Michael Redhead Champagne, aka the North End MC, was born and raised in the North End of Winnipeg, an inner-city neighbourhood with a history of poverty and violence. Growing up, Michael witnessed firsthand the drawing power of gangs on youth in his neighbourhood. So at the age of 23, he decided to do something about it.
In 2010, Michael created AYO! Aboriginal Youth Opportunities, an “anti-gang” that encourages Aboriginal youth to embrace their unique gifts in order to create new opportunities in the community. One of his most notable accomplishments is “Meet Me At The Bell Tower,” a weekly gathering that brings North Enders together to connect, share, and learn from each other.
While in Winnipeg, I had the chance to speak with Michael about Aboriginal Youth Opportunities, and what he’s learned from his work as a community-builder.
Michael, can you tell us about Aboriginal Youth Opportunities?
MRC: Aboriginal Youth Opportunities is a volunteer youth movement in Winnipeg’s North End. We are a group of helpers committed to breaking stereotypes and creating opportunity for our peers. As young Indigenous leaders, it is important for us to share teachings we have learned, as well as encourage others in the broader community to pay attention to the examples of Aboriginal youth.
What compelled you to start AYO?
MRC: In Spring 2010, I came together with other young leaders who I had known and volunteered with for many years outside of formal organizations. Indigenous youth voices are often minimized or tokenized in established institutions. To have our voices heard, I imagined a group of people who would lead by example to help our neighbours and our community on a regular basis.
What motivated me to take action was the immense amount of potential that is present in Indigenous youth. We also had a place (Circle of Life Thunderbird House) where we felt safe and had access to Indigenous grandmothers and the many teachings that we had not yet learned.
I’ve heard you describe AYO as an anti-gang. What does that mean to you?
MRC: We began as an anti-gang and, over time, developed into the youth movement we are today. Our beginnings as an anti-gang are rooted in the fact that gangs were highly effective at attracting teenagers in our community. We recognized that if we wanted to engage young people as successfully as street gangs we needed to replace the allure of crime with something more attractive. That “something else” was an opportunity to be a leader, a student, and to have a place to belong – a family.
One thing I admire about your message is its positivity. You encourage Aboriginal youth to embrace their unique gifts in order to create new opportunities. Can you tell us one of your favourite success stories?
MRC: I am reminded of a young lady from “Meet Me At The Bell Tower” who shared her struggles with depression. We encouraged this young lady to reach out to her parents and teachers for help, and she kept us updated every week. She shared her struggles of having her mom believe her, and having to explain to others what she was feeling inside. You can imagine how proud we were when she told us that her mom was helping her to address her feelings. She also shared her ideas for a community awareness campaign intended to remove the stigma that can prevent people with mental health challenges from asking for help. It is a beautiful illustration of what can happen when we listen to our young people and encourage them to help themselves. Their immediate natural reaction will be to help those around them too.
You have gone public about your own experiences growing up in the North End of Winnipeg. Can you tell us a little about your personal journey?
MRC: It all began when I was ten years old. At the time, it was difficult for me to speak up, but it would have been more difficult to remain silent. Reflecting on my personal journey, I saw a common thread and that was how stereotypes enabled oppression to continue. With that thought in mind, it seems logical that if we break down stereotypes we can get to the root of oppression. Once we know each other and we know each other’s humanity, we can work together to create a solution to oppression.
How has sharing your own story impacted others in your community?
MRC: Sharing my story seems to have encouraged others to share theirs. I believe strongly that people don’t learn from the words you say to them; they learn from the examples they see around them. That’s why my example is my message, more so than my words.
If you had to choose one thing, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from all your work in your community?
MRC: A single strand of sweetgrass is weak, but many strands together in a braid is strong.
Breaking stereotypes is not easy. What advice would you give to someone who is being oppressed or bullied because of a stereotype?
MRC: First, recognize the source of the stereotype. Second, don’t behave that way to people in your own life. Third, connect to the highest possible level to eliminate the source of the stereotype not only for yourself, but for everyone who comes after you. Finally, provide a realistic and possible alternative to the oppression, which is usually an opportunity. The most meaningful opportunities are when people can share their gifts with others.
Starting a movement is hard work. What recommendations do you have for someone who has an amazing idea for creating a positive change in their own community, and wants to make it a reality?
MRC: My go-to approach is based on traditional teachings about the Medicine Wheel. Here’s how the Medicine Wheel can help move your idea forward:
- SPIRIT. Start with expressing your idea in words to those who you think will understand. Share your idea with safe people so it can be nurtured, supported and cared for. The back-and-forth communication will help you better express the true spirit of your idea with others.
- BODY. Write it down. This gives your idea a body and you can proceed to share it with a wider range of people. You can also write down goals, intended outcomes, and potential helpers. Dream big when you write it down; being realistic comes later. This is a stage of constructive criticism. People may disagree with parts of your idea, so be ready to be challenged and write down criticisms too. Don’t take any of it personally.
- HEART. This is where you learn to express your emotional reasons for moving your idea forward. This is where you identify helpers – people who are willing to volunteer their time and gifts to achieve the outcomes of your idea. Aim high and select those who (like you) believe the world needs the idea.
- MIND. Finally, it’s time to make an action plan. Bring your helpers together and lay out your first steps. Everyone should get a job that is suited to their needs. Focus on those who show up, not on those who don’t.
A lifelong North Ender, Michael Redhead Champagne is the founder of AYO! Aboriginal Youth Opportunities, a youth movement that has been breaking stereotypes and creating opportunities since 2010. He is a community organizer and public speaker who travels across Canada sharing teachings, acronyms and strategies with youth, leaders and educators. Visit Michael’s website for more information.