Globalise Hope – Steven Desanghere

Coaching van individuen (werk, leven, kunst, keuzes,…)

Facilitering van groepen: events, brainstorms, evaluatie, besluitvorming, moeilijke gesprekken, burn-out, conflicten en bemiddeling, teambuilding, moderatie van debatten, …

Vormingen rond Groepsdynamiek, Leren, Conflict, Omgaan met Diversiteit en Toegankelijkheid, Interculturele Communicatie, (Circus) Pedagogie, Politisering, …


Coaching of individuals (work, life, art, choices,…)

Facilitation of groups: events, brainstorms, evaluation, decision making, tough talks, burn-out, conflicts and mediation, teambuilding, moderation of debates, ...

Trainings on Group Dynamics, Learning, Conflict, Working with Diversity, Intercultural communication, (Circus) Pedagogy, Getting Political, …




“Creating freedom, community and viable relationships has its price. It costs tie and courage to learn how to sit in the fire of diversity. It means staying centered in the heat of trouble. It demands that we learn about small and large organisations, open city forums and tense street scenes. If you step into leadership or facilitatorship without this learning, you may spend your time recapitalating the blunders of history.” (Arnold Mindell)




Some thoughts on Circus Spaces and Community

foto hln wannes nimmegeers

Entering the circus community

I was almost thirty years old when I joined the circus school in my new city, Ghent, around the turn of the century. A few years earlier I had migrated from a small town many miles further, and from a broken relationship, and I found it really difficult to integrate in this city full of people. How to make contact with other people? Where to belong?  I often felt lonely, considered my self as a Lost Soul, just as so many other thousands of people in that big city.

Through some coincidences, someone I just met taught me how to juggle one night, and then another person popped up and invited me to an open space for jugglers in the circus school that had just started in my neighborhood. One thing led to another, and I soon was there three nights a week. Then they asked me to help out with managing the bar, and later on with giving workshops and organising some small performances. I joined the Board and later became an employee and regular circus teacher.

Without being fully aware of it, I stumbled upon a vibrant community, where I made a lot of friends, shared love and life lessons, travelled and dined together, cared and was being cared for, went to marriages, hospitals and one funeral. I definitely belonged there, and I contributed as much as I wanted. Being part of that local circus community changed and coloured my life extensively.

My emerging doubts

That was some eighteen years ago. Today I have the privilege of knowing a much larger part of the international circus community, where I share so many intense moments of joy, laughter and also frustration and pain. I’ve written a small booklet on the power of inclusive circus and give quite some trainings for circus trainers.

But something is itching inside of me for a while.  My entrance in my local circus community was quite straightforward. Only weeks before,  I had gotten the juggling microbe, and the sharing of our circus passions and skills was the perfect code to meet people who were once silent strangers for me, with whom I could now play and have fun with, in a very easy way. Non-verbal connecting works great for me… Those circus experiences gave me the opportunity to grow further, develop myself and find many other passions inside of me. And now I realise….that I no longer feel a passion for juggling myself. I still love to see other people play, I developed a passion for group dynamics, mediation, teaching and learning, and so many other things. I enjoy seeing circus and helping other circus people to develop their projects. But my primary code to connect with other people is vanishing. The circus microbe inside my own aging body, has been pushed away by so many other nice microbes.

Which brings me to the difficult question: do I still belong to my circus community, if I practice circus skills myself less and less? That community that gave me so much life, love, recognition, friendship, caring?

“Of course you still do!”, I hear most of you thinking.

The ‘inner circle’

But I want to provoke you and look at the daily practice in many circus schools. If the circus space is the real center of a circus organisation, the people that have the most circus skills are perhaps the most in the ‘inner circle’ of that circus community, with the highest status, or so it is perceived by many less skilled artists and teachers. I like to call that mechanism, ironically meant, “skill fascism”, and I believe it does exist in many circus schools. Does someone that only knows how to throw the juggling scarfs belong as much to the circus organisation as someone who swiftly juggles five clubs? And what happens with that great teeter board artist after he makes a really bad fall? Is he still a full member of the circus community when he no longer jumps, and only brings his son to the weekly circus lessons? What about the adminstrative helper at the circus office? She’s a great help for the circus community but doesn’t have any circus skills. Does she belong?  Maybe we say she does, but does she feel that way herself, seeing most of the attention and status directed towards the center of the circus ring?

The truth is, that a circus organisation needs a lot of helping hands. And many of those contributing hands don’t exhibit a high level of circus skills, if any. So many volonteers, parents, adminstrative helpers, sound engineers, cleaners, board members, … contribute so much of their time and energy to the circus school, but do they feel they belong as much to it as the best jugglers, aeralists or magicians?

