The Social Street Circus (SSC) was an initiative launched by the non-profit association Aim High (‘Mierz Wysoko’) as a pilot action to a larger project – a club for the youth in Brzeska street, an area considered to be one of the most socially deprived in Praga Północ, as well as in Warsaw as a whole. The choice of the place and the idea of the project was a spontaneous reaction to an occurrence during a visit of a group representing the association ‘Mierz Wysoko’ to an exhibition at a newly opened gallery in Brzeska street. The artistic event took place behind closed doors, while on the outside of the building were groups of children loitering, glimpsing at the ‘aliens’ and behaving in an explicitly unfriendly manner – spitting, cursing and throwing objects. As the coordinator of the Social Street Circus project argues: “such behaviour of the local adolescent has urged the association to react. We knew that something positive had to be done and the initiative was on our side”. The coordinator explains that the participants of the association agreed to instantly develop a way to take care of these children, providing them with attention and professional assistance. The idea was to find a way of organising integrative activities based on animation and education. As the coordinator of the Social Street Circus explains:
“We didn’t have a suitable place at hand, so we had to start working in the street. Some friends supplied us with circus requisites – colourful stuff used for performances, just to check whether this would make the children interested. Ten minutes passed and there was a bunch of kids, 30-40 pieces, hanging around us. At first they used to grab the requisites and run off. They had not been acquainted with any kind of additional organised out-of-school activities.”
The initial aim of the project was to overcome the hostile attitude of the local children towards ‘others’, where the reason for such behaviour was identified as deriving from distrust and fear of ‘difference’ coming from the ‘outside’. The activities undertaken were based on socio-cultural animation, which was intended to integrate the local community, support the individual child through developing its creativity, communication abilities, as well as a more aware and active attitude towards its immediate milieu. The children were taught to be more appreciate of their surrounding and to participate in its development. Simultaneously, they were acquainted with ‘difference’, learning to accept it, develop trust towards, as well as interest in it. As the Coordinator of the project says:
“The initiative was aimed so as to demonstrate to the kids that the place where they live is nice and can be even nicer. We wanted the children to become more active, more self-confident. We wanted to show them interesting ways of spending their free time, show them their neighbourhood from a different perspective, make them sensitive towards their surrounding, the local community, and the outside world.”
The project based on animation and education was organised for eight months (May to November 2008) in Brzeska street, a place of residence of many multi-child families of low social status. The scarce budget of the initiative amounted to not much more than € 2000 in total. Apart from own resources and the work of volunteers, the association received financing from the Office of Social Support and Projects of the City of Warsaw, which equalled approx. 50% of the total expenditure. The project engaged four coordinators and forty volunteers, all with educational experience, recruited via press and web announcements. A professional circus supplied the organisers with equipment used in the project.
The activities undertaken were diverse, based on various psychological methods and social engineering techniques aimed at developing trust towards the animators, as well as among the participants. Special attention was devoted to circus-specific tricks, games and performance. The children were taught to imitate, as well as to create their own ‘stage productions’. Additionally, various kinds of sports, arts and crafts activities were organised. The children also arranged their own sports ground in one of the street’s courtyards. Every few weeks a picnic was organised which also arose interest and engagement among the children’s parents.
The target group of the initiative were children aged 4-16. The activities were organised for four hours on Sundays, all children interested could participate. The activities were carried out in the vicinity of Brzeska street. In total approx. 50 children were engaged in the project, 10-15 on a regular basis. The most ‘faithful’ participants constituted the foundation of the ‘Youth club’ which was established in December 2008, after a decision had been taken by the City and district authorities to assign an adequate premises, also situated in Brzeska street.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
The Social Street Circus initiative was a project focusing on socio-economic inequality. Here specifically, its understanding was, however, closely related to how local neighbourhood communities perceive their identity as opposed to the identity of others – newcomers and strangers to them. Analogous to how Sandercock (2000) approaches the ‘dark side of difference’, which “breaks open from the inside the established categories and stereotypes of the local world (the world of the locals)” (p. 21), the negative aspects of diversity are associated with a certain social isolation and closeness of Brzeska street as a neighbourhood.
The project has had significant implications for the management of diversity, as it approached an explicitly ‘closed’ community, with a low level of social capital, and poorly socially integrated with the rest of the city.
Main factors influencing success or failure
The Street Circus was the first initiative of the kind organised on the site. The area where the project was implemented is considered to be ‘difficult’ with respect to any form of imposed social activity. The local community is considerably integrated to the inside, displaying a low level of trust towards the outside. Therefore, the relatively positive perception and interest that the project won is an undoubted success. The organisers of the initiative seek the reason for such success in:
– their open, enthusiastic and simple attitude towards the local children.“Sometimes the simplest methods are the best”, says the Coordinator, “the children were approaching us out of their own will, we did not push them in any way. This was not easy, because those are difficult children”;
– the cyclical, repetitive character of the initiative. “After some time”, the Coordinator explains, “the kids had learnt that Sunday was circus day. At least a group of them even started awaiting it. The activities were diverse and colourful, which made the children forget about everyday problems”;
– the development of good contacts with most of the children’s parents, who gradually began to show acceptance and respect towards the initiative;
– the creation of the ‘Youth club’ in Brzeska street, that followed the SSC project, which was an important step in the process of gaining ‘credibility’ within the local community, as it continued the work with the children. The establishment of the ‘Youth club’ resulted in part from the fact that the activities carried in the framework of the SSC project had been positively evaluated by the local community, as well as by the local authorities.
The main danger related to the continuation of the ‘Youth club’, and at the same time its potential failure factor is the fragile cooperation with the district and the city authorities. As the club is located in a rented premises in a tenement building, its future depends on the positive relation between the project coordinators and the City.
The Social Street Circus is an example of a simple, short-term initiative implemented by a non-profit organisation which was built less on large financial resources and sophisticated methods than on a good idea. Its aim was to foster local social cohesion and contribute to integration and the creation of social capital, eliminating negative aspects of socio-economic inequalities.
The project has succeeded to win interest of all the actors involved – the children, their parents, the growing number of volunteers and social workers, even of the city authorities. The consequence of its success was the establishment of the ‘Youth club’ which continues its task to support and motivate children living in a difficult surrounding. There are already profound examples of its positive influence on children which, in spite of earlier problems, continue education and gain a more motivated attitude towards their future. As the project Coordinator claims; “to gain trust of the community was the aim and that aim has proved to be correctly identified as crucial.”