger Hart’s "Ladder of Youth Participation", first published in his 1992 article entitled Children’s Participation: From Tokenism to Citizenship (p. 8) constituted a groundbreaking model. The following updated version of the original model was created in 2011 by Adam Fletcher (published in The Practice of Youth Engagement, 2014) and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.ladder

The Ladder presents eight levels or forms of youth participation, exposing ways in which adults can maintain their power while appearing to involve youth. Fletcher (and Hart before him) demonstrates that in a range of subtle to more obvious ways, adults lean toward retaining control when involving youth. This model reinforces the belief that if we are to authentically share our power, to genuinely create environments within which youth can fulfil their potential, we need to question and examine the means and the purpose of their involvement.