In some youth or social circus organisations, it is quite clear who can be called a full member, and who not, but in many more, membership is mostly informal and up to different interpretations. Sometimes you can feel part of the school (“I’m in!”), and another moment not (“I’m out….”). Who decides?

Circus and Community

We all know that in these changing times,  a lot of us are migrating in space, but also in age. Many of us face feelings of confusion, anxiety, loneliness, uselessness and are in big need of new communities to thrive in. In literature, we find definitions of Community that talk about Belonging and Contributing. And the Belonging Part is sometimes broken down into Caring and Frequent Interaction. Communities can be fertile grounds for new friendships, support, sharing, love, wisdom, play, co-creation etc. And….uhm…isn’t that EXACTLY what so many circus schools and organisation provide, as a warm side dish, next to the main dish of circus learning, practicing and performing? And isn’t this side dish for many members the main reason to come so frequently to the circus space? I recently read in a circus space in Rotterdam the following sentence of a young member, written on a wall: “It is so much fun here, that I almost don’t find the time to do circus”. There you go.

Circus is developing very quickly in Europe and beyond. Next to the rise of circus as a great artform on the streets and inside the cultural centers, and next to the growth in (youth) circus schools that organise frequent trainings in different circus skills for professionals and amateurs, there is also the further development and proliferation of Inclusive or Social Circus. And as part of that Inclusive Circus Approach, there is a growing attention for Community Circus, where local circus schools have the ambition to help create new communities and links between people in their local neighborhood, through all ages. In my opinion there is a huge potential for Community Circus, but perhaps we will need to explore what Community can mean for us, and how we can let it prosper inside and outside of our circus group.

Six building blocks for creating and maintaining a sense of Community

The following building blocks are partly inspired by “The art of Community”, a book by Charles Vogl.

  • Membership: Who is member of your circus community, and who is merely a visitor? What are the criteria to becoming a full member? What are the benefits of being a full member? Do you have different categories of membership, e.g. being a teacher, volonteer, pupil,…? Being a real member of an organisation can give a lot of clarity, and can boost a feeling of self-worth and commitment from the members.
  • Token: Does your organisation have a symbol, a token? Probably it has. A lot of people like to wear this token, when it is printed on a t-shirt, a hat, a pin, trousers, stickers,…. It again shows their allegiance to a circus community where they love to belong and contribute to.
  • Shared Values: Does your circus organisation have a kind of Manifesto? A simple and accessible text where we find the mission, vision and values of the organisation. This can be a great tool to connect people even more to the circus group. Why not discuss and endorse  values such as ‘acceptance of diversity’, ‘promoting play’, ‘love for the circus arts’, ‘supporting social justice’, ‘spreading the circus microbe’, ‘caring for each other’ or ‘working participatory’?
  • Gatekeepers: When you have open activities or an easily accesible open circus space, it can be of great importance to appoint some ‘gatekeepers’. These are people that have the task of welcoming new people, informing them about possible membership, connecting them with others, and excluding some, if needed. Don’t expect curious firstcomers to sniff out all the information themselves, or make easily new social contacts. Some elderly gatekeepers can be a real treasure for your organisation, and can help it grow, if growth is wished for.
  • Stories: Do younger members know a thing or two about the creation and the history of your circus organisation? Are there pictures from the past on the wall? Do we take the time to inform the newcomers and let them feel part of an evolving tradition? Do we tell each other stories about the past and possible futures of the community we belong to?
  • The Temple: A circus organisation should revolve around circus, in a broad way. But that doesn’t mean that the actual circus space, where the circus skills are shown and shared, can be the only place of interest and connection, especially when you have the ambition to break your organisation open and let it be part of a vibrant neighborhood network. Then the functionality of the circus space can be so much broader. Part of your circus building or tent can perhaps sometimes be used as an art exhibition space or a cinema, a popular kitchen or a repair café, a Playstation room or a party space, a library or a meditation space, a knitting place or a bar, a communal meeting space, a place where local youth can be helped with their homework, where their parents can find advice by social workers, a fitness room, or a simple place with some old sofas where local kids can enjoy free WiFi.

Acknowledging Community

Why not discuss some of these elements in your circus organisation? It all depends on where you want to go with your own circus organisation, and in how far you want to acknowledge that quite a lot of your members actually see circus as a means for belonging to a warm community, rather than seeing it as an individual goal of becoming extremely skilled. Let there be as much space for professional growth as possible, without those highly skilled circus artists always getting the most applause in your circus community.

