Alejandra is using circus to prepare children and youth to be active citizens. She engages youth from multiple communities in Chilean society, especially those with little or no education in cultural activities. She uses the excitement of the circus to involve the body and mind of children in a wide range of skills and activities which enable them to achieve a sense of self-respect and accomplishment.
The New Idea
Alejandra uses circus techniques (performance acrobatics, trapeze, juggling, etc.) to cultivate social emotional skills in children and young people in order to empower and equip them for purposeful and successful lives. She is successfully bringing these techniques into schools with the effect of increasing graduation and job placement rates. Alejandra engages children and youth from multiple communities in Chilean society using the excitement of these circus techniques to involve the body and mind of each child. The children are exposed to a wide range of skills and activities that enable them to achieve a sense of self-respect and accomplishment. Alejandra is successfully bringing these techniques into schools, and has proven that there is a positive effect on graduation and job placement rates.
Through her work, she demonstrates how circus techniques are effective at developing certain attributes such as empathy, discipline, teamwork, resilience, and self-confidence, as well as the ability to solve and overcome difficulties. This is due to the amount of precision and collaboration with other teammates. In this discipline, children and youth work in teams and rely on and trust in each other to accomplish very precise tasks, often where risk of bodily injury is involved. At the same time, the fun, hands-on aspect of circus naturally attracts children. Furthermore, the physical demands influence young people to eat well, exercise, and look after themselves. This effect also steers them away from alcohol and drug abuse.
After seeing the impact of this work in communities across Chile, Alejandra is now focusing on integrating circus techniques and the skills development they provide into the Chilean education system. Alejandra is drawing attention to, and successfully incorporating a subject that is focused on social-emotional literacy and performing arts into the mainstream Chilean curriculum. This includes training teachers to use circus techniques as a way to engage students in more traditional subjects, such as physics. She is at the cutting edge of social innovation when it comes to creative approaches in the Chilean education space.
Alejandra is a reference and mentor in the Southern Cone and beyond. She has been a source of inspiration for social entrepreneurs in other Latin American countries such as Argentina, where they are looking to replicate her model and impact.
The vulnerability of young people in Chile, especially the poor, is affected not only by the underprivileged social environment in which they grow, but also by the rigid formal education they receive, which is focused solely on developing traditional academic skills. The Chilean education system has little to no emphasis on developing socioemotional skills, essential to building resilience and creative and critical thinking, as well as promoting healthy social development. This phenomenon is present throughout all educational levels, from schools to universities to technical institutes.
PISA results show that Chilean students are 52 points below the OECD average in problem-solving skills. This means these students have scarce capacity to participate in cognitive processes that aim to understand and resolve problems that do not have an immediate method of solution. Chile also ranks sixth among the OECD countries in percentage of NINIs (“ni estudia, ni trabaja”; in English, NEET—young people not in employment, education, or training). Lack of motivation, lack of self-confidence, a feeling of helplessness before their reality are leading children and young people to a life where there is no interest in school, no path to work, and in some cases a resort to crime as a perceived solution to their problems.
In Chile, there is a generalized sense of injustice in the system, a sense defeatism that spreads in a society that is socially segregated, and where there is widespread mistrust of others. Chile now ranks the highest of the OECD countries in levels of distrust among the population.
At all levels of schooling, the system has failed to form integral beings with the critical and reflective capacities to develop as pro-active citizens able to take care of their needs and those of their communities. This is a problem that has not been addressed with the urgency it deserves, and is directly influencing a growing vulnerability of the new generations, which cannot find space to express themselves, cultivate critical skills, discover their strengths, and develop as whole persons.
Education reform in Chile has been dominated by student movements that have gained a reputation around the world. Even though the movement has obtained some changes, it has adamantly centered on the demand for free education. The movement has neglected the issue of defining and delivering a quality education in today’s world.
