Circus Is, and Should Be, for All- and This Initiative Helps It Get There - StageLync

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Circus Is, and Should Be, for All– and This Initiative Helps It Get There

In 2020, the American Circus Educators Association (ACE) and the American Youth Circus Organization (AYCO) provided a comprehensive census of circus schools/studios across the country. What the data revealed was something that many non-white individuals in the circus community were probably already aware of, but which hadn’t yet been put into perspective for the general circus community at large.

The census revealed that, on average, circus instructors and students were generally white-identifying, while other demographics were each represented by less than 12%. After conducting a survey of circus educators, ACE/AYCO reported that “[i]n terms of race/ethnicity…on average, their students were 65% white, 11% Latinx, 9% Black, 8% multiracial, 6% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 1% American Indian…[while staff were] on average, 76% white, 7% Latinx, 7% Black, 5% multiracial, 4% Asian/Pacific Islander, and less than 1% American Indian.” Reasons for the results of this consensus can be attributed to many things; however, a lack of disposable income/funding to pursue circus arts can be understood as one of the prime suspects. The Federal Reserve reports that white Americans have the highest level of both median and mean family wealth as compared to non-white families. It is no surprise that this data affects the circus community, and decides who is and who isn’t able to pursue the circus arts as freely as others. 

Source: Federal Reserve Board, 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances. https://www.federalreserve.gov/econres/notes/feds-notes/disparities-in-wealth-by-race-and-ethnicity-in-the-2019-survey-of-consumer-finances-20200928.htm

This is what the networking initiative CSAW— Connecting Circus Students Around the World—is working against. Founded in 2018, CSAW’s mission has been to increase the accessibility of information and funding for circus artists of all backgrounds so that they can grow and achieve their wildest circus dreams, regardless of the barriers society has tried to put in front of them. 

Sophia Layos-Wagaman, the winner of the $5K tuition grant in January 2022

In 2020, CSAW launched its Microgrants for U.S. Circus Artists of Color Program, a financial aid program that provides a grant of $1,000 a month to help a circus artist fund any and all their immediate circus-related expenses. Since its inauguration, the nonprofit has raised over $40,000 to support the endeavors of non-white circus artists through this program. Since awarding the very first Microgrant in September of 2020, CSAW has received over 200 applications and has provided a grant of $1,000 every month. From socially active hair hangers to contemporary pole dancers, variety show producers to avid circus school students seeking tuition assistance, CSAW has opened its arms wide to embrace the diverse and varying talents that circus artists of color have to offer. 

Additionally, last year CSAW launched its first-ever Tuition Grant Program for U.S. Circus Artists of Color. This was a grant that came to fruition based on the high number of past Microgrant applicants requesting urgent assistance with circus school tuition. Originally intended to be a single grant of $5K for one artist, CSAW was able to award three artists instead, one of whom received the full $5K; the two runner-ups received grants of $1,000 and $500, respectively. Thanks to a generous recent donation from Andrew Dunn, CSAW will now be able to provide not one, but two grants of $5K for its second round of Tuition Grants. The organization is excited to see this program expand and to be able to help more circus artists of color attend circus school.

The circus community’s need for CSAW’s programs was made more than evident in the outstanding amount of support CSAW has received from donors. To date, CSAW Microgrants and Tuition Grants have been entirely community funded, with over 250 donors contributing to the 2021 and 2022 Indiegogo Fundraisers. The overwhelming success of CSAW’s past fundraisers made it clear that a large majority of the circus community understood and recognized that there was a lack of representation in the circus, and wanted to make efforts to support initiatives like CSAW.

CSAW is aware that there are many factors in the United States other than financial barriers that continue to perpetuate the institutionalized racism that affects people of color in the circus industry. However, CSAW hopes that by breaking down the financial barriers first, they can make room for more and more talented, courageous, and amazing circus artists of color. It is only the first step, and the work will never be over. However, CSAW is committed to uplifting circus artists of color simply because circus is, and should be, for all.

Main Image: Jacqui Ray, a microgrant recipient from June 2021

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Chisama Ku Penn
Performer, Coach, CSAW Administrator -United States
Chisama Ku is the CSAW Administrator from Atlanta, GA. She has taught and performed on the pole and teaches pole and flexibility classes. During the pandemic she began training on aerial rope. Chisama Ku has extensive experience as an Arts Administrator working with non-profit music and dance organizations, from the Atlanta Dance & Music Academy to the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Hell’s Kitchen. Her passion lies in making all aspects of the performing arts more accessible for students of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, and believes that money should never be a barrier. She hopes to help broaden the conversation on who is allowed to be considered a circus artist. Chisama Ku joined the CSAW Team in July 2021 to help manage the second CSAW Fundraiser and is now an administrator with the organization.

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Chisama Ku Penn

Chisama Ku is the CSAW Administrator from Atlanta, GA. She has taught and performed on the pole and teaches pole and flexibility classes. During the pandemic she began training on aerial rope. Chisama Ku has extensive experience as an Arts Administrator working with non-profit music and dance organizations, from the Atlanta Dance & Music Academy to the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Hell’s Kitchen. Her passion lies in making all aspects of the performing arts more accessible for students of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, and believes that money should never be a barrier. She hopes to help broaden the conversation on who is allowed to be considered a circus artist. Chisama Ku joined the CSAW Team in July 2021 to help manage the second CSAW Fundraiser and is now an administrator with the organization.