Even those great artists will become older and less agile, and will be so grateful if they can remain part of that warm and caring circus community that gave them so much love, friendships, wisdom and adventures.

And me myself? After some doubts, struggles and long talks, I’m am more and more confident that my contribution to circus is much more than those few circus skills I once managed to perform and teach in a semi-graceful way. Thanks to my age, I  now have more insights, experience, greater awareness, organisation talent, facilitation skills, patience and love for all those other beautiful and weird people, wishing to find and keep connection and community through circus, and beyond.

(picture: copyright Wannes Nimmegeers)

Steven Desanghere

“The privilege of being able to sit still”

“Sit still!”, Michael shouts, for the third time in two minutes.

The circus school asked him some time ago to teach a new group of kids in a small ‘social circus’ project. They all come from a nearby school in a poor and multicultural neighbourhood.
They’re about ten years old, and come straight from school to the circus school, for ten Thursdays in a row. The city council thought it was a good idea to give these kids the chance to experience some organised leisure time, knowing that none of them is subscribed to any other form of organized youth, cultural or sport organisation outside of school. The council acknowledges the benefits of this kind of non-formal education for disadvantaged children. The kids are really enthusiastic to practice circus techniques, and the circus school is happy for several reasons. Bringing in less privileged kids into the circus school is an act of idealism, but it is also good for the image of the school, and there’s some extra money coming in.

But Michael isn’t that happy. In fact, he is frustrated on many levels. He has more than five years of teaching experience in the circus school, and is known as a very skilled and motivated teacher. Most of the children he usually works with have a middle-class background, and go to high quality schools in richer and ‘whiter’ neighbourhoods. Those kids are happy to have him as a circus teacher, and he never has to shout at them.

But the kids from the ‘social’ circus lesson he is leading today, just won’t sit still! He doesn’t expect them to sit still all the time – after all, it’s a circus lesson. But he’s convinced they should be able to quietly listen to him at the beginning and the end of the session, and whenever a new technique is introduced. It’s not that the kids don’t want to play circus – on the contrary, but it seems they want to play it on their terms, and not his. Michael is a dedicated teacher, and needs the kids to be quiet and attentive when he expects them to be. This way, he believes he can best take care of the emotional and physical safety of each participant.

He also believes his method reaches the highest learning goals for everyone, and that’s what the circus school pays him for, isn’t it? So, the last weeks he decided to be a bit firmer, and ask more discipline from this specific group. He knows what he is doing, and what works for his middle-class pupils, should work for these less privileged kids too, right? So he shouts from time to time, and sanctions kids that don’t follow his rules. Last week, he gave his last warning to a kid that just wouldn’t listen properly to him (“I wanna keep on playing the diabolo!”), so now she’s banned from the circus sessions. And others will follow, if need be. Without discipline, chaos would reign, he argues.

Michael wants to love these kids as much as he loves his middle class regular pupils. He is convinced that colour of skin, migrant background, economic class or learning disabilities shouldn’t be an obstacle to fully form part of his circus school. He wants to give these kids equal chances, so he uses the same pedagogical tools with them, as he would with other kids. What more can be expected from him? Now it’s up to the kids to behave themselves and integrate… Sounds familiar?

‘Social circus’ is booming all over Europe, and beyond. Private and public funders are often intrigued by the successful method of using circus techniques as a tool to reach a diversity of underprivileged people. Who can resist colourful pictures of people in need, young or older, practicing social circus, and smiling from ear to ear? So, quite some public money is flowing towards new, and bigger, social circus projects, that promise more smiles on more faces. Social circus projects often start out of sheer enthusiasm, by charismatic trainers with a lot of idealism and a good ‘feeling’ with the ‘special- needs’ groups they are working with. They are mostly underpaid, if paid at all. But they undoubtedly create a whole series of social, emotional, motoric or cognitive benefits for their participants. Inclusion seems self-evident with those gifted pioneers: the participants feel welcomed, respected, and can truly be ‘themselves’ in the safe circus group.

Through experiments, exchanges with more experienced teachers and social circus training for trainers, more and more new circus trainers acquire a good amount of Skills and Knowledge to help organize and lead social circus projects. And we do need more trainers, as there  are much more money and opportunities available for social circus projects in recent years.

Unfortunately, Skills and Knowledge are not enough to organize social circus projects that aim to be inclusive and truly respectful for the participants. Without a fair part of Awareness, our social circus projects can become hollow and uninspiring, or worse, reproduce the same exclusion mechanisms of mainstream society. Without sufficient Awareness from our social circus teachers, the kids that attend social circus projects can
get the same message that they already get so much in society and in school: “you don’t fit in”, “you’re naughty” or “you’re stupid”…

So how can we program more Awareness for our circus teachers, in working with diversity? There’s probably no easy answer for that. If there was, we would by now probably have a world with a lot less discrimination and exclusion, with a completely different educational system, and a different kind of society all together.

