How a circus programme for young people in Greece continued to reach those most in need during the Covid-19 pandemic . . .

About the group

Social Circus Athens teaches circus skills to young people at risk, particularly unaccompanied minors arriving in Greece as refugees. It's a voluntary initiative that uses circus techniques to bring together creativity, teamwork and self-discipline. In the long term, it aims to create the first refugee-led circus academy.

Before the pandemic, Social Circus was meeting weekly for three-hour training sessions. The group also organised one-off events to increase the public’s awareness of their initiative, as well as visiting asylum services and refugee camps to entertain and engage the children waiting in line.

Responding to the Covid-19 pandemic 

When the pandemic struck, Social Circus began to consider moving online. One of the first challenges they faced was the need to raise money to support the venue (Anasa Cultural Centre) that had been hosting them and collaborating with them.

It was at this point that Social Circus came across the Amateo Awards. Amateo is the European Network for Active Participation in Cultural Activities. Social Circus Athens won the 2020 Amateo Award for its work with young refugees. Upon winning the award, they received a 1000€ prize. However, the award also provided the group with a sense of recognition and prestige, which gave them the momentum needed to continue during the pandemic.

Initially, the team of volunteers found it difficult to imagine how the Social Circus might continue online, as it’s a hands-on artform that often requires close supervision. Workshop leader Natasa Chanta-Martin explains:

Giving a class that you're used to offering so interactively makes you realise how much people learn by looking and by copying from you. You immediately get ideas about how to continue from how they react. When working with youth at risk, depending on their mood and how they work as a team, you really have to change on the spot. An additional issue was that we usually have acrobatics, but we needed these to be done safely. The problem was we didn't know what surfaces everyone was practising on or what level of ability they had.

Social Circus Athens online workshopHowever, in the face of lockdown, Social Circus Athens got creative and found fun, easy ways to move their art online, by working on preparatory exercises and the basics of key techniques, as well as having additional tutorials on how to make juggling balls from kitchen supplies (with materials being sent out to people who did not have the resources to do this). They sent video tutorials out every week and asked participants to submit a video of their own practice in return. The group reverted back to in-person, outdoor classes for the last six weeks of their summer programme.

Alongside the video tutorials, Social Circus promoted social connections between group members through Zoom meetings and the creation of a WhatsApp group, where participants could post photos and videos and get feedback from their peers. Individuals were particularly keen to showcase the juggling balls they had made.

Overcoming the challenges and finding the benefits

Accessing the Social Circus online proved difficult for some of its target demographic, with fewer young refugees joining than would normally be expected. Natasa from Social Circus explained that this was likely to be due to a lack of Internet access or a lack of confidence with filling out a Google form in order to receive an email with a link to the next tutorial. It was therefore important for Social Circus Athens to reconnect with these young people when they began to meet up outdoors again.

Nevertheless, as a grassroots organisation working ‘in the field’, Social Circus Athens found that increasing their presence online allowed them to widen their network to include more educators, social workers and other social circuses, especially those in rural parts of Greece who do not have access to the same level of cultural programmes and resources as a city like Athens. As Natasa says:

We realised that by offering more things online – which we were not a huge fan of at first – we could approach more people, including educators who have access to more kids or social workers who have access to more shelters. It creates a domino effect.

Social Circus’ online experience also opened up new avenues for fundraising, as the group launched its first crowdfunding campaign. An unusual venture, as Natasa explains:

It’s quite uncommon in Greece to ask for money like this. But we have really thought about our perks and what we offer. We really want to show that we're in need to continue and survive this hard summer. We’ve been really putting it out there on a digital media platform and using campaign tools and getting endorsements from people, including celebrities.

Social Circus Athens in the parkTaking pandemic learning into the future

For Social Circus Athens, in-person activity is essential to connecting with youth at risk. However, technology will play a key role in the future development of the initiative.

Moving online opened up many new opportunities for the groups to expand its network and have a wider impact. This prompted the team to develop their digital skills, recognising that there was a gap in their knowledge around important questions such as “how do you ensure personal data is protected when sharing resources with a larger community” and “how do you measure the impact that you are having?”

Having a greater online presence will allow the Social Circus to gather more data about, for example, the number of people who view their newsletter or who are interested in coming to an event. Developing their online presence during the pandemic equipped Social Circus with more tools for measuring and maximising the reach of their work. 

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