Alejandra is introducing a creative new approach in Chile’s education system, demonstrating the importance and possibility of supporting young people to develop self-confidence, teamwork, resilience, creativity, discipline and other social-emotional capacities as part of their educational experience. After many years of engaging vulnerable children from as early as four years old in learning circus techniques, spreading circus as a performing art in Chile, and developing a path for young people who want to continue in the performing art of circus, Alejandra has developed an approach for using circus techniques to cultivate essential life skills. She is now integrating this methodology into school curriculum, training teachers in it, and influencing public policy to reach many more children and change education to empower young people as engaged citizens in today’s world.
Through Circo del Mundo, Alejandra and the young people and communities she works with, have seen the transformational effects that circus training can have on children. Through her community programs, which are hosted by community centers, cultural centers, schools, and other local institutions across Chile and have reached around 20.000 children, she has shown that circus is a powerful training for life. Her evaluations have shown significant increases in participants’ self-esteem ( from 61% to 81%), capacities in communication, trust, creativity, and teamwork. Circus techniques, by nature, are engaging for children, and they are also highly collaborative, creative, risky, and precise. When flying through the air, one develops self-confidence and trust in one’s teammates. When engaged in a joint acrobatic or other maneuver, one has to be extremely attentive to and communicate effectively with others to execute the maneuver and keep everyone safe. The young people in Circo del Mundo also develop creativity as they design shows to perform for their families and the public.
Alejandra works with children from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, as well as with differently abled children and pregnant teenagers. The methodology of each class and program varies according to the recipient group. Individual results are measured as each child is empowered to discover their own learning abilities and learning process throughout the program.
With Circo del Mundo, Alejandra has created a new and more democratic concept of performing art for Chile that has become nationally renowned. The training as well as the shows are free, thereby enabling poorer families and communities to watch and expose their children to the possibilities of circus. She founded a “mini company” to enable the young people who become passionate about what they learn in Alejandra’s program, the opportunity to deepen their learning. For those of age who want to continue professionally, she created Chile’s first professional circus school, geared toward the formation of professional, self-sustaining circus artists. The students are also empowered and encouraged to create their own circus companies or businesses which can increase the spread of this work to more communities, thereby increasing its socio-cultural impact. For example there are several of her students that started their own projects (Cirquina, Duo Pista, Los Nadie) and they are doing workshops and shows in other parts of Chile. Also, there is one case of a child from a vulnerable, disadvantaged background that created his own successful production company in South Africa.
Alejandra wants to make the development benefits of her work available to all children. Therefore, after engaging with schools for a few years through providing her program as an extracurricular activity, Alejandra began engaging with the Ministry of Education in 2013 to start incorporating circus directly into the curriculum. Alejandra has designed courses that are offered as part of the current curriculum in eight public vocational schools in Chile.
The methodology of these classes is a “circular” structure, as there are no determined roles. The teacher becomes a facilitator to best foster and maximize the abilities and skills of each individual child. At the beginning of each class a topic of interest is chosen by the children. Some of the topics include drugs, violence and abortion. At this point, everyone shares their opinions and differing views are discussed without drawing conclusions, in order to appreciate differences, develop empathy and strengthen tolerance. The next stage is physical warm-up called the "circle of training," from which they then move on to the "circle of the art." Here the students are divided into groups and go through various circus techniques (aerial, juggling and acrobatics), all in which they need each other, thereby learning that it is essential to collaborate, trust and support each other regardless of the differences they may have. In this space there are always group skills involved and there is time for stretching, for self-care. The final part of the class is the “circle of self-assessment,” where each student speaks of their learnings of the day, their behavior, their realizations and their struggles. It is in this space where the facilitator creates the proper environment for the children to share and learn to find solutions to conflicts so they may better co-exist and work in teams.
Alejandra encourages children and youth to take responsibility for their participation in each circus class and workshop. In the second part of the class they choose their own techniques to develop and eventually take control of the creation and design of their shows, which fosters a sense of ownership and develops decision-making capacities. By challenging themselves in this way they become instilled with confidence and build a strong sense of teamwork and creativity that Alejandra feels is a healthy and necessary preparation to deal with the real world.
