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Parents and children laugh during a show in Mexico

When Children Take the Lead: New UN Report

The United Nations Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence Against Children recently published a report titled “When children take the lead: 10 child participation approaches to tackle violence.” This report draws parallels between the development of the internet and the enactment of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Both offer unprecedented participatory access, affecting global perspectives on childhood. But have access and participation generated lasting change over the past 30 years? The report presents a case study of 10 different child-participation programs, each one aimed at preventing violence.

Child Participation

The UNCRC changed the way children are viewed—they are active participants in their own lives, with distinct rights and perspectives on their own best interests. Clowns Without Borders adheres to the UNCRC as a guiding document, and knows that the child leads in every clowning interaction. As any CWB artist will tell you, kids know what they like. Our tours are constant works in process as artists tweak their acts to better resonate with audience reactions .

Perhaps one of the most groundbreaking aspects of the UNCRC is its provision that children express their views on matters concerning their own lives, and that their views be taken seriously by governments and other authorities. The Convention is legally binding. Yet children’s voices are conspicuously absent from global debates and, even worse, prominent youth activists are often derided for their age despite holding unique rights and privileges to speak on issues concerning their own lives. Child participation requires inclusion and mutual respect from adults. The “When children take the lead” report found that children increasingly take initiative and create participatory spaces for themselves.

Internet Access and Getting Results

The report suggests that many children see adults seamlessly interact with their phones, treating them as personal assistants with instant answers—in other words, using their device to exert control over their own lives. As more and more children access the internet and become similarly accustomed to participation, control, and results, how will that influence their expectations of decision-making power? Are governments and other authorities ready to allow children’s participation to yield actual results and policy decisions?

After all, children wield the power of the internet to generate massive and impactful action. They don’t have to wait for adult-granted spaces. “When children take the lead” finds:

This growing power to participate, coupled with the means to do so, is making headlines. For example, in 2009, aged just 11, Malala Yousafzai wrote a blog under a pseudonym for the BBC Urdu service about her life during the Taliban occupa on of Swat, Pakistan, which encouraged a movement advocating for girls’ rights to education and won her the 2014 Nobel Prize.

There are so many others: the Chilean students’ movement in 2011; the ‘bucket challenge’ that went viral in 2014 using social media to tell a global audience about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, with over 17 million people posting videos online; and the ‘Not Too Young To Run’ campaign in Nigeria to reduce the age limit for running for elected office, which has now turned into a larger global movement. We have seen 16 and 17 year-olds expressing their disappointment that they could not vote in the UK’s 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum in 2016; the 2018 March for our Lives campaign, with adolescents organizing one of the biggest youth-led protests in the USA since the Viet Nam war; and Greta Thunberg mobilizing thousands around climate change.

Case Studies

Silenced children cannot self-advocate nor make change. It’s clear that children are eager to participate, but are decision-makers ready to accept what they have to say? “When children take the lead” examined 10 different initiatives, including governmental, NGO and civil society programs. Two are global, two are multilateral (Malawi and Guatemala, and Nigeria and USA), one is regionally based in Europe, and the remaining five hail from Chile, India, Tanzania, Malaysia, Mexico. They cover a range of issues pertaining to violence against children, including bullying, gender-based violence and child marriage, labor, and LGBTQ+ discrimination.

The report goes on to classify each initiative based on its type of child participation. For example, did children come up with the idea? Do they implement its programming? Finally, the report questions whether children are beneficiaries, partners, and/or leaders in the initiative. “When children take the lead” concludes that the most successful case studies are those that allow children to design and lead based on issues they have identified, and which encourage peer-to-peer approaches. The successful initiatives have clear achievements and ongoing participation.

Click here to learn more about the 10 case studies and specific findings!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kolleen blows bubbles in Lesvos

Ethical Volunteering

Did you know that all Clowns Without Borders artists volunteer their time during a tour? These professionals donate their abilities and expertise to craft responsive, culturally humble performance tours that create space for levity amidst crisis.

Code of Ethics

CWB tours all over the world. Each community is different, each crisis is different, and every volunteer situation is infinitely complex. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, or like we can’t possibly understand everything we need to know about the communities we serve. And that’s true. As outsiders we cannot know what it’s like to live through the crisis our audience is experiencing. Making assumptions will only take us further away from listening to our audiences. Instead, we lead with empathy, local wisdom, and cultural humility.

Clowns Without Borders International has a Code of Ethics, to which all chapters adhere. The Code of Ethics guides staff, performer, and non-performing volunteer behavior before, during, and after a tour. It states that CWB artists are not on tour to impart a “point of view,” nor may they “educate” the population they’re serving. The Code of Ethics also asks that artists continue to share their experiences after they return home, spreading awareness about crises of forced displacement.

How We Work

The ethics of volunteering extends beyond artist and staff behavior, and deep into how we organize a tour from the very beginning. Perhaps most importantly, CWB only goes where it’s invited. That means we know the communities we serve asked for our presence. We trust our community partners to tell us if our presence is appropriate, or if the arrival of clowns could threaten or strain the community. There’s a lot of safety and trust to be gained when we know people want our performances.

