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Clowns balance in Puerto Rico

The Escalating Austerity Crisis in Puerto Rico

On May 1, 2018, tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets in San Juan, Puerto Rico. May Day, or International Workers’ Day, is a global day of recognition for labor and is often marked by protests and demonstrations.

The island is still reeling from 2017’s Hurricane Maria, and now the 2018 hurricane season is fast approaching. In late January, 2018, FEMA declared “mission accomplished,” and then quickly backpedaled and blamed misinterpretation after receiving intense criticism for the way the agency handled the disaster. Puerto Ricans have waited eight months for help. Instead, our fellow U.S. citizens continue to endure botched FEMA contracts, mismanagement on the part of Prepa, and the indignity of a president (who they cannot vote for) throwing paper towels at survivors and picking twitter fights with rescuers. In March, 2018, mental health crisis calls were up by 246 percent since the same time last year. Thousands of people have emigrated to the U.S. mainland, perhaps permanently. People are still living without electricity.

These widely reported facts bear repeating, because they have not inspired political will on the part of lawmakers responsible for the well-being of Puerto Rican people. Because of its debt crisis, Puerto Rico is beholden to a 2016 federal law called Promesa, which extends bankruptcy protections but requires the island to submit to the rule of an unelected Financial Oversight and Management Board, along with U.S.-supervised economic restructuring of its debt. The governor may draft an economic plan, but it must be certified by the oversight board. As a result, many of the U.S.-favored austerity measures are in conflict with the wishes of Puerto Rican people.

With privatization, job loss and disenfranchisement looming, and no government-proposed solution for the rapid restoration of infrastructure, it’s no wonder that people took to the streets.

 

Kolleen blows bubbles in Lesvos

What Difference Does a Clown Make?

Welcome to a new blog series, with contributions by CWB – USA’s wonderful board members!

Board member Tim Cunningham is a graduate of the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre (’01) and has performed with CWB in 11 countries outside of the United States. Within the borders of the US, Cunningham has performed, lectured and facilitated workshops about CWB’s mission and work at universities and high schools. He received his doctoral degree from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Board president David Rosenthal is currently an Associate Professor and the Director of Management Programs in Health Policy and Management in the Mailman School of Public Health and a behavioral faculty member in the Center for Family and Community Medicine, Columbia University.

CWB – USA often fields questions about the effectiveness of our work. Are we making any difference in peoples lives? Isn’t it frivolous to bring clowns into disaster situations when people are in need of food, water, and shelter? Years ago, a CWB donor lambasted us for “only” bringing clowns. This person asked us, “Why can’t you bring shoes as well? Or other clothing items to give away?” We explained that with just clowns, there is an entire realm of intangible, yet essential, healing that can take place.

And yes, the donor decided to continue contributing!

As you follow this blog, consider reading the footnotes and references. We (Tim and David) are recovering academics and it’s hard for us to write anything that doesn’t include citations. They’re here to support our work and to help answer the question: “Why Clowns Without Borders?”

Living Without Laughter

First, imagine that you’re 10 years old. You’ve been forced to leave your home, possibly your country, and face an uncertain future. Each day, you scrape for food and make sure your shelter doesn’t collapse. You worry that someone in your family might get sick, and medical care isn’t easily accessible. You might wonder, “Do I have a school to go to? A place to hang out with my friends? Or even a safe place to play, to laugh?”

Now, ask yourself, “What would my life be like without laughter?”

Sabine in Lesvos with hoops

Since its founding, Clowns Without Borders USA has focused on a basic idea: Go where you’re invited and go when you’re invited. The purpose of an invitation is to create relationships within the communities we visit, and to avoid imposition. We don’t show up with the first responders. We wait until people have the most basic necessities, like shelter and access to food and water, before we arrive. Once those needs are addressed, people can think about inviting us. So while we don’t bring shoes, we bring smiles for people who might not have much to smile about. Our goal is to provide a degree of normality and play in the lives of children, through laughter.

But do those moments make any difference? We see the impact of our work during every project, and we hear from parents, children and community members. But all the anecdotal evidence and testimonies in the world might not convince someone who’s skeptical about “just clowns.”

