The youth-led initiative Aboriginal Youth Opportunities (AYO!) focuses on community economic development, exploring Indigenous youth identity and building family in the neighbourhood of Winnipeg’s North End, or what AYO! calls “The Village.”
The initiative sparked from a standalone event hosted at The Circle of Life Thunderbird House in March of 2010. It was decided then that it needed to be more than just an event.
“Thanks to the elders council that had offered the space for free,” so that the youth could gather, Christopher Clacio, community helper/learner with AYO!, says. “During that meeting, 28 young people from the North End and inner city had gathered together to network and find ways of giving Indigenous youth public spaces and opportunities to use their gifts and talents.”
Clacio’s involvement with AYO! began in 2014. He is now a community helper during weekly events like the Meet Me @ the Bell Tower (MM@BT), Water Wednesday, the Brainstorms and Youth Pipe Ceremonies.
Clacio says three important steps were taken during this meeting. One: the name, two: the AYO! Code and three: autonomy.
“(One of) the very important steps that made AYO! become real (was) the development of the AYO! code, which was breaking stereotypes, reversing hypocrisy, finding institutional solutions and, lastly, respecting traditional knowledge,” Clacio says. “The focus of this group would always emphasize and function on the notion of volunteering and being a helper (without) the need for funding or money.”
Clacio says the community events, activities and actions AYO! initiates focus on inclusivity, acceptance and education.
A program called Youth Pipe Ceremony opens a physical space which introduces Indigenous and non-Indigenous part-icipants to traditional Indigenous values and knowledge while also correcting misappropriation and breaking down barriers to communication.
“I have been deeply affected by AYO! in so many ways, but (mainly) it would go to this notion of relationship permanence,” Clacio says. “For me, relationship permanence means (learning to) create permanent relationships with total strangers that have become more like your own family or ‘your family of choice.”
Clacio says his thoughts are in long-term solutions which aim to provide hope for future generations and instill pride in who they are and where they are going – just as AYO! has done for him.
“These folk are a rowdy bunch, and just being around them makes you feel that things are changing in a good way,” Clacio says.
“Learning about my identity, I (now) feel very grounded in who I am and who I want to be, and I feel like AYO! has been a big part of that,” Michael Champagne, community organizer, says.
“(AYO!) has allowed me to encourage other young people to look at their Indigenous heritage as a strength. Where young people find their culture, they also find their gifts, and they have a responsibility to hone and sharpen their gifts but also share them with the community around them.”
Champagne says that, in part, AYO! was founded for Indigenous youth to reclaim their voice. He explains they are misrepresented in the media, and they wanted to be the ambassadors of their own image. Champagne says AYO! organizes itself to work cooperatively with businesses, organization and boards in the North End.
“We have a team of like-minded helpers who are interested in leading by example to make our community a better place,” Champagne says. “As street educators, our accountability lies directly with our neighbours and our peers in the inner city, and so it’s important for us to explain to anyone who cares to know about the systemic work that we’ve been trying to accomplish for aboriginal youth and everyone overall.”
Champagne says AYO! is also working to address the Indigenous suicide crisis in Canada. He says initiatives such as Red Rising Magazine, which amplify Indigenous voices, have the potential to spark change.
“We have to remember that our attention gives power, so if we focus more on solutions and productive things and what’s working well, we can recreate more of those things.” Champagne says.
Champagne says some people have an increased capacity to help and, in that, it’s important for them to recognize their ability and responsibility to achieve their potential and use those gifts to benefit the community, make change and follow through with tangible action.
“The question we get asked sometimes is ‘what do your Bell Tower rallies do anyways?’ I think the answer is it doesn’t do a lot for people who don’t show up,” Champagne says, “but it does do wonders for people who do show up.”
Currently, AYO! is going through a generational turnover, and with that change comes the passing of leadership roles to a capable, younger generation.
“AYO! is looking at engaging a younger generation of urban Indigenous youth leaders who want to get involved. (We want to) create space where they can step into leadership roles and share their gifts, and then we will be there as mentors and helpers to support their idea,” Champagne says. “So I can’t tell you what it is we are going to be doing, because it’s up to them.”
Meet Me @ the Bell Tower happens every Friday at 6 p.m. at Selkirk Avenue and Powers Street. Find more about AYO! at ayomovement.com or find them on Facebook.