We always work with a local organization and almost always include local artists on a performance team. Audiences may connect more freely with performers who look like them and speak their language. A local organization can provide invaluable guidance and leadership for logistics, safety, and cultural sensitivity. The wisdom of our project partners and diverse performing teams allows us to create culturally humble and appropriate performances.

Voluntoursim

Volunteering can easily transform into voluntourism: when an outside organization creates short-term volunteer experiences solely for the benefit of the unskilled volunteer, and with little regard for a community’s needs. Voluntoursim feeds the volunteer’s ego and sense of accomplishment. CWB addresses voluntourism through the mechanisms described above: Waiting for a community’s request; working with expert artists and educators; and following the lead of local organizers.

But don’t CWB tours fly in, perform, and then leave? Aren’t fleeting clown performances pretty short-term? How do we know our performances are creating the kind of lasting impact the community desires? It’s true that CWB artists enter and leave communities in a short period of time. But we have a few practices to address our short-term presence:

  • CWB doesn’t exchange anything except laughter. We don’t give away supplies, because we’re there to celebrate the abundance of joy within a community. Our performances are always free and everyone is welcome. There’s no queue to stand in or requirements to be met.
  • CWB often returns to communities because our performances and workshops are repeatedly requested.
  • Voluntourism sets the outsider up as the expert. As outsider clowns, CWB artists are the butt of jokes, the listeners, the cheerleaders, and the fools who just don’t get how daily life is supposed to function. Our audiences and community partners are the experts. As CWB – USA artist Leora Sapon-Shevin says, “Hierarchy is a barrier to connecting with others because it denies both parties their sense of humanity. There’s a real sense of presence in social clowning, of openness to what others are offering.
  • Our three-year strategic plan includes developing an assessment matrix for long-term impact and support for long-term partnerships with Cali Clown in Colombia, and Diyar Theatre in Palestine.
  • Audience laughter and post-show feedback gives us an immediate sense of whether our presence is wanted, or not! Read some audience feedback from Palestine, here.

First-time CWB artists talk about their experiences on tour:

Clown School: An Interview With Selena McMahan

In this series, CWB – USA interviews artists and educators about their experience in clown school. Next up, CWB’s Communications Director Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone talks to CWB – USA board member Selena McMahan, a graduate of The Jacques Lecoq School.

Selena is an actor-clown with the Parisian hospital clown company Le Rire Médecin and a teaching artist with Association Peekaboo! She is also the artistic director of “Inclownito.”

Nicole: How and when did you first start clowning?

Selena: My path was kind of roundabout. I went to liberal arts undergrad at Bowdoin, where I self-designed my own major. I was doing theater and dance when I heard that Moshe [Cohen, founder of CWB – USA] was teaching a workshop in Brooklyn. I had seen Moshe perform when I was a child and I knew that CWB existed, so I knew who he was. Certain people stood out to me at the workshop with their strong understanding of clown, and they all had Pochinko clown training in common.

The workshop got me interested in further training. I came across John Turner [founder of The Clown Farm, now known as Manitoulin Conservatory for Creation and Performance, which is rooted in the work of Richard Pochinko], who teaches on an island in northern Ontario, and I did a workshop with the New York Goofs [now Laughter League].

Nicole: What happened next?

Selena: After those trainings, I heard about the Watson Fellowship, which grants funding to recently-graduated students so they can design and pursue a project outside of the U.S. The first thing that came to mind was CWB. I had heard more about CWB at Moshe’s workshop, and I realized that’s what I wanted to do. I got the grant, propelling me into the work itself without having too much formal training. CWB allowed me to join a tour as the “clown schlepper,” but eventually the other artists decided I could just be in the show. I visited and performed with a lot of hospital clowns and was able to do weekly training in Brazil.

Nicole: How did your year as a Watson Fellow impact your future decisions about clown training?

Selena: After that year, I thought I should pursue more formal training and I considered going to Dell’Arte because I was exposed to lots of performers who had studied there. But the people who stood out to me in with amazing listening skills in their hospital clown work, had all gone to the Jacques Lecoq School. I had heard all kinds of not-so-great things about the culture of the school, but I decided I needed to go there. It helped that I spent time in France as a kid, so it was relatively easy to move to Paris.

Nicole: What kinds of not-so-great things did you hear? And despite that, it still seemed like the right place?

Selena: Pochinko went to Lecoq, but might have been kind of kicked out in the middle of the first year. His clown is inspired by that school, but so much freer, more mystical, spiritual, and intuitive. So in a way, I went from the more intuitive training—just going for it with performing—to a much more formal training afterward. I had already broken out, so I wanted to adhere to more formal training.

Nicole: What is the Lecoq School like?