The Supporting Research

While the research in this area is far from conclusive, many believe that laughter can make a difference. For example, humor and laughter may help create environments that encourage learning. Educational experts suggest that laughter in a class setting can reduce anxiety, build relationships and improve student performance.1 One of our performing volunteers, Clay, reminds us, “We all laugh in the same language.”2 He points out the ability for laughter to communicate across linguistic and cultural barriers.

We also know that humor and laughter improve physical health.3 Laughter can decrease inflammation in the body (inflammation can make you sick, weak, and have a decreased immune response to fight back against disease and infection)4; it can make pain feel less painful5; and it’s good for the young and old alike!6

So when people say to us, “You need to bring more than just clowns,” we tell them that we are also bringing—rather, sharing—health through laughter.

1 Savage, Brandon M., Heidi L. Lujan, Raghavendar R. Thipparthi, and Stephen E. DiCarlo. “Humor, laughter, learning, and health! A brief review.” Advances in physiology education41, no. 3 (2017): 341-347.
2 From Al Jazeera, 2018, available at: http://share.ajplus.net/shared/9442
3 Foot, Hugh. Humor and laughter: Theory, research and applications Routledge, 2017.
4 Bains, Gurinder, Lee Berk, Everett Lohman, Noha Daher, and Belinda Miranda. “Decrease in Inflammation (CRP) and Heart Rate Through Mirthful Laughter.” The FASEB Journal 31, no. 1
5 Elmali, Hülya, and Reva Balci Akpinar. “The effect of watching funny and unfunny videos on post-surgical pain levels.” Complementary therapies in clinical practice 26 (2017): 36-41.
6 Ellis, Julie M., Ros Ben ‘Cambria Math’, Moshe, and Karen Teshuva. “Laughter yoga activities for older people living in residential aged care homes: A feasibility study.” Australasian journal on ageing 36, no. 3 (2017).
A girl wears a red nose onstage with two clowns

It’s World Circus Day!

Happy World Circus Day, from CWB – USA to you. It’s an extra-special day to celebrate all the zany, creative, risk-taking, hilarious and joyful circus folks we know and love.

CWB – USA performing volunteers are all professional artists with performance and/or teaching skills, and we are continually humbled by their generosity and adaptability. Take, for instance, Bekah Hammond, who didn’t let the icy, muddy ground stop her from giving unicycle rides to kids living along the Balkan Route:

Bekah rides a unicycle in the Balkans

Or, our multi-national team during the Turkey, 2017 project, which bridged multiple languages, perspectives and skills to perform for Syrian, Turkish and Kurdish people.

A tiny boy mischievously crouches onstage

Or, Kimberly DeAngelis and her daughter, who donated their time to perform a mother-daughter trapeze act at our Washington D.C. fundraiser this year.

Mother-daughter trapeze act

These artists are just a tiny sample of the amazing circus folks CWB – USA gets to interact with every day. We are so grateful for you! Thanks for making the world a more beautiful place.

High school students at a refugee workshop in San Antonio, TX

Education Resources for Clowns

CWB – USA receives many inquiries about clown training, and we’re pleased to regularly share the extensive (but by no means exhaustive) list of top clown schools in the United States, compiled in 2016 by our former colleague Tamara Palmer.

Now, all of North America can welcome a new formal training program for Therapeutic Clowning, out of George Brown College in Canada. Veteran clown Helen Donnelly has achieved an eight-year dream by making this program a reality. Click here to find out more about the application process.

Clowns lead a workshop for MSF caregivers, in Haiti

And of course, CWB – USA offers its own education program, Take Laughter With You, dedicated to bringing CWB programming to domestic refugee communities. Learn more about our process and drop us an education-related line, by clicking here.

 

Two clowns juggle clubs past a volunteer

What Does It Mean To Be “Without Borders”?

By now, most news outlets in the United States are reporting on the caravan of migrants who have traveled from Central America into Mexico. Some, but not all, of the migrants intend to continue on to the U.S.

