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.

A female clown falls over toward her left hand, as she tries to sit on another female clown's lap.

Meet Ilana Levy, Founder of CaliClown

Do you ever wonder about CWB – USA’s amazing partners? We’re sitting down with project partners from around the world to talk about their organization and its relationship to CWB! Ilana Levy, founder of CaliClown and ClownEncuentro talks professionalism and forging her own path. 

How did you start clowning?

I was 24 when I moved to Mexico and met hospital clowns. I was shocked! I didn’t know that this existed. For me it was the perfect job: service to the community, visiting the sick, putting on a costume and making fun of myself.

I volunteered with Bolaroja in Peru, as part of Patch Adams’ work. I felt very uncomfortable. I could feel the power of wearing the nose, of the audience looking at me, but I didn’t have the tools to be a clown.

So I started training. In 2010, I went to ClownEncunetro and met Barnaby King and Moshe Cohen. Meeting Moshe and learning about CWB blew my mind.

What I saw from Patch was volunteers doing something special. When I saw CWB and the commitment and professionalism of CWB, I thought, this is where I want to be.

Why did you start CaliClown

Lots of happy clowns and kids crowd forward to make silly faces at the camera.
Ilana (far right) poses with audience members at ClownEncuentro.

I couldn’t find anyone doing exactly what I wanted, and so I followed my impulse and created it.

In Spanish we say resignificar, which I guess you could translate as “redefine.” I wanted to redefine the role of the clown. In Cali we have clowns who work in the circus and clowns who perform on the street. We also use clown as a little bit of a bad word, for a politician or a kid who has done something wrong.  I want to resignificar the clown for other scenarios.

How did you start working with CWB

I knew that I wanted CaliClown to be professional and we knew that we wanted to take clowns to the community. Clowns Without Borders was the best group to help us do that. So I asked Moshe—and he came.

The first show we ever did was with Moshe. We were in a flavella on the mountains in Cali. I worked so hard with the contact to set it up. We had been there before, but just to play, not for a performance. We were so excited.

When we arrived, there was no audience. Not a single child. I asked our contact, Diego, “What happened?” He explained there was a shooting the night before, right where we were standing to do our show. People had been killed. People were scared because they didn’t know which gang the clowns were part of.

I was sure we had to cancel, and I said, “Moshe, we need a plan B.” But he said, “No No. No. If Diego says it is okay, We will do a parade. We will go to the houses and invite the children. They will join our parade and then at the end of the show we will make a parade and bring each child home.”

And so we did.

This year, CWB and ClownEncuentro tried something new: the workshop focused on techniques for “social clowning,” and participants created a CWB-style show to perform at a school. What did you notice about that process?

In all these years we’ve learned that volunteering is very nice, but to really make a transformation or really push a button in society, we need professional clowns. So many people tell me they want to be a hospital clown, but before you are a hospital clown, you must first be a good clown. And so that is what we try to teach at ClownEncuentro.

Hannah [Gaff] led CWB’s workshop, and together the participants created a show to perform at a home for girls in protective services.

It is so important to play and create as equals. We see in the group that people have different abilities and experiences, but Clowns Without Borders reminds us that we are equals as artists. It is something we never take for granted. That is the humanity that is the basis of humanitarian clowns.

And what about the mini-project after Clown Encuentro?

ClownEncuentro participants gather for a family portrait, dressed in their outrageous costumes.
Clown family portrait at ClownEncuentro

We had this crazy idea to create a totally new show and do a mini tour after the festival. There are so many great moments from it.

One woman said, “It was the first time my kid saw clowns, and she loved it,” and a girl said, “I’m afraid of clowns, but I wasn’t afraid of you.” Or at this place for kids who live on the streets, a teacher said, “I have never before seen the kids sitting down and paying attention for a full hour. They really connected to you.”

Maybe one of the best parts was the audience response to one of the acts. In the act, two clowns have a picnic, and one clown throws her trash in the ocean. Then, the other clown is supposed to get mad. But before the other clown could act, the audience would. Kids would get up, pick up the trash, and scold the clowns. Even my daughter, who’s two and a half years old, got up. It was beautiful to see.