The impact of Circo del Mundo in these schools has been profound. Graduation rates that were only 10 to 12 percent before the program have increased to 83 percent. Before the program, only 10 to 15 percent of students stayed in jobs with the employers where they did their required internships. Now that number is 75 percent.
To spread the impact of the methodology, Alejandra has begun piloting teacher trainings that help teachers use circus techniques to teach more traditional subjects. This enables the teachers to foster an environment where children collaborate as much as possible and develop a sense of agency from early on. Teachers are also given the tools to access their creative and playful side, helping them transform their classroom and teaching style. The program also enables them to tap into their pedagogical skills and find new ways to teach subjects like mathematics and physics.
Additionally, while Alejandra’s school program currently requires a Circo del Mundo educator to teach the formal class, in the coming year, Alejandra is aiming to start circus training for kindergarten teachers. The aim is to enable them to teach the methodology themselves. Kindergarten in Chile has a particularly rigid approach, so Alejandra believes the impact there could be great.
Alejandra has paired these program developments with efforts to change public policy. She has already been successful in getting circus considered as an art form in Chile, which opens the door for her efforts to bring it into schools. She is also seeking validation from the Ministry of Education for circus arts in teacher training as a methodology for the development of socioemotional skills. This would enable many more teachers to be trained, independent of Circo del Mundo. She has formed a coalition of organizations in the performing arts space to advocate for the inclusion of such arts in the national school curriculum.
Now Alejandra has added an additional model of funding. She created an OTEC (Technical Training Organization), to do corporate training to different companies to teach circus techniques to employees to improve their team work, communication abilities and leadership.
Also, she has partnerships with the Ministry of Culture to finance the professional school, to allow youths to be circus artists without paying and remove the barriers of access. On the other hand, the “Mini Company” is completely financed by the own funding of Circo del Mundo.
Today, the circular methodology and the evaluation methodology are being replicated at a Latin American level (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela) and Alejandra has being recognized as a mentor in Brazil and Argentina.
Alejandra was born into a family where she learned honesty and solidarity as primary values. She studied at a British school in Chile, where following an artistic path, her passion, was not the norm. She pursued it anyway, educating herself as an actress and finding her way to theater school after graduating. Pursuing this while her country was under the dictatorship of Pinochet, her love of art was combined with a strong social commitment to fight for the freedom of citizens. As she was studying, she went out into poor communities to teach theater to young people as a tool for social change. She actively participated in the struggle to restore democracy, using theater to communicate in communities what was happening in Chile.
In 1987, her fiancé was exiled from Chile, so they settled in Sweden, where Alejandra got involved with a theater company bringing Latin American theater to the Swedish community and teaching young people from various countries. But she longed to be back home, helping build a better country. In 1991, she returned to Chile, and she started to do theater classes to vulnerable children and then she was called to be the culture manager of Pirque´s Municipality.
In 1995, she began working in Canelo de Nos, a Chilean NGO, where she had the opportunity to begin developing a program in partnership with Cirque du Soleil, training in circus to use it as a way of engaging with street children. After her training, she heard about some new community centers for vulnerable children, as a place for them to go during the day, and she began a program in these centers for children to learn circus techniques. When she saw the impact on the children and a decline in family violence, she realized she had found a powerful tool, and the idea for Circo del Mundo took hold. Her ideals and way to build a better and fairer society was no longer in the political struggle but in the formation of citizens, building the capacity of resilience and giving space for hundreds of children and young people to be free to build their own future.
She ultimately left Canelo de Nos to establish Circo del Mundo as an independent organization in 2000. Between 2002-2005, the day centers began to close as schools moved to full-time, and Circo del Mundo then started moving into schools as an extracurricular activity, and now into the curriculum itself. Each step and the impact created has further strengthened her conviction of the effectiveness of the circus as an integral tool for education and social mobility.