Selena: I learned so much there. The environment is very…strict, or formal. But the pedagogy is amazing. When I think back to the performers I saw who had gone there, they had this ability to make something out of nothing. The school teaches that skill with a strong rigor. It’s about how to build a scene, a universe, write a script, a climax, and create a surprise at the end. It’s the science of building things that are invisible. To do it, you analyze human behavior and see it through different lenses. Each week, I felt like I was seeing a new world. It was an amazing experience.

Nicole: What does the application require?

Selena: It’s pretty straight forward. You write a motivation letter and send a resume. But my first year, there were 90 students to start and they might not ask you back at the end of the first trimester, and then they cut down to 30 students after the first year. The whole first year is an audition. So that part is harsh.

Nicole: How did you feel coming out of that process?

Selena: After school I worked to regain my sense of freedom, to not feel locked into the formality. Today, when I think about myself, I have a balance between the intuition and the formal training. Now, my work as a hospital clown is all improvisation. Recently, I’ve felt able to meld those two perspectives. I don’t lose sight of how to create a strong scenario. It’s in the back of my mind but I’m able to be present and free. I’ve studied with a lot of people since then, but most of the training I’ve done is connected to hospital clown work. It’s about fine-tuning things, like a theater muscle workout. The basic building blocks of my training are Pochinko and Lecoq. Those are the revolutionary ones, and everything since then has been coaching.

Nicole: What advice do you have for people who are researching clown school?

Selena: People need to know whether they want to perform or whether they want to expand themselves. If clown school is to expand your horizons, you might want a teacher who’s more generous and good at watching out for their students. Look for workshops and descriptions that excite you, and that sound like a caring environment. If you really want to perform, you should work with a teacher who understands the building blocks of clown and will help you structure your performances, pull out your best clown character, and push your limits.

Another approach is to seek out alumni of institutions you’re interested in, but which might require more years of training than you’re ready to commit. As the years go by, I really get the sense that great clown pedagogy comes from a specific lineage. I see disciples of clown masters I’ve studied with put their own spin on teaching, and I can see the lineages of pedagogy.

Resources

Selena recommends the following teachers and school as a resource for artists interested in the Lecoq tradition: 

Ami Hattab 

 

Hélène Gustin

 

Lory Leshin 

 

Clown school in tradition of Lecoq but much more focused on clown:

 

Interested in the hospital clown program Selena works for? You can train with them!

 

 

Clowns shot from the back, facing an audience seated on a hillside

What Does “Internally Displaced Person” Mean?

Internally Displaced Person, or IDP, refers to someone who is forced to flee their home but remains within their country of origin. Refugees may cross national boundaries to seek safety, but IDPs are unable, or choose not, to do so. They often remain beyond the reach of humanitarian services because of unsafe conditions within their home country. At the end of 2019, 50.8 million people were internally displaced.

Forty-two percent of all IDPs are in three countries: 7.9 million people in Colombia; 6.1 million people in Syria; and 4.5 million people in Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some countries, like Ukraine and Ethiopia, have an IDP crisis but not a refugee crisis. Critically, IDPs lack special status under international law, unlike refugees. Refugees are supposed to be awarded rights specific to their situation. The United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement sets out the obligations of national governments toward IDPs, but it is not international law.

IDPs and Urbanization

The majority of IDPs live outside formal camps, further separating them from services. As the world’s population becomes more urbanized overall, IDPs follow suit. Many flee from rural to urban settings because of livelihood loss due to climate change, natural or human-made disaster, or infrastructure projects like dams or forestry. People are at risk of continued displacement within urban settings because of urban development that pushes into informal, impoverished, or semi-urban fringe areas of cities. In informal, resource-scarce settings, urban residents may see an influx of IDPs as competition, putting them at increased risk of violence and discrimination.

Urban density presents an opportunity for IDPs to access services. However, they may be denied services like education, housing support, and healthcare because of lack of documentation. The registration system within formal refugee camps allows people to be counted and, in theory, receive the services they need.

CWB – USA and IDPs

Clowns Without Borders USA is proud to serve IDPs. We toured to Myanmar at the end of 2018 and performed a mine safety show for IDPs, in partnership with Mines Advisory Group. In Brazil, the Indigenous communities we served survive under constant threat of displacement due to agricultural intrusion onto their lands. We toured Colombia with Cali Clown and worked with youth who are at risk for gang recruitment. Colombia, which is home to 7.9 million IDPs, has experienced repeated displacement due to civil war, gang violence, natural disasters, and climate change-induced livelihood loss. According to UNICEF, the poorest urban children in Colombia are better able to access services than their rural counterparts, yet they are extremely vulnerable to gang and military recruitment or conscription.

Lebanon 2017

Clown School: An Interview with Hannah Gaff

In this series, CWB – USA interviews artists and educators about their experience in clown and circus school. First up, CWB’s Communications Director Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone talks to Hannah Gaff, a graduate of Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre and a faculty member at the Clown Conservatory, part of Circus Center in San Francisco.

Nicole: When did you first go to clown school?