CWB – USA first became aware of the caravan when it passed through Chiapas, a region with which the organization shares a deep relationship. CWB’s first and one-hundredth tours were to Chiapas, with tours returning to the region each year for the past 20 years. Knowing that the caravan was boldly discarding the idea of national borders, especially as it passed through a region that has fought for autonomous recognition, prompted CWB – USA to consider the ways in which the organization’s work is “without borders.”

Two Clown Me In performers
Photo by Rami Ahmad

CWB clowns willingly cross national borders to reach communities effected by crisis. They go to places that are deemed too dangerous for humanitarian aid, they walk down dirt roads to reach isolated communities, and they perform in the middle of forests because that’s where some people have to live. The very act of clowning, of encountering someone from a place of non-judgement, opens the borders of the heart. And as many of the community members we’ve engaged with tell us, the borderless heart of a clown creates a safe space for other people to open their hearts, too.

The communities we engage with and perform for are often borderless people. Perhaps a natural disaster has erased their house and livelihood. Or maybe the global history of empire and colonialism has made a secure and dignified life impossible in their home country. These migrants, refugees and asylum seekers disregard borders because they know that humans have a right to be safe and secure, no matter who they are or where they’re from. And they’re determined to find that safety and security regardless of lines on a piece of paper.

 

 

Clowns make heart hands with teen students

The Six Month Anniversary of Hurricane Maria

Tuesday, March 20th marked six months since Hurricane Maria made landfall in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico—with disastrous results. The official emergency period has been long declared over, but access to electricity, stable housing and a return to normal life still feels far off.

CWB – USA toured to Puerto Rico in February, 2017. Molly Levine, our Program Director, wrote on that trip:

Even now, almost six months after the hurricanes, destruction is everywhere. It’s not comparable to Ghaza or Aleppo, but it’s a reminder of the other, less obvious fallout that remains. Ragged billboards line the highway. All of the street signs and highway signs are sideways, upside down, or have been torn off completely. The streetlights worked about 20 percent of the time that we were there. Many small businesses have closed, and the island may be facing a historic population loss, as people emigrate to the States.

The average annual income for a Puerto Rican family is around $18,00 and the poverty rate on the island is 46 percent. The cost of delivering fuel and water is impossible to maintain, and families in the most rural areas have been told that it may take up to one year to regain services—if ever. I didn’t know any of this. 

The island was already dealing with a debt crisis and shaky infrastructure before the hurricane hit. Now, many Puerto Ricans, especially those living in rural areas, are still without power. Streets still flood because of clogged sewers, and many people have struggled to secure reimbursement from FEMA. There has been a 246 percent increase in calls to the Puerto Rican Department of Health’s suicide crisis hotline, since the same time last year, demonstrating an escalating mental health crisis. And thousands of people have emigrated to the U.S. mainland, perhaps permanently.

Clowns pose with students

Molly Z, one of the other clowns on tour, wrote:

The beaches look bleak, it’s very windy, and the palm trees are toppled over and look gray. Few people have returned to their houses, and telephone poles made of concrete and rebar are snapped in half, still lying on the ground five months after the storm. Power lines, too, hang around in piles. We were there on the 12th and 13th of February. Some towns and villages in the nearby mountains have been told never to expect power to return.

Our fellow U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico lack the resources they need in order to rebuild, due to political holdups, debt crises and political maneuvering that has little or nothing to do with their daily lives.

Drummers from Kakuma camp carry drums on their heads

News From Kakuma Camp

Drummer Methode Asenda, from Kakuma campCWB – USA has a history with the Kakuma Refugee Camp of Turkana County, in the north west region of Kenya, dating back to 2015. During our subsequent tours, we have had the pleasure of building relationships with some of the people who live there. Desire, one of the resident’s of Kakuma, is the founder of PETA (Providing Education To All) and has told us that CWB’s presence at Kakuma helped strengthen their drumming program.

When Desire asked us to share some of PETA’s accomplishments, we were happy to do so. Here’s what Desire has to say about PETA:

“In 2015, eight PETA drummers were given the chance to go to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, to perform at the Alliance Francaise for guests of the UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency). In 2016, PETA drummers welcomed UNHCR visitors to Kakuma at the Kakuma airport. And in 2017, 19 students, from Burundi, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, the DRC and Tanzania graduated from a six-month English language course.”