What’s next for you and CaliClown?

Taking a training in Waldorf pedagogy for emergency intervention. The idea is to start teaming up with social workers so that we can bring the clown interventions a bit deeper and to start thinking of projects where we can do a long term impact!

Facts on Funny Femmes

With hard work, commitment, and a funny-bone, anyone can be a clown. But, CWB – USA knows that certain histories aren’t as widely shared as they should be. Guest writer Beth Grimes draws on her encyclopedic entertainment history knowledge to talk about just how prevalent female clowns really are.

The history of women and femme-identifying clowns is richer than some may imagine. What follows is only a smattering.

Early History

Women were jugglers and acrobats in the courts of ancient Egypt, as depicted in tomb paintings from around the year 2000 BCE. They portrayed comic roles in ancient Greek theater, including Phylax comic theater, dating back to the 5th century BCE. Women were even fools and jesters for European aristocracy until the 16th century AD, when the church began condemning their roles in theater and comic entertainment by deeming it immodest. “Jest books,” or books of jokes and quips written by men, became popular during this time, redefining the role of a woman in comedy by her ability to laugh at a man’s jokes rather than tell a joke herself.

Female comics turned to the stage with commedia dell’arte, a campy, comical theater form that was free from theological regulation. It was through this medium, originating in the 16th century, that the modern “clown” began to take shape.

The 18th century saw the birth of what we call “circus,” beginning with Phillip Astley’s Royal Amphitheater in London, in 1773. In 1846, The Royal Amphitheater provided a venue for the first performances, and subsequent newspaper mentions, of “female clowns.” Twelve years later, Amelia Butler was considered the first female circus clown in the United States. More names begin to trickle in: Mlle. Emille with Alhambra Circus (1863); Mlle. Silvia Christoff, “The World’s Only Female Clown (1867); and Ada Isaacs (1869) were the toast of Europe for over a decade. By the end of the 19th century, women were proving that they could indeed tell a joke.

Circus and Vaudeville

From 1895–1899 circuses held bidding wars over lady clowns. In 1895, Evetta Matthews (sometimes billed as Evetta Williams) was hired by the Barnum & Bailey show to be a “lady clown” headliner, a previously unheard of stunt. Evetta stated, “I believe that a woman can do anything for living that a man can do, and do it just as well as a man. All my people laughed at me when I told them that I was going into the ring as a clown. But they do not laugh now, when they see that I can keep an engagement all the time and earn as much or more money than they can in other branches of the business.” The tour was such a success that other circuses began to compete over how many lady clowns they could have on their bills, some boasting as many as four. The gender imbalance remained, since some large circuses at that time had 30 clowns or more.

The English music halls of and the American circuit provided other venues for female comics. Some dressed as, or presented themselves as men, even centering their routines on proper ways to treat women. They dubbed themselves “mashers” and were the godparents of modern drag kings. Others were literal mothers to famous comics. Silent comic Buster Keaton’s mother, Myra, was the first female professional saxophone player and also a champion physical comedienne.

Vaudeville gave way to the dawn of film, and women began to own the screen as well as the stage. One such comedienne, Gale Henry (also known as the inspiration for the character Olive Oyl, formed her own silent film company in 1916 and eventually starred in over 236 comedies from 1913–1933. Her films were ahead of their time, dealing with gender roles, exploring the possibilities of women running the city fire department (Her First Flame, 1919), and running a detective agency (The Detectress, 1919).

Movies and Television

The advent of sound brought the dawn of television. Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, and Gilda Radner are just a few drops in the proverbial ocean of commediennes who found fame on TV. Phyllis Diller, a stand-up comic who became a household name through television, wore gloves to designate herself as a clown. She stated “I had to wear gloves because all clowns wear gloves.”