Hannah: I attended the one-year program at Dell’Arte in 2008–2009. It’s a physical theater training program and clowning was one part of it. At the time, the director was a clown, so it was the basis of his teaching. I was accepted into their MFA program but decided not to go because I wanted to start making my own work. I went back five years later to finish my degree.

Nicole: Why did you choose Dell’Arte?

Hannah: I went to Dell’Arte straight out of undergrad. I loved theater, but I didn’t want to enter into the whole audition, memorizing lines thing. It didn’t appeal to me. I chose a physical theater school so I could create my own work and break out of the box I was in, the roles I was allowed to play. The physical aspect was the access point. It served as a tool for storytelling that bypasses the intellectual. My experience at Dell’Arte kind of blew my mind. I started to understand what it might mean to be an artist and not just an actor. I started to understand my strengths and where I needed to grow. I saw the potential of live performance and how much it can impact people.

Nicole: But you decided not to stay and pursue the MFA at that point?

Hannah: I felt like I couldn’t absorb any more information until I went out and made my own work. I moved to NYC for a year, but it wasn’t for me. I moved to California, started a theater company, and learned a ton. I began to understand what I was missing and I developed a vision for the impact I wanted to have. I knew if I studied at Dell’Arte for two more years, I could develop those tools.

Nicole: Now you teach at Clown Conservatory. What should prospective students know about the main differences between Dell’Arte and Clown Conservatory?

Hannah: Dell’Arte, is an ensemble-based physical theater school. The Clown Conservatory is, at the moment, six months of training set up on a part-time schedule, and it’s specifically clown. They call it human cartoon. To my knowledge, it’s one of the only places where you can study clown on its own. 

Nicole: What do you love about the learning environment at Clown Conservatory?

Hannah: There’s something really important about an intensive setting for learning, because you put in an incredible amount of energy and there’s less of a barrier to full immersion. An intensive setting, like a conservatory or degree program, asks you to fully show up every day. It’s great to see how students develop a perspective on the kind of work they want to make, their strengths as a clown, what they want to say in the world, what it means to craft a story, what they want their audience to feel, and how to be with the audience.

Nicole: What advice would you give someone who is trying to choose a clown school, or is wondering whether formal training is right for them?

Hannah: It can be really helpful to write out who you are as an artist. What compels you to be a clown, what pushes you to make that commitment? What do you hope to discover? Do you want to take a class to see what it’s like? Or do you want to create work? It’s never too late, and Dell’Arte sometimes prefers to have older students because they come in with their own perspective.

Nicole: What’s one thing people can expect to gain from clown school?

Hannah: You should be prepared to develop tools of vulnerability. Clowning parallels life, and it’s really transformative. It helps you learn about yourself.

Learn more about the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatere, and Clown Conservatory at the Circus Center

Clowns Without Borders Girl Laughs Hard

How the COVID-19 Pandemic Impacts Refugees

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt and upended people’s sense of security. The unknown, and all its associated stress and fear, has become the new normal.

It’s important to remember that global crises of inequity continue, and worsen, amid the pandemic. Clowns Without Borders International wrote in its statement regarding the human rights catastrophe along EU borders:

“As COVID-19 sweeps the globe, all of us are in search of safety for ourselves and our loved ones. Meanwhile, on the borders of Europe, many people are also in desperate need of safety from war and persecution. How much more difficult is their plight now, in the face of the current global pandemic?”

This statement applies to migrant and refugee crises around the world, not just at the EU border. Displaced people often lack access to basic material resources, face discrimination, and are denied human rights, like clean water, health care, or the ability to travel. How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting some of the most vulnerable people on the planet?

Exposing Weaknesses

According to the UNHCR, over eighty percent of the world’s refugees and almost all internally displaced people (IDP) are hosted in low- or middle-income countries where resources are scarce. If it wasn’t already clear, this pandemic reveals our global community to be as healthy as the sickest person among us and as safe as the most vulnerable. Refugees and migrants often live in crowded conditions where social distancing is impossible, and medical facilities are ill-equipped. The UNHCR has rushed to provide emergency medical equipment and expertise, but it’s a bandaid for a larger wound.

Prevention and Inclusion

The majority of refugees are hosted in countries with weak or inadequate health systems. Stopping the spread of COVID-19 is imperative, and it becomes even more so when few treatment options exist. The UNHCR is using a multisectoral response, which coordinates access to water, sanitation and hygiene, housing, medical care, and more, to support refugee communities and refugee-hosting nations. The agency is also working to stockpile supplies, identify outbreak response teams, and monitor misinformation.

Displaced people experience discrimination and xenophobia, and may even be denied a nationality. Now, fear, a sense of helplessness, and media rhetoric may impact pubic opinion about who “deserves” access to medical care. A coordinated COVID-19 response will not leave anyone behind, no matter their legal status or nationality. A highly contagious disease can only be controlled if everyone is included in prevention and education, and everyone has access to equitable treatment.

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, write:

“Panic and discrimination never solved a crisis. Political leaders must take the lead, earning trust through transparent and timely information, working together for the common good, and empowering people to participate in protecting health.