When CWB clowns return to perform for communities which have previously hosted us, we’re often told that our work has had a lasting impact. We are very happy to hear that the memory of our performances supported PETA’s ongoing presence in Kakuma Camp.

English language-learning graduates at Kakuma camp
A lone clown in front of the crowd

Safety In the Field

In 2017, CWB – USA and CWB – Brazil toured to South Sudan, where we performed for over 20,000 people. During our visit, CWB – Brazil clown Arthur Toyoshima experienced a tense encounter with local authorities. Because CWB only goes where we’re invited, we always operate with a local contact person, someone who is intimately familiar with the social and cultural nuances of a place, and who helps legitimize us in the eyes of people who might otherwise be suspicious or uncertain.

Arthur

This story I’m going to share is from a risky situation when I was in South Sudan, in 2017. It was a learning experience for me, and I hope it will be for others as well.

My trip was long, from Sao Paulo, Brazil to Juba, the capital of South Sudan. I had three connecting flights: Dubai, Nairobi and Juba. My flight from Dubai to Nairobi was late, so I missed the last flight to Juba that day. I finally arrived, seven hours later than planned. Unfortunately, that meant I had missed the meeting about security procedures in the capital, telling us not to film or photography soldiers, police or military sites. Basically, it’s forbidden to film and photograph in Juba, at all.

During our last few days in South Sudan, after performing in the refugee camps of Bentiu and Malakal, we returned to the capital to perform our final shows. We were on our way to the refugee camp on the outskirts of the city and I was copilot in the car, doing some filming of the pedestrians and the houses we passed. Suddenly someone shouted, “Arthur, police!” I quickly lowered the camera, but it was too late, the cops stopped the car.

A performance for a huge crowd in South Sudan

There were a lot of them, and they had many weapons. They stood on the driver’s side of the car, shouting at him in Dinka, the local language. The driver tried to explain where we were going and what we were doing, but it didn’t help. To make matters worse, our local programmer, Aaron, had gone ahead in the other car. They didn’t stop, so we were left without our representative, who knew how to talk to the police.

I looked at my companions, apologized, and got out of the car to try to resolve the situation. Picture me, 5′ 3” tall, dressed as a clown, with a red nose hanging around my neck, standing next to the tallest people on Earth, holding machine guns and screaming. They wanted to know why I was filming them. I tried to explain, as calmly as possible, that I was a clown and didn’t know that I couldn’t film the street. They looked at my phone and saw there weren’t any police pictures on it.

They began to argue among themselves in the Dinka language. I noticed that they wore different uniforms, some from the army and others from the police. They had different opinions on how they should solve our problem. Then, in the middle of the discussion, a man presenting himself as a member of national security joined the discussion. Now we had three distinct organizations arguing about what happened. I waited for someone to look down at me and say something, but no one did. I don’t think anyone wanted to know what was going on with the clown.

After 15 long minutes, our local programmer Aaron arrived. What a relief. He knew how to talk to the police and military, and everything calmed down. However, they decided to take us to a headquarters because they needed a greater authority figure to resolve their disagreement over what to do with us.

We arrived at the headquarters, and the lieutenant looked at me and then looked at a soldier. To me, his expression said, “What did you bring me this time?” I sat down and talked for a while, taking care not to mention that we would be performing at the refugee camp on the outskirts of the city, which houses a population considered to be “against” the local police and military forces. After 30 minutes, they had yet to reach a decision. I was still nervous but tried not to look it. I decided to do a meditation. I closed my eyes and breathed. After a while I heard a laugh, and opened my eyes. Somebody said, “Do you need a bed?” I nodded my head. Laughter. The energy dispersed and we were directed to a different room with a calmer environment. They told us that they have not been able to reach a consensus and we have to wait for the general. Thirty minutes later the general arrived and looked at me in the same way as the lieutenant. He made a similar comment: “What is this? A Japanese clown?”

A small questioning began:

General: “Where are you from?”

Arthur: “Brazil”

General: “Japan!”

Arthur: “No, Brazil!”

General: “China!”