These pioneers set the stage for the women clowns of today. Just to name a few: Iryna Ivanytska has gained world acclaim, with her wild wig and fuzzy shoes, as lead clown “Boom” in the theatrical clown show “Aga-Boom”. Pepa Plana of Catalonia helped develop Cirque du Soleil’s “Amaluna”. Her theater shows range from clown interpretations of classic works of literature to political statements on human migration. Gardi Hutter of Switzerland is famous for her washer-woman clown, and specializes in characterizing “female non-virtues,” tossing poise and beauty aside while still conveying a sense of artistry. Amanda Crockett is a physical comic based in Chicago, Illinois, who incorporates juggling and trapeze into her acts, and is a definitive modern vaudevillian.

There are as many women of comedy as there are stars in the sky. We continue to prove that we, indeed, are funny, and always have been.

Naomi and Sarah smile at the camera as they stand on a green lawn

Better Together

CWB – USA board member and CWBI representative Sarah Liane Foster writes about this year’s General Assembly.

Why Does CWBI Hold a General Assembly?

The 2019 Clowns Without Borders International General Assembly was a smashing success, bringing together representatives from each CWB chapter for three busy days of planning, connections, and reflections.

Clowns Without Borders USA is one of 15 Clowns Without Borders chapters around the world. Each chapter has its own projects, budget, and way of working, but we’re all part of Clowns Without Borders International. We share a common purpose, as well as statutes and a code of ethics. CWBI facilitates communication and collaborations between chapters, so that we can all work more efficiently and share resources and best practices. The Board of CWBI is made up of one representative from each chapter, and I have had the honor of being CWB – USA’s International Representative for the past few years.

Here is a video about CWBIthat we made at the 2017 General Assembly. It gives you a sense of the amazing people who make up our organization.

Our 2019–2020 Priorities

This year the GA was hosted by the Swedish chapter, Clowner utan Gränser-Sweden. CWBI representatives from around the world flew into Stockholm and took a bus out to the Swedish countryside. We headed for a summer camp, which the Swedish government provides so that city kids can spend time in the country each year. How great!

Once we arrived, we rearranged some dining hall tables into a big square and the meetings began. We accomplish so much at these in-person meetings—business is addressed and we reestablish personal connections leading to wonderful collaborations between chapters during the year. Last year, CWB – USA collaborated with sister chapters Clowns sans Frontieres (CWB France) and Palhaços sem Fronteiras (CWB Brazil), and we have exciting shared programming on the horizon for 2019.

As the Secretary General of Clowner utan Gränser put it during an exciting (really!) discussion of CWBI’s 2019 budget, the collaborations that have come out of CWBI have been invaluable. On a practical note, without our inter-organizational collaborations, the costs of running programs without collaborations would be much higher. In 2018, 13 joint projects were led by CWB chapters in nine different countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Guatemala, Haiti, Hungary, India, Mexico. (Read more about these collaborations, and CWBI’s work in 2018, in our Annual Report!) On these tours, we shared artistic and administrative practices, improved cost efficiency, and decreased our environmental impact.

Some other highlights of this GA:

  • We had some great discussions around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, a big priority for us.
  • We shared recent and future impact assessments that chapters are conducting around their programming. This is important for improving the quality of our work, and showing to potential funders.
  • We Skyped with Rupesh, the leader of a wonderful group of artists in the process of applying to join CWBI as CWB India!
  • We formed several working groups for the 2019–2020 year. One will consolidate resources from each chapter so we can more easily share with each other.

Huzzah for sharing, growing, and helping each other do our best work! We really are better together.

Sabine hugs a little girl

World Refugee Day 2019

World Refugee Day is meant to highlight the accomplishments and struggles of refugees. The most recent numbers published by UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) are troubling: There’s been an increase in the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide. In the past 20 years, the number of displaced people has doubled.

Types of Displacement

Clowns Without Borders works with people experiencing crisis, and crisis almost always involves some form of displacement. Internally displaced people (IDP) might be forced to move within their own nation due to political turmoil or natural disaster.