Ceding space to rumour, fear mongering and hysteria will not only hamper the response but may have broader implications for human rights, the functioning of accountable, democratic institutions.”

Unity

Whether a someone is confined to a camp or fully integrated into a new community—or something in between—refugees and displaced people are vital members of society. They are teachers, farmers, care-givers, artists, engineers and more, and they are working tirelessly to subdue the COVID-19 pandemic:

 

 

  • Even when resources are scarce, members of refugee camps find ways to care for one another.

Lebanon 2018

What Does “Refugee” Mean?

Do you know what makes someone a refugee instead of a migrant or an internally displaced person? The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) defines a refugee as someone who is forced to cross international boundaries because of war, violence, persecution, or conflict.

Numbers and definitions

The UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention (Geneva Convention) defines a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” There are 70 million forcibly displaced people in the world, including at least 25 million registered refugees. Sixty-seven percent of refugees come from only five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia. More than half of all refugees are children.

Where do refugees live?

Refugees are not “overrunning” the United States, contrary to popular media narratives. The U.S., along with most other Global North countries, doesn’t even make the list of the world’s top refugee-hosting nations. Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Uganda host over 10 million refugees, total. Germany hosts 1.1 million refugees, but Eighty percent of all refugees are hosted by a country neighboring their place of origin.

Not all refugees live in camps. In fact, sixty percent of refugees live in urban settings and Turkey hosts the largest urban refugee population in the world. The UNHCR plays a vital role in constructing refugee camps and providing an emergency response to refugee crises, but camps are meant to be temporary. Unfortunately, protracted displacement is common and many children grow up in refugee camps.

What happens to refugees after they leave their country of origin?

The UNHCR identifies three durable solutions to refugee status. The first is voluntary repatriation, meaning a refugee volunteers to return to their country of origin. This might be impossible due to cycles of conflict, or because the country of origin cannot or will not guarantee the safety of returning refugees.

Refugees may be integrated or assimilated into their host country, but the vast majority of refugees are hosted by a small handful of countries. This can put a disproportionate strain on host countries, most of which are geographically adjacent to conflict zones.

Refugee resettlement is the third durable solution. This means a refugee is permanently resettled in a third-party country rather than their host country. The refugee will never be forcibly returned to their country of origin, they will be afforded rights and liberties to integrate into their host society, and they have the opportunity to eventually become a naturalized citizen of the new host country. Refugee resettlement allows countries to act in global solidarity with areas disproportionately affected by refugee crises.

Unfortunately, the need for resettlement far outstrips the global community’s willingness to resettle people. In 2017, for every 21 refugees in need of resettlement, only one person departed to a third-party country. Global resettlement needs jumped from 690,000 people in 2014 to 1.4 million people in 2019. As a result, many refugees live in limbo, without naturalized citizenship and the social integration (access to jobs and education, a sense of acceptance and belonging) that comes from a secure legal status. For example, an estimated 93% of Syrian refugees in Jordan live below the poverty line.

Does CWB serve refugees?

Yes! In the last few years alone, CWB – USA has been honored to perform for refugees in Lebanon, Kakuma Camp in Kenya, throughout Turkey, and in partnership with Refugee Services of Texas. CWB’s code of ethics states that our tours aim to better the situation of children experiencing crisis, no matter where they are or what type of crisis. During CWB’s 2017 tour to Turkey, the performances created an opportunity for Turkish children and Syrian refugee children to share social interactions through play and joy.

All the clowns squeeze inside a wooden picture frame

Empathy, Humanity, and Advocacy Are Not Cancelled

A letter from CWB – USA Executive Director Naomi Shafer: 

Dear Community,

I hope you are well.

I know many of you are experiencing job insecurity, restlessness, anxiety, and travel restrictions. You may not be able to see your family. You may suddenly be in close quarters with your family. Maybe, like me, you had to choose which family members to be with, knowing as you did that it meant saying goodbye to others for an unknown amount of time. These choices are hard, yet they are the choices and restrictions faced by millions of displaced people every day.

Right now, many of us are limited to local actions. Our attention, by necessity, is focused on our families and home communities. With that in mind, CWB will continue to advocate for and serve displaced people within the constraints of a pandemic. As China, the United States, and Western Europe struggle with the toll of COVID-19, displaced people around the world are more vulnerable than ever. The best practices for stopping the spread of infectious disease, such as hand washing and social distancing, are impossible in refugee camps where crowding, water and food scarcity, and limited mobility are the norm.

In this time of pandemic, Clowns Without Borders is unable to serve its primary audience. I find myself wondering, “How can Clowns Without Borders continue?” Tours and performances might be cancelled, but empathy, humanity and advocacy are not . We can all reflect on a shared experience of scarcity and a shared goal of resilience. While CWB cannot reach its primary audience, our staff has created a number of online resources in recognition that we are all experiencing crisis, and that laughter and hope are a universal human right.

As always, our intention is to offer relevant programming for people of all ages.