Arthur: “No, Brazil, Brazilian, Brasileiro, BRESIL, BRAZIL, Brasiú…”

General: “Taiwan?”

Arthur – “Neymar!” [da Silva Santos Júnior, a professional soccer player from Brazil]

General: “Owww Brazil!”

Arthur: “YES!”

General: “Can you take pictures in any location in Brazil?”

Arthur: “Yes…”

General: “But on the street?”

Arthur: “Yes…”

General: “But in any place?”

Arthur: “Yes.”

General: “Here, you cannot!”

Arthur: “I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”

General: “Let this not happen anymore!”

Arthur: “I’m so sorry, it won’t happen again.”

We were released after deleting the videos of the city of Juba, and said goodby in a much calmer atmosphere. I was still shaken by the experience, but I forgot about it when I saw the eyes of the first children we performed for. We did a beautiful show for over 1,000 people.

At the end of the day, as usual, we shared our experiences and emotional states with the group. It’s our check-in moment. The whole group gets to talk, and they’re supported with love and affection. It was a relief to everyone after such a tense moment. Being able to express and speak feelings is comforting, just like laughing!

Clowns perform in South Sudan

This story, which I’ve told in a tragi-comic way, is just one of the unpredictable things that can happen in the field. We work in places where the pressure is high, and a small spark can lead to a big problem. For me, there’s always a need to be calm no matter what happens. It’s important to react according to the situation, and always trust and rely on the team so that we can solve problems together. If you don’t know, ask! If you need help, ask! If you need a hug, hug! For me, this work is about sharing and experiencing life with our colleagues and the public. Laughter is what leaves everything more organic and smooth.

The CWB – USA tour to South Sudan was a collaboration between the US, South Africa and Sweden. We have brought together artists from six different countries, plus a programmer from South Africa. It was an incredible exchange and learning experience. During a 19-day tour, we presented to more than 20,000 people and gave workshops to over 1,000 people.

Naomi listens to a patient's heartbeat with her stethoscope

Haiti, Eight Years Later

This year marks the 8th anniversary of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010. CWB – USA has maintained a long-standing relationship with the people of Haiti, commencing 17 distinct projects and sharing smiles with over 66,000 people. We’re honored to partner with the strong and resilient people of Haiti, as they continue to rebuild their communities.

Haiti is the sight of the world’s only successful slave revolt, led by Toussaint Louverture and fought by free people of color and slaves. Besides indigenous nations and territories in North and South America, Haiti was the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere (after the United States), declaring itself so in 1804. The U.S., terrified that the Haitian revolution would spill northward, refused to recognize Haiti as a nation until 1862. European countries were equally resistant. The U.S. and France greeted nascent Haiti with trade embargoes, and in 1825, France demanded that the Haitian government pay reparations, a bill that wasn’t fully repaid until 1947.

Despite its triumphant beginning, Haiti was economically suffocated by the world’s leading imperial powers and rocked by internal political instability, often exacerbated by U.S. interference. During World War I, U.S. Marine forces occupied Haiti, killing thousands of people. During the 20th century, the repressive and violent Papa Doc Duvalier, and later his son, Baby Doc, won approval from Washington by playing off of the United States’ rabid fear of communism. The past few decades have seen earthquakes and environmental disaster.

Haiti may be a very poor nation, but its economic prospects weren’t conjured in a vacuum. For its entire history, the country has been stifled by U.S. and Western European obstructions, and saddled with political leaders more interested in aggregating personal power than restoring general welfare.

When CWB – USA spends time on tour in Haiti, we don’t ignore the impact of that history. But we’re there to be joyful and share laughter, so we’re also able to see the generosity, resilience and dedication of our Haitian friends. Rather than dismissing Haiti as a desperate and hopeless place, we’d like to share images from our most recent tour:

A little boy holds a big yellow umbrella

Smiling school kids in Haiti

At a hospital in Haiti

A workshop in Haiti

Clowns in the hospital in Haiti

 

School kids in Haiti

(These photos taken with permission of the patients)

In 2017, we performed for almost 3,000 people in Haiti, sharing laughter and smiles with each and every one of them. We’d be honored to return and do it all over again.