Migrants are people who leave their country in search of a safer or more stable life—their decision to leave is often based on a history of violence or colonialism in their home country. Immigrants seek permanent residence in a new country.

Refugees and asylum seekers are often conflated, but the terms have specific definitions: A refugee is someone who flees their country of origin and is unable or unwilling to return based on war, violence, or persecution. Refugee status is determined by national governments or the UNHCR, and in the United States a refugee may become a permanent resident and citizen.

Asylum seekers are people who request international protection, but their refugee status has not yet been determined. Critically, asylum seekers must ask for protection when they arrive at the border of a new country. There is no way to request asylum, a visa, or entry to the United States in advance, so arriving at a border and requesting entry is legal under U.S. and international law.

Stateless people are those who are denied nationality by their home or host nation. These people are held outside of most economic life, and have limited educational opportunities. Refugees, asylum seekers, migrants and IDPs can all be stateless people.

New Reality

According the UNHCR’s latest numbers, there were 70.8 million people forcibly displaced at the end of 2018. That’s 2.3 million more people than last year, and may not accurately represent global displacement. The economic and political crisis in Venezuela is only partly reflected by these numbers. Watch the short video below to get a sense of where refugees come from:

International Rescue Committee’s president released the following statement:

“With humanitarian budgets continually under-funded, and the laws of war meant to protect civilians constantly broken, we are failing displaced people — especially women and girls — who have fled for their lives and simply want to find safety.”

You can read the rest of his statement here.

CWB – USA’s mission is to share resilience through laughter by providing psycho-social support to people experiencing crisis. We are lucky to see the strength, warmth, and creativity of displaced people all around the world. Today and every day, we stand with them.

Jan balances a hoop on his chin

A Beacon For Play

Nose matter which way you look at it, that bright red honker announces, “Something different is about to happen!”

In the United States, red noses are sometimes associated with negative perceptions of circus. CWB – USA board member Sarah Liane Foster says, “I stopped wearing a red nose in the U.S. because it has become such a weird symbol. People don’t see it as a mask or the way a character looks, they just see a ‘scary’ clown.” That said, CWB performs globally, and non-U.S. communities often have a positive reaction to clown noses. Bekah Smith says it’s a symbol of lightheartedness, an invitation to play, and an opportunity to initiate interactions with strangers.

Some CWB artists wear a nose depending on the type of circus art they’ll perform in a show. “I only wear a nose for my CWB work,” says Montana DeBor. “As someone who identifies primarily as an aerialist, I feel very honored to wear a clown nose.” Once her nose is on, Montana says she’s in character and ready to play and communicate as a clown. “I put it on early and it’s the last thing I take off. The timing matters. In Haiti, we would be in the back of a pickup truck, and put our noses on. I definitely got some strange looks, but it was worth it to arrive and be ready to clown!”

Some CWB artists perform sans-red nose, no matter where in the world they happen to be. CWB – USA founder Moshe Cohen never wears a nose, because he wants to share the human nature of the humor. “I feel I can better do that without a nose,” he says. Moshe points out that the nose exists for audience members to identify the clown as Other. That can be helpful, especially when a clown is living through rough-and-tumble slapstick experiences, or, as Sarah describes it, the “sublime stupidity” of clowning. But Moshe thinks the red-nose clown becomes too separate, and he endeavors to clown without becoming the Other. “If I can do that, it touches a different piece inside people,” he says.

Bekha juggles in a cement bunker

What Is Protracted Displacement?

What does displacement look like?

The UNHCR estimates there are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide: 40 million internally displaced people (IDP); 25.4 million refugees; and 3.1 million asylum seekers. There are also an estimated 10 million stateless people, or people who are denied nationality. In these terms, “displacement” means someone who is forcibly moved or removed due to armed conflict, violence, human rights violations or natural/human-made disasters. Displacement mobilizes CWB into action because our tours respond to people experiencing crisis. When a project partner asks us to come share laughter, we do our best to oblige. But as global politics shift and change, late-20th century and early-21st century displacement has started to take on a distinct quality: protraction.

