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Tokenism: The State of Youth Leadership in Philadelphia

March 28, 2023 Category: ColumnFeatureFeaturedLong


From Deszeree Thomas, Youth Leadership Ally & Childhood Studies Scholar Special thanks to Mel Brown, Destiny Bugg, Donna Cooper, Shaiheed Days, Hillary Do, Karena Escalante, Tyliah Evans, Barbara Ferman, Ph.D., David Fair, Cynthia Figueroa, Anahi Figueroa-Martinez, Jamele Greenwood, Samea Kim, Jasmine Moore, Indiah Porter, Sonia Rosen. Ph.D., Andre Simms, and Catherine Sui. Numerous attempts were made to get comments from City Officials (DHS, City’s Office of Children and Families, Philadelphia Youth Commission, School District of Philadelphia, and the Board of Education) but to no avail.

James Baldwin’s quote, “Our crown has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear it” was interpreted by Shaiheed Days, Youth Move Philadelphia Coordinator, as “Our experience is already, you know. They’ve already spoken for themselves that we were the ones for folks to listen to.”

The City of Philadelphia is home to 485,731 individuals 24 years of age or younger.  This is one of the largest population groups representing 31% of the citizens in Philadelphia. The risks and the stressors being an individual 24 years of age or younger in the City of Philadelphia are significant. For example, in 2022 being 24 and under accounted for 35% of the 472 gun fatalities and 40% of the 1789 non-fatal gun injuries.  However, despite organized efforts by youth leaders, they have very little power, participation in local decision making and inconsistent influence on the things that matter to them, and issues and systems impacting their lives.

Contrary to images and narratives in local and national media, there are Black and Brown youth everyday facilitating workshops, speaking on panels or at conferences, organizing their communities, advising systems and organizations, developing and implementing advocacy campaigns, mentoring and engaging younger children, informing multi-million-dollar grant opportunities, conducting scholarly research, producing alternative media, changing laws, developing programs and models, training “professionals”, leading social justice efforts, directing program activities, and developing and implementing STEAM projects.  Take Tyliah Evans, 16, BOLT (Build Our Lives Together) Youth Leaders Fellow who has been involved with non-profits and social activism since the age of 9 is now a Founder and Executive Director of her own non-profit Show Up for Her, dedicated to supporting overweight girls in their wellness journey.

Amazing human beings, like Tyliah despite structural violence, personal stressors, criticisms from peers, and perceived lack of impact have dedicated their time to advocate and work in community on issues such as education, child welfare, juvenile justice, housing, gender justice, and LGBTQ equity and inclusion.  “We cannot afford not to listen to them” charged Barbara Ferman, Ph.D., Founder & Executive Director of the University Community Collaborative at Temple. Yet, we have failed them.

From our Partners

In examining the State of Youth Leadership in the City of Philadelphia with 18 diverse leaders, academics, advocates, and community organizers, acknowledged were the existence of the Philadelphia Youth Commission, student representation on the Board of Education, child welfare, housing, disAbilities, and behavior health systems effort to engage youth, and the private provider community attempts to elevate youth involvement particularly in congregate care settings.

David Fair, Philly Homes 4 Youth Founder & Deputy Chief Executive Officer of Turning Points for Children in reflecting on what youth participation in working on housing issues initially looked like stated, “There were always young people involved but that process was heavily dominated by provider agencies and people like me. We came up with a whole slew of recommendations that were great…but it really wasn’t with youth involvement…it really wasn’t a process that encouraged the kind of input from a 19 year old…We didn’t talk their language. They didn’t talk our language…it didn’t work…they were basically there.”  This is not uncommon.

Roger Hart’s Children’s Participation: From Tokenism to Citizenship described tokenism as youth having voice but no power. All of the youth leaders interviewed concluded that State of Philadelphia Youth Leadership was characteristically tokenistic:

“It’s one thing to hear somebody out. Now it’s another thing, they actually sit at the table and begin working with them, strategizing with them, or being on the front lines with that person…valuing those perspectives and allowing not just yourself to hear it and take heat. But… allow yourselves to be led…we share our experiences. You know how we feel…then we don’t hear anything after that. There’s no type of follow up…We don’t even know what happened with the information that’s involving you, involving young people.”
~ Andre Simms, Lead Youth Organizer, Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project & DayOneNotDayTwo Founder

“They want to leverage. Quote, unquote youth, voice, youth representation. But they don’t want to live by it. They don’t want to live as children live as youth live, which is what? Perpetually learning. Perpetually going back to the drawing board. Perpetually figuring something out, constantly discovering, constantly making room for something new and different ways of knowing something. But when youth leadership is met by, you know, stagnant organizations. When it’s met by political agendas. You know it. It’s no longer youth leadership, it becomes something else. It becomes a tool.”
~ Shaiheed Days

“I feel like sometimes they just listen to us, you know, just to make themselves look good. They will work with JLC to do this…but they don’t really do nothing with it.”
~ Anahi Figueroa-Martinez, & Jasmine Moore (concurring), Juvenile Law Center, Alumni Youth Advocates, —

“Honestly, there are plenty of youth leadership opportunities but it’s hard for youth to find them…the environment isn’t encouraging…the terminology of politics and business is said in a manner the youth don’t understand…student board seats are vacant to be filled yet they are not responding.”
~Tyliah Evans

“…a lot of youth, as I said, have been basically like talked down on. They’ve been under protected and over policed, and I think anything that the actual voices and concerns of youth are not being listened to…nothing systematic has actually changed.”
~Indiah Porter, Girls Justice League Bailey Executive Leadership Fellow

“ So I think it’s just important, especially at that age, to show that their voice is actually making a difference. And what we do in the next few weeks, you know it doesn’t have to be something that happens 5 years down the road, or like once they’re 18, but like right now, what they’re saying is going to influence how the teachers and leaders around them are interacting with them and what they’re seeing like in real time.”
~ Destiny Bugg, Black Girls STEAMing through Dance Program Coordinator & Drexel Justice-Oriented Youth Education Lab Program Manager

“the lived experience of young adults we have a wealth of knowledge that you do not get at school… We just want to be seen more than our situation… I’m gonna get my degree so you can see my honor, so I can have a seat at the table.”
~Jamele Green, Youth Move Philadelphia, Fellow

Voice without systemic impact is tokenistic: lack of influence, resources, investment, opportunities, follow up, commitment, infrastructure. Young people are talented and competent human beings, impacted by systems, policies and practices that are created for them, by adults, without them.  They deserve a real seat at the table but Philly as David Fair says, “still has a ways to go.” We can get there with authentic youth participation.




How are you authentically including youth voices in your work?

Who is working with youth and empowering their leadership and voice to make change?

In what ways should our government, businesses, foundations, and nonprofits support youth in our communities?


Share your thoughts here!




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