To read more about the history of Haiti, try these sources:

Wikipedia

The New York Times

Vox

Mother Jones

To read more about CWB – USA’s most recent experiences in Haiti, click here.

 

 

 

 

Watercolor drawing of CWB in Less

Laughter Is a Renewable Resource

Whenever possible, we take engagements to share our work by giving workshops and presentations, like we did at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and University of Virginia.

Program Director Molly Levine and Development Director Naomi Shafer recently presented to an informal employee group at the United Nations. Each month, this group gathers for brown bag lunches with different artists whose work aligns with the U.N. goals. Clowns Without Borders International maintains official relations with UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

UNESCO logo

“When we give presentations, we share our favorite stories and we want to share some of them with you! Of course, the hour wasn’t spent just talking…we also did group juggling and even formed a clown band. As usual, we had our hands full with bubbles and instruments, so we forgot to take pictures!

The Stories We Tell:

Our story starts in 1993 during the Croatian War of independence. There was a group of school children in Barcelona who had been pen-palling with a group of children in a Croatian refugee camp. Our founder, Tortell Poltrona, was and still is a well known performer in Spain. The Spanish students received a letter from their penpals which said: ‘We’re OK, you know we have everything that we need, water and food, and we are safe for now. But what we really miss is having fun. We’d really like some clowns or something to come.’

The children reached out to Tortell and showed him the letter. A few weeks later, Tortell got in his car and drove out to the camp, and when he arrived there were hundreds of people waiting for him at the gate. He performed a show for over 700 children, and realized that there was actually a great need for clowns and entertainment in crisis situations. He went home, called his artist friends, and went back to that same camp a few months later. This was how CWB was born.

Fast–forward to 2017, and there are now 15 chapters of Clowns Without Borders International around the world. Naomi and I work for the USA chapter, which was founded in 1995.

Clowns Without Borders is a registered nonprofit which aims to share moments of laughter and levity with people in refugee camps, conflict zones, natural disaster sites, and communities in crisis around the world. We only go where we are invited. We work in partnership with individuals and organizations who are already trusted and working in the areas we visit. The artists we work with are professional performing artists who make their living through their craft, and who want to volunteer their time to perform for these communities.

It can be hard to understand the value of what we do, the value of the moment of levity for an individual in crisis. Our free performances and workshops are designed to bring together communities, and share moments where humor and relaxation are given a space to flourish.

Our shows encourage distraction away from the present crisis, offering the audience time and space to not think about it, thus decompressing and building resilience to endure.

People ask us: What does it look like when clowns go into a crisis zone? Our audiences are often made up of folks in the midst of crisis. They are a-stay-at-home parent whose home no longer exists; an engineering student whose university has been destroyed; a nurse who will never return to her country of origin.

What does it mean when these people are not refugees or individuals in crisis, but audience members? What does it look like when this is the face of an aid worker:

CWB in Kenya
At CWB, this is what an aid worker looks like!

Every place that we go faces different logistical challenges. Sometimes we drive for seven hours to reach a remote town, or walk for miles when the road is too steep for a car.

We perform for the children of guerilla fighters, the children of police, the children of war, the children of earthquakes.

Clown performs in front of police in Colombia

Our audiences also include aid workers and field staff, people struggling to make sense of displacement. We hear from these workers that our performances are the first time they’re able to stand side-by-side in community with the other residents of the camp. During a show, for a moment, the tension of resource scarcity can fade. During a show, laughter is abundant: Renewing and renewable.

Amy Rosvally is a writer and performer

A New Children’s Book Benefits CWB

Who would have thought the the worlds of clowning and pole acrobatics would overlap? Author and performer Amy Rosvally is bringing them together through her new children’s book, which benefits CWB!

Rosvally—aka The Pole Comedian—says that comedy and pole aren’t that dissimilar. “There has always been a vast array of styles to choose from,” Rosvally says, “but very few people actually pursue what’s called ‘pole comedy.’ ” During her first-ever competition, Rosvally channeled Charlie Chaplin for a routine full of pole dancing problems with silly solutions. Later in her career, her pole dancing T-Rex act went viral. It’s better experienced than described, and the giggles from the audience speak for themselves.