Is displacement changing?

Thanks to our news cycle in the United States, it’s easy to picture acute crises like earthquakes or bombings. It’s more difficult to conceptualize protracted displacement caused by intersecting problems like lack of water resources due to agricultural mismanagement and climate change, or civil war resulting from the legacy of colonialism. The UNHCR defines protracted displacement as displacement for five years or more, yet from 1974–2014 fewer than one refugee crisis in 40 was resolved within three years. In fact, more than 80 percent of all refugee crises lasted for 10 years or more.

How does CWB respond to protracted displacement?

CWB frequently interacts with communities experiencing protracted displacement, including our 2018 tours to Colombia (Coastal Tour and The Department of Cauca), Lebanon and Myanmar. The media image of refugee camps does not reflect reality for many people experiencing protracted displacement. It’s an increasingly urban and dispersed phenomenon, with (in 2015) at least 59 percent of all refugees living in urban settings. The increasing frequency and length of protracted displacement results in migrant and IDP situations that challenge preconceived ideas of what a crisis looks like. For example, many refugee camps are essentially settled, with established systems of support both formal and informal. But does that mean people no longer live in crisis? What kind of role does laughter and levity play in situations that feel intractable instead of sudden?

We’ve found that, along with planned performances, CWB tours help carve out space for communities to come together over joy. Communities constantly build their own resilience, but play and silliness help reinforce an opportunity to forge connections within protracted displacement.

Paused train with migrants standing on top

The Spontaneous Solidarity of Migration

Thank you to Clowns Without Borders USA board president David Rosenthal, and board member Tim Cunningham for their contributions to this blog!

At this moment, CWB – USA artists are on tour in Mexico, traveling north with a caravan of migrants. Within the U.S. media, this caravan, and others like it, is met with a rhetoric of fear and xenophobia. Yet, as CWB clowns travel with migrants who seek asylum, safety and peace, they witness beauty and share joy. Migrants everywhere experience danger, violence and opportunists, and this is amplified in situations of resource scarcity. But when CWB artists put on their red nose and open their heart, they tend to encounter the best in others.

Clowns and Caravans

Historically, caravans were nomadic communities of traders or pilgrims, who crossed large swaths of land, mostly in North African desserts and parts of Asia. The word evoked a sense of community, collectivity and planned migration from one place to the next. Caravans were also traveling circuses. Groups of artists arrived to share a few days of laughter with remote communities, and then moved on to the next town. The arrival of clowns and performers was one of joy—it brought eager anticipation. This tradition continues today. Ringing Brother’s and Barnum and Baileys’ circus travelled by train (actually, two) from 1907 – 2015.

mural of migrant man

It’s fitting that CWB clowns travel with the migrant caravan—a new kind of caravan that has shifted in purpose to reflect recent history. Global stability is threatened by war, poverty and climate change, so asylum seekers, refugees and migrants form caravans. Instead of waiting for the traveling circus to come, or deciding to move when the time is right, migrants are forced to pick up and find a new, hopefully better, home. While our clowns perform for communities in protracted displacement, they also walk along streets, trails and dried river banks to be with migrant communities. Both the clowns and the migrants bring only what they can carry. And when the clowns stop to perform, a spontaneous group forms around them, sharing laughter and joy.

Clowns pose on grassy train tracks

People in Search of Peace

In the U.S. media, the migrant caravan is described as dangerous. In the experience of CWB clowns, that’s simply not true. The migrant caravan, like caravans throughout time, is a group of people joining together in search of a better life. Derrick Gilday, an artist currently on tour in Mexico, writes about a beautiful moment in which the clowns performed for a migrant community, and then saw the same people a few days later, further north. “We saw people from all three locations that we had performed at, along the way, and we began sharing blessings, smiles and memories as if we had known each other for many years. The energy was incredibly intense, beautiful and life-changing.” When people gather for a CWB – USA performance, relative strangers come together, playing, singing, and dancing. Shouldn’t everyone have that opportunity?

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