Stay connected to us in the following ways:

  1. Follow us on Facebook (Clowns Without Borders USA) and Instagram (@clownswithoutborders) to see photos and project blogs from the archives. We’ll post archival material on Sundays and Mondays, respectively.
  2. Check our website every Wednesday for new blogs from a variety of CWB contributors.
  3. Tune in on Thursdays for zoom screenings and panel discussions, and FB Live events.
  4. Check our social feeds on Tuesdays for a weekly caption challenge, and on Fridays for a new coloring book image.
  5. On Saturdays, we’ll amplify our amazing artists by reposting and sharing their work on our social channels.

FREE Live Event : Thursday April 2nd, 4pm EST

Our first live event is a screening of True Clowns and Laughter, followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers.

Paúl Gomex takes us on a journey about what it means to use clowning and laughter as a vehicle for connecting with our fellow humans, and the actual value theater holds in a world dominated by digital interactions. Produced in Bozeman, Montana, by Paúl Gomex and Johnny Holder, this short film features footage from Gomex’s journey through some of the places where laughter is needed the most. Reserve your spot here! 

A clown rides a tiny bicycle

Coloring Without Borders

Like everyone, CWB – USA is still adjusting to the rapid changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since we made the difficult decision to cancel our tour to Colombia, we’ve worked to set up online and social media resources for our community of artists and supporters.

We’re sharing a drawing by artist Evie King as a coloring book page. Evie contributed this drawing to a social circus coloring book organized by Charlie Whitehead and Kate Magram. We hope that coloring this image gives you a quiet activity to do alone, or with family, and away from your screen for a few minutes.

If you want, snap a picture of the finished product and tag us @clownswithoutborders on Instagram or Clowns Without Borders USA on Facebook, so the world can see your creation. Happy coloring!

Find a downloadable link to the image here!

Coloring book 3

 

(Drawing by Evie King)

The Bahamas 2019

Hierarchy Is a Barrier

Leora Sapon-Shevin went on her very first CWB – USA tour this past December. The team, which included Meredith Gordon and Clay Mazing, performed for communities affected by 2019’s Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm. 

Leora sat down with CWB – USA Communications Director Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone to talk about her first tour and the magic of social clowning. 

Nicole: How and why did you start clowning?

Leora: I started clowning because I heard about Clowns Without Borders, and I saw a CWB video. That’s why I went to Dell’Arte.

N: So you were inspired by CWB and then you were finally able to go on a tour?

L: The 2019 tour to The Bahamas was a dream come true and a dream realized. It lived up to every expectation.

N: What drew you to clown in the first place? 

L: Clowning is so magical. I love that magic space between a performer and an audience member. We’re two humans entering into a vulnerable space where anything can happen. Hierarchy is a barrier to connecting with others because it denies both parties their sense of humanity. That vulnerable space allows status to dissolve. In social clowning, there’s a real sense of presence, of openness to what others are offering. 

N: Tell me more about The Bahamas tour. 

L: Meredith Gordon, Clay Mazing, and I toured to The Bahamas in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm. First, we went to Nassau, the capital, which had not sustained any damage and was sheltering people evacuated from other islands. We didn’t know the exact situation of many of the people at the shelter, but the aid workers discouraged us from taking photos and doing shows outside. People at the shelter might have been afraid to leave because of their immigration status. 

[Editor’s note: Many evacuees in Nassau were Haitian migrants from the islands of Great Abaco and Little Abaco, which were devastated by the hurricane. After the storm, the Bahamian government moved to resume deportations.]

N: What was it like to step into a post-natural disaster reality? 

L: It was really comforting to know that we were invited to perform by members of the community, and that they knew we were coming. We could trust that they wanted us there. This felt especially important for me as a white person going into communities that have experienced colonialism and oppression by people who look like me.

N: This might be impossible to answer with words, but how do you assess whether a specific audience is interested in a clown show when they’re reeling from disaster? 

L: It’s important to realize that people might not want what you’re offering, or don’t want it at that moment, or that you’re stepping on someone’s toes. When you enter the space as a clown, you know that what you offer might not land. You make that offer and try not to run away from discomfort. You also have to be able to leave at the right time. A lot of successful clowning is reading your audience, being open to other people suggesting things, and letting go of control and expectations. 

N: What is it like to interact with kids versus adults? 

L: It’s easier for kids to jump right in and access play, because that’s their realm. When you have a mixed audience of adults and kids, the adults will help the kids find a way into the “performance” format, but they often see it as geared toward children. I want to connect with the adults when that happens, because they need it more. They put on a brave face during crisis situations, when being able to play might feel like a luxury, or inappropriate—like they’re taking something from their child by playing. But parents and caregivers are carrying a specific kind of heavy load. It can be really liberating for a child to see an adult doing something silly or playful. It can convey that basic needs are met, that the foundation is stable. If an adult is willing to put energy into play, it signals to the child that there’s something to look forward to as they get older. 

N: What do you have to say to people who think clowns are weird or scary?