Amy's book coverAs it turned out, Rosvally won first place at the Southern Pole Championships in the Entertainment Level 3 Junior category
with her Charlie Chaplin routine. The success convinced her she was on to something. “I realized how much I enjoy making people laugh and the healing power that goes along with that,” she says. “If I can make someone happy, if I can inspire them somehow to try something new, even if it’s only for a moment in time, then I feel that I have done my job as ‘The Pole Comedian’ ”

That desire to inspire lead Rosvally to write her very first children’s book, BElieve in YOUrself! The story encourages kids to never let anyone dim their sparkle. “I want to inspire others to pursue what makes them happy and to believe that they actually can do it. That’s what this book is about. Whether you’re an adult or a child, I truly hope that this book incites you to pursue your dreams and feel unapologetically proud of who you are,” Rosvally says.

When her co-author suggested that she donate part of the proceeds to an organization that aligned with her personal mission, Rosvally thought of Clowns Without Borders! She had heard of our work through a colleague at the New York Renaissance Faire, and remembered videos she had seen of our tours, highlighting the impact of laughter. “I loved seeing the work your clowns do with those kids in the refugee camps. It felt like the perfect fit and I’m really excited that I can not only support kids in their own happiness journey with my book, but I can also financially assist an organization doing the same with the kids who need it most.”

Curious about Amy’s book? Buy it here!

Meet Nicole

Welcome Nicole!

We are delighted to welcome Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone to our team as our Communications Director. Nicole has the unique perspective of being both a communications professional and a performing artist. She grew up watching performances of Pickle Family Circus and San Francisco Mime Troupe, and has a deep appreciation for the transformative power of performance.

You’ve probably already seen her exceptional writing on our blog. Her first piece was about the importance of why we go only where invited. She also worked with CoiCoi and Ana on their stories about El Salvador.

Nicole studied resource politics and dance performance at Hampshire College, and is interested in climate-induced migration. She regularly performs and choreographs in New York City, where she founded the roving performance series The Bunker Presents… to provide a platform for underexposed choreographers.

As the Digital Content Strategist for Pointe magazine, Nicole managed layout and updates to the website, edited the bi-monthly newsletter and executed various social media campaigns. She has extensive experience writing for both print and digital outlets on topics ranging from chamber music to civil rights.

Meet NicoleWe asked Nicole to share a little more about herself:

What’s your first memory of the circus?
I remember attending Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus when I was about four years old and being completely mesmerized by the tightrope and trapeze acts. But my favorite circus memory is of sitting in the park to watch the San Francisco Mime Troupe performance each summer, with my friends and family.

How does being a dancer influence your writing?
I try to remember that experimentation and failure lead to new (maybe better!) places, both in the studio and on the page. I also regularly ask myself, “what purpose does this (anecdote, movement phrase…etc.) serve toward the overall impact and composition of the work?”

What part of the job are you are most excited about?
I know I’ll be building relationships with amazing artists around the world, and I can’t wait to brainstorm ways of getting the CWB message out to even more people who never knew they were excited about social circus.

 

clowns perform in an auditorium full of children

The Importance of Being Invited

What does a war zone look like? When the artists who work with Clowns Without Borders return from scenes of crisis or conflict, they’re often confronted with incredulity. How, people wonder, can CWB have a relationship with the horror and tragedy of life while still maintaining hope? Of course our answer to that is, with humor.

Recently, CWB Program Director Molly Levine spoke to a group of 150 public health students at San Jose State University, in collaboration with TeatroVision. We shared stories about our current project in El Salvador and afterward, as the students left for their following classes, one woman approached and asked, “How do you send your artists to tour in a war zone like El Salvador?”

The question gave Molly pause. “Reflecting on my own time in El Salvador last year, I don’t think of the country as a war zone,” she says. “We experienced tenderness, resilience, stoicism and generosity. The violence touches everyone, but I didn’t witness the constant chaos and uncertainty that I would associate with a ‘war zone.’” Often, the picture painted by news media is not comprehensive, focusing only on instances of violence. When CWB visits communities around the world, we’re able to see the rich and complex lives that people are living—the moments in between.