The thing with exclusion and discrimination is, that it is taking place under ‘our’ radar, most of the time. Less privileged people suffer from their lack of social status in many mixed settings, while more privileged people, like most of the circus teachers, haven’t got a clue of what is missing for some people amongst them. We simply miss out on all those subtle exclusion mechanisms, because we are included in most groups we interact with. But people do feel the difference between being warmly welcomed and treated as equals, or simply being tolerated in a group.

So many tensions, conflicts and envy in our society are being created by the unawareness of privilege and social status by the more privileged members of our society. When you have the dominant skin colour, enough money, a good education, a nice job, an able body, when you are heterosexual and pleased with your gender, when you have the ‘right’ looks, size and weight, the right network and experience, and were born in a loving and stable family, you actually have quite some privileges at the same time. Most of us accept these privileges as a given, and are unaware of them. And so it is difficult to grasp how these privileges, or the lack of them, influence our informal power in a group (being heard and seen), our communication style, our attitudes, learning abilities, concentration, social competences, self-confidence or self-image. Or the way we are motivated to learn circus…

Michael projects his privileged, middle-class experiences onto his less privileged kids. He expects them to be quiet and still when he wants them to, although these kids just had a long day of school behind them, an experience that for them is way more frustrating than it has ever been for Michael when he was a school kid. These kids want to play and move and decompress a lot first, before they are able to sit down and listen again. Michael is also convinced that it is beneficial to introduce one or two new circus techniques every week, and expects them to cope easily with all the trying and failing in the learning process. He never had problems learning new things and failing many times before he could master a circus technique. But are his less privileged kids willing to easily fail in front of their peers, after a hard day at school, where they already feel like ‘losers’ so much of their time?

Seeing kids as ‘all equal’ can blind us from some important differences to take into account. It can exclude kids unknowingly, out of pure good intentions. But seeing kids as ‘all different’, and some kids as even more different than others, can also have unwanted effects. We can unconsciously stigmatise kids, and create envy, because we label them as different, and let the label replace their personality. The truth is, that we are all a unique
collection of different labels, and that we are never ‘just’ a migrant, or a disabled person, or a smart one. And yes, we all have different needs, backgrounds, dreams, learning styles, levels of self-confidence, types of intelligence, personalities, etc., most of which are not visible at a first glance. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy ourselves in one diverse group. We can feel unity, in diversity. Isn’t that true ‘inclusion’?

It’s possible to mix a diversity of people in one circus group. But sometimes that’s just too ambitious, if we want to keep the group safe and inclusive for all. Circus schools around the globe are blessed with thousands of charismatic, authentic teachers and artists that are successfully working with diverse groups. We have a ‘treasure chest’ full of great
pedagogical good practices, tools and techniques to inspire, motivate, teach and differentiate. A treasure chest that we can share with the rest of the world of education and youth work. But also a treasure chest to dig into, to explore and to learn from. Most jewels of the potential of circus pedagogy still need to be discovered…

So how can we help Michael? First of all, it would be helpful if Michael became a bit more conscious of his privileges and started listening a bit more to the specific needs of the children in his ‘social circus’ project. Is there space for some individual learning goals, for more play, for two-way agreements, for letting go of some of his fixed pedagogical approaches? Is there more space for more authentic communication and expression, where the kids as well as Michael can more easily express their true needs
and wants, in a respectful dialogue?

When Michael starts to become more and more aware of the real diversity in the group, when he experiments more with differentiation, with games and approaches that tap closer into the needs and wants of the participants, he can allow himself to become more and more ‘human’ in his group, he can use his intuition more, so there can be more trust in the group, and the kids can take on more responsibility for the learning process of themselves and their peers. Of course, it’s never easy, but if he succeeds, it not only benefits himself and the kids from the ‘social circus projects’, but also his more ‘middle class’ circus groups. Because there’s a huge diversity also there, waiting to be uncovered. And the more awareness of diversity in a group, the more empowerment of each member, and the stronger the group, the teacher, and the learning becomes.

Michael’s journey has also been mine, and along the way, I discovered that circus is not only learning, and playing, but also an art form. And wasn’t it the famous feminist writer Iris Murdoch that once wrote:

“Art and morality are, with certain provisos…one. Their essence is the same. The essence of both of them is love. Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.”


Steven Desanghere


(This article was first published in the Altro Risorsa seminar-report of AltroCirco (Italy))