L: Clowns exist within their own logic and that’s one of the reasons they’re so powerful. They’re operating outside of the norm, which can be very liberating or very threatening. We’re afraid of things that feel powerful, so it doesn’t surprise me that the “scary clown” trope is popular. 

N: How does “clown logic” help in crisis situations, when everyday life might feel totally abnormal? 

L: Clowns have an ability to offer a different perspective. It makes me think of how a clown can defuse a tense situation by “misunderstanding” what’s happening. Because clowns are outside of social norms, they can see difficult situations as a game. Communities have a social understanding of how situations evolve under tension, and a clown can interrupt that trajectory by purposely misinterpreting it, piercing the tension.  

Kolleen greets kids in Less

The Escalating Migrant Crisis in Greece

CWB – USA shares the following post from our sister-chapter Clowner Utan Gränser (Clowns Without Borders Sweden). It was written by Louise Frisk, CWB-Sweden Secretary General. 

How Many More Children Will Die, As They Try to Live?

“I lost my daughter, his sister, in the ocean last night.”

Lesvos 2015. Those were the words of a Syrian mother, answering my question about whether her son wanted to come and see the CWB performance a few meters away. For a few moments, I felt as lost as them. We were there to meet the children who came ashore, sharing play and laughter after their journey. But what does one say to someone who just lost their daughter in the fight to survive?

It has only been one month since CWB Sweden finished its most recent visit to Lesvos. Our tour was two weeks of playful encounters with children and young people who, despite being forced to live in Moria, the infamous camp called “hell on earth,” showed so much humility, warmth and joy. Two weeks and almost one thousand meetings. We promised to come back this spring. Now I no longer know what is happening.

In recent days, my social media stream has completely exploded with reports of events on the border between Greece and Turkey; political outposts eroding asylum law and the Convention on the Rights of the Child; and attacks on volunteers offering food and shelter to migrants. I see videos showing tear gas clouds and tiny children who cannot breathe. Videos with armed soldiers threatening people on the run. Videos with inflatable rafts that are punctured with sharp sticks and pushed back into the sea. Boats full of people like you and me. Boats with children. Then I read about how a four-year-old Syrian boy drowned off the coast of Greece yesterday. Forty-six people were rescued, but a four-year-old boy died.

My daughter is three-and-a-half. In another world, another time, it could have been her. How many more children will die in the hope of living?

There are still certain principles that need to be adhered to, even in a world that feels really hard to understand. There are still international agreements and laws. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is clear:

Article 6: Children have the right to life, survival and development. Article 22: Children on the run are entitled to protection.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child was made into Swedish law in January of this year. The purpose was to strengthen children’s rights and the children’s perspective in all situations where the child is affected. Where is that perspective when the right to protection is once again eroded? When institutions of power advocate violence against people who have the right to seek asylum?

Each year, Clowner Utan Gränser meets almost 70,000 children around the world. Many of them have been forced to flee from war, violence and persecution. They are children who have the right to live. Children who have the right to develop. Children who are entitled to protection wherever they are.

Today my thoughts go to these children. Today my thoughts go to the children in Greece and Turkey whose statutory rights are threatened and denied. Today my thoughts go to all of you who continue to work for all people to have the right to life and protection. But most of all, my thoughts go to the family whose four-year-old son died yesterday—because the right to life and protection is no longer a given.

 

Haiti 2010

Remembering the 2010 Haiti Earthquake

CWB board member David Lichtenstein reflects on the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake in Port Au Prince, Haiti. 

I have been working with Clowns Without Borders for 21 years and the most intense tour I ever went on was to Port Au Prince, Haiti. Dave Clay, Leah Abel and I arrived two months after that earthquake. It was intense for obvious reasons: It was the worst natural disaster in the world, in the last 50 years, and we were the first non-emergency relief in there. Haiti, a small island only a one-hour flight from Miami. Haiti, the only nation ever founded by a successful slave revolt, with the most beautiful music and people.

Haiti 2010

Conditions were crazy. There were about one million people living in tents, filling up every space in the city, on top of the usual Port Au Prince poverty. Nobody knows the exact number, but the most common estimate now is that 300,000 people died in the quake. We played all the major hospitals in the area. They were set up in tents because the buildings were rubble. Most of our work was in hospital/clinic ward tents and there are no photos of these performances because it was too intimate to take pictures. We were theater clowns who had never worked in a hospital before, but we just did shows and a lot of hugging, hand-shaking, and greeting.

Every day, we hugged kids with brand new limb amputations from where cement had fallen on them. Every day, we heard the loudest laughter and applause I have heard in my life. Every day, people would say things like: “That’s the first time I’ve seen that child smile since she was pulled out of the rubble two months ago.” It was very hot and we performed multiple shows per day. The three of us slept in a three-person tent every night, in a compound protected by barbed wire and an armed security guard. No water for showers most of the time. At both compounds the security guard, one of the lucky few to land a job with an international aid organization, asked for our tent.