Despite that, El Salvador is considered the world’s most dangerous place outside of a war zone, and is sometimes cited as the murder capital of the world. In fact, many humanitarian aid organizations don’t go to El Salvador. So why do we go to dangerous places? Or more importantly, how do we stay safe?

 

The answer to both questions is the same: Because we are invited.

 

When we are invited to a community in crisis, we do everything we can to get there. (Think you might be our next project partner? Read here.) Being invited means that we know our presence is wanted, which is critical for team safety. In El Salvador, for instance, we work with the Ministry of Health in a neighborhood which is controlled by one of the gangs. Through their work in developing resources and a health center, the regional team from the Ministry of Health has strong relationships with the local gang leaders. Though the gangs are in conflict with each other, they are not in conflict with us. Just as they want medical resources for their children, they also want laughter.

This invitation means that we have already established trust before we arrive. We maintain trust by making sure our performances and workshops aren’t controversial. We respect local customs, and most importantly, we keep our work non-political. “When we know artists will be working in gang-controlled territory, we do our best to prepare them for what it might be like,” Molly says. “When we arrive in a neighborhood and park in front of the Health Center, we expect that some individuals from the community will come check us out. They look at our car, they ask about our work and our props. They ask where we are from. We say hello. We welcome them to the performance venue. We smile and show respect in the way that is customary for where we are. We show them that we are at ease, that we remember that we’re welcome there, that we are safe there. That they are welcome with us as well. That they are also safe with us.”

Clown performs in front of police in Colombia

Of course, this can be a lot easier said than done. It’s hard to feel safe when you’re putting your body in a place that our news media and public opinion consider violent. Our artists are humans, and often times they’re totally out of their element. Sometimes our invitations bring us to places where the local police department doesn’t go. In these moments, as in every moment on a CWB tour, our invitation is our strongest safety net.

But our invitation to be there is just the first step in staying safe. There’s also a lot of groundwork, including respecting the conflict as it’s happening. We—with the help of our local partners—make sure to know which gang territory we’re in and make sure that our costumes are neutral (i.e. not the colors of one gang or another).

In some regions in El Salvador, it’s been common for gang members to observe our workshops and performances to make sure we uphold our promise to stay neutral. These members are known to the Ministry of Health. We follow basic safety protocols, like staying with the group and traveling with our local contacts. While the safety of our team is paramount, we’re always performing a balancing act: We have to react to the situations presented to us with clear eyes, not ones clouded by stigma or fear of “what we know about these people from the news or the police.”

It can, of course, be unsettling to perform under these conditions. Part of keeping the team safe means being aware of how our own body language impacts others. You’ve probably heard of fight or flight, the body’s natural response to a threat. When we become agitated, even with fear, someone else can perceive it as anger. So we tell our artists that if they feel unsettled, the first thing they should do is exhale. Then, do a physical inventory, and make sure to stand in a neutral position. This trick of exhaling is a common part of physical performance. A handstand, partner lift, or inversion often starts with an exhale. We use our performance training to assess the impact of our physical presence, and we embrace our vulnerability with honesty.

clowns perform in an auditorium full of children

Working in gang-controlled territory also requires us to re-pattern some behaviors and expectations. In most news media, “gangs” are “evil”. Gangs are talked about en masse, but when we worked in Distrito Italia, we had to remember that gangs are actually made up of individuals: humans who have not had access to the same resources as us.

When we talk about the gangs as a performing ensemble, we need to make sure that we don’t use the term “gang member” as a blanket term to mean “people we are afraid of,” or, “dangerous people.” In order to do our job well and to truly work in allyship with our audience members, we have to remember that these “gang members” are the parents of the children we are performing for—parents who want their children to be safe and have opportunities that they did not have. They are the older teenagers who participate in our workshops, laughing and playing like the children that they are.

Many young people enter gangs in El Salvador because of the promise of safety, the promise of community, and access to resources, money and technology that seems inaccessible from any other way. The young people in El Salvador are most at risk because many family units have fractured, with one or both parents moving away to find work abroad. To us, a warzone is so much more than a simple narrative of victimization and fear. To us, a warzone includes stories of resilience and individuals looking to restore their communities.