Beyond the Bell Tower: Michael Redhead Champagne Helps Systems and People
“I want folks to be encouraged by the small steps you take, because little steps will eventually add up,” encourages Michael Redhead Champagne, who grew up in and lives in Winnipeg, though his family is originally from Treaty Five territory. In the work he does as a storyteller, a public speaker, an event host, a writer and a community organizer, the small steps he’s taken have added up in a big way.
At birth, he was placed in the foster care system and adopted by a family that showed him how important it is to take care of children in the community. He was raised in the north end of Winnipeg, surrounded by poverty, violence and other Indigenous people. “It made me who I am… When I think about my community, I think of the resiliency and the strength and the creativity and the humor, and the great things that we have in this neighborhood,” he muses.
His inspiration comes from his adopted family’s worldview and his desire to right the wrongs of the foster care system. “It made me really, really passionate in wanting to support parents that were working to bring their children home, and also support young people as they aged out of care if they didn't have the connection that they needed,” he explains. He’s inspired by his culture’s teachings of kinship, showing him how we are all related and connected and need to take care of each other.
When Winnipeg was named the murder capital of Canada, the young people with Aboriginal Youth Opportunity went to the bell tower on Suffolk Avenue, in the middle of where the violence was happening, and they rang the bell one cold Friday night. They met weekly for eight years to build community and replace the violence with something better, eating together, talking about their challenges, giving away prizes, and planning the next week’s gathering. Meet Me At The Bell Tower became a family.
“Meet me at the Bell Tower was a launching pad, it was a gathering place, it was what I always call the Idea Factory.”
Many initiatives flowed from those years of organizing, including a free anti-racism summit and Saturday night activities as an alternative to substance use. It brought to life Fearless R2W, an organization he works with that does child welfare education and advocacy on behalf of parents who want their kids back and kids aging out of care. While those Friday night events are no more, their impacts reverberate like the bell they rang all those years ago.
“What I do every day is go to my agenda, see what I can accomplish, and then do as much as I can to improve the community.”
In terms of his other work, Champagne speaks to schools, hosts events, and attends committee meetings. He’s on the board of Northland Community Renewal Corporation, trying to convert the Palace Theater into an arts and cultural center. He’s on the Manitoba Health Coalition and this year he’s focused on creative storytelling which has included mentorship, creating a space where young people can write and teaching people how to get their ideas on paper so their dreams can go farther.
“I want you all to be proud of who you are. I want you to stand up tall…Do whatever you can to find what your gift is. Share that with the world.”
“I think my favorite part about the work that I'm doing is that it's heart based. I literally get to wake up in the morning and I get to ask myself, ‘What does my heart need today?’” he relays. He connects people to resources they need and calls himself a “systems helper”. He has had to learn how to understand and provide advice to systems, sometimes suggesting they need to give more power to people and disengage themselves.
“It's hard to convince people that have power and control to freely give it away to other people, which is why sometimes I gotta be a little pushy and a little bit aggressive. But I still want to do that in a good way from my heart so that even when I'm telling the system, ‘you better act right’, they know that it's coming from a place of love,” Champagne shares.
He shares words of wisdom for young people looking to get involved in heart-based, impactful community work. “Start now. We don't have to wait to finish that course or to get that piece of paper or for someone else to take their little marker and say, ‘I grant you authority to be a writer’. You don't need that. You, yourself, are allowed to decide if this is what you want,” he advises.
“So don't wait. If you want to write, write now. If you want to speak, speak now. If you want to be a helper, help now. We don't have to wait for other people to give us permission to take action. Don't wait till tomorrow. Don't wait for an invitation. Just start now.”
Since he was in kindergarten, Champagne knew he wanted to be a writer. He encourages youth to think about what they wanted to be when they were younger and what they were like. Growing up, his siblings would always complain he talked too much and asked his mom to make him stop. She refused and now he gets paid to speak for a living.
“Make sure that you're emanating all of your goodness from your many gifts, because you never know who you're going to be inspiring with the way that you behave.”
To address the biggest challenges in community, Champagne encourages people to look at their biggest resources, which is, more often than not, people. “That's why I think it's so important for us to be building healthy relationships with one another and to try to encourage having solid mental health and wellness for folks. Because if me and the people in my community are healthy and well, together we can actually address our greatest challenge,” he suggests.
The small steps Michael Redhead Champagne has taken have added up in a big way. Working as a storyteller, a public speaker, an event host, a writer and a community organizer, he’s been able to lead spaces that prevent violence, that get people what they need, to feel like they belong and to celebrate the gifts of the people in his world that make the world and the north end of Winnipeg a better place. He started meeting at a bell tower, and now he meets new challenges and opportunities every day.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.