Haiti 2010

I often tell the story of the most explosive laughter I ever heard in my life. We had already finished performing at a large hospital grounds and were coming to a second one late in the afternoon, exhausted. We set up in front of a hospital tent in the only open space. Early in the show a loudspeaker announced, “Dr. Chang please come to the operating tent,” and a minute later Dr. Chang walked through the middle of our show and started working on a patient right behind us. We realized that we had set up in front of the operating room, and patients were literally getting their wounds cleaned and watching us at the same time. On the other side of the space, we had a large crowd laughing very hard.

At one point I was improvising with a Haitian security guard. I was on my hands and knees and the guard was sitting on me like a bench, mugging for the crowd getting big, big laughs. I figured, at some point I’ll fall flat to the ground like he’s smashing me, but I have to wait because he keeps playing. Finally, I think it’s the moment and I fall, and the crowd explodes in laughter. There’s an old lady in a wheelchair with a giant cast on one leg from her ankle to her chest, and big metal hardware on the outside of the cast. When I collapse, she laughs so hard that she and her wheelchair tip over. Her fall causes the loudest shock of laughter I have ever heard in my life. Boom: tragedy equals comedy. We picked her up, she seemed to be alright, and we continue with the show. Soon she’s laughing again.

Haiti 2010

Haiti is still recovering, although it’s doing a lot better now.

I want to say something about international aid. Aid in the most needy places in the world doesn’t get spent efficiently; everything becomes more difficult, more expensive, costly mistakes are made. But international aid does help people, and they need help a lot more than we need our next Amazon purchase. The Ebola epidemic in West Africa was completely stopped by outside medical aid, especially Doctors Without Borders and Partners in Health, both excellent organizations. Extreme poverty has been cut by more than half, worldwide, in the last 20 years. That’s huge, with correspondingly huge drops in childhood death from disease and increases in literacy. There is hope for our human future.

 

Photos by Leah Abel

Poki balances on Ania's shoulders, in front of a large outdoor audience

Listen In: CWB On the Air

Progressive Radio Network featured Clowns Without Borders in conversation with host Eleanor LeCain. Executive Director Naomi Shafer, CWB Board Vice President Erin Leigh Crites, and Board Member Sayda Trujillo describe CWB’s work, how clowning can serve the needs of a displaced and vulnerable population, and the ways play and laughter function as community healing. Listen in right here.

Want more? CWB Board Secretary Tim Cunningham was featured on the Just Emergencies podcast with host Rebecca Richards. Listen to Tim talk about his experiences as a nurse after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and during the Ebola outbreak.

 

Brazil 2019

Internally Displaced People and Indigenous Self-Determination

This fall, CWB – USA travels to Matto Grosso do Sul, Brazil sharing laughter with indigenous Guaraní communities facing displacement due to agribusiness incursion on their land. Less than 1.6 percent of Matto Grosso do Sul has been demarcated as indigenous territory, which would theoretically protect the land from industrial development. When indigenous people are prevented from practicing their cultural on their lands, it can be a human rights violation and form of internal displacement.

The UNHCR released 2018’s total number of forcibly displaced people and the results were sobering and staggering: at least 70.8 million people displaced. Out of that total number, 41.3 million are IDPs or Internally Displaced People.

Internally displaced people are those who flee violence, conflict, natural disaster or human rights violations, like other displaced people. But IDPs remain within their national boundaries, often beyond the reach of aid or other resources. CWB – USA frequently performs for IDPs, whether they are affected by political conflict, natural disaster, or both.

Indigenous people, who have survived centuries of colonialism, are particularly vulnerable. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People states that indigenous people may not be relocated without their free, prior, and informed consent. However, the UNHCR definition of IDPs does not automatically include indigenous people, most of whom have been actively displaced off of their ancestral lands.

For many indigenous people, connection to land is more than a matter of livelihood—it holds essential cultural and spiritual meaning, as well. The struggle toward indigenous self-determination is a struggle against internal displacement perpetuated by colonialism. It’s also a struggle on the front lines of the climate crisis.

Two and a half billion people rely on indigenous or communally-held lands for their livelihood, amounting to approximately 50 percent of land on earth. Yet these people legally own only one-fifth of communal and/or indigenous land. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change weighed in, with a report supporting land-tenure security for indigenous and commonly-held lands because they are a significant carbon sink, less likely to be deforested, and more.

In August, 2019, internal displacement and indigenous self-determination took center stage in Brazil and Mexico. The Zapatista community in Chiapas announced a major expansion of their autonomous territories. CWB – USA has a long and warm history with the Zapatistas, starting in the mid-1990s when the communities were engaged in armed struggle against the Mexican government. Simultaneously, the world looked on in horror as parts of the Amazon rainforest burned. Fires have increased 83 percent since last year, and are likely started by farmers and ranchers looking to clear land. Though the fires will certainly cause an unimaginable loss of rainforest biodiversity, they also destroy the homes of indigenous communities dedicated to defending and cultivating their land.

CWB looks forward to working with the resilient Guaraní people and learning more about their ongoing fight for self-determination.

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