Mariana rufolo
Ashoka Fellow desde 2015   |   Argentina

Mariana Rufolo

Circo Social del Sur
Marian Rúfolo, through her organization Circo Social del Sur, is using circus arts to prepare the most vulnerable young people for jobs and life. Meanwhile, she is working with companies to transfer…
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This description of Mariana Rufolo's work was prepared when Mariana Rufolo was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015.


Marian Rúfolo, through her organization Circo Social del Sur, is using circus arts to prepare the most vulnerable young people for jobs and life. Meanwhile, she is working with companies to transfer the skills cultivated in the circus and make way for a new generation of workers.

La idea nueva

In the future there will be many more employment opportunities for work connected with cultural interests. Currently in Argentina, engaging young people from the poorest communities, who have little or no education in any cultural activities, is difficult. The opportunity to learn circus skills is an exception. It is exciting, involves body and mind, and there are a wide range of skills to be learned. Learning those skills is a certain way to achieve self-respect and with that comes an opening to a brighter future. Mariana Rúfolo has modelled her experience from years in circus arts to create an approach that uses games, creativity, and self-assertion to improve these marginalized young people’s work and social life.

Mariana is teaching young people from diverse and difficult backgrounds to become circus performers. In Latin America, the number of circuses is increasing, and unlike in other regions, circus is actually seen as a growing field of opportunity. Through her organization, Circo Social del Sur, young people are trained in many different disciplines which improves their physical and social skills as well as their attitude towards themselves and the world at large. After their training, which lasts from six months to three years, some find professional opportunities, others become teachers and role models, and for the rest there are managed routes where help and professional advice is given to help them to find regular employment.

Through Circo Social, Mariana is creating the necessary bridge between young people and the changing world of work. The skills cultivated in the circus are more and more appreciated in the work market. Still, in this training, the possibility of self-employment is also considered, offering the young many options that allow them to display their talent and to draw a road according to their abilities and genuine interests. Already with the support of several ministries in the government of Buenos Aires, an international bank, and multinational companies, Circo Social is preparing to spread their workshops globally.

El problema

Over 10 million people, 25% of the population, live in poverty in Argentina. This means they likely have no formal job or a decent home, and have an insufficient access to healthcare. Meanwhile, 37% of young people do not finish high school, 20% do not study or work, and because of this, over half the workforce does not have a quality job. 12% of children who are between 5 and 17 years old must do some kind of work activity to support their families, and two in 10 homes require public assistance. Yet, in spite of assistance, one quarter of these 500,000 homes still cannot afford the basic food basket.

Poverty is increasing due to inflation and stagnation of the formal job market. What’s more, an estimated 3 to 4 million people work in very low quality jobs that are not integrated into the formal economy even in times of economic boon.

Young people represent one of the groups most affected by social inequality. Not only do they experience unemployment and decreasing quality of education, they also are affected by the negative stereotypes attributed to this age. Lower income young people are even more stigmatized: they are widely considered “thieves,” “victims,” “drug addicts,” or “apathetic and apolitical.” This general perception is not helpful for prospective young job seekers. It simultaneously adds another barrier to employment and contributes to low self-esteem and achievement. Unfortunately, the stereotype is part of a viscous cycle: many young people grow up in homes that lack a culture of work. Adult role models, stretching back to grandparents and great-grandparents, often have no job or low quality jobs and have lived on social assistance.

Finally, another dimension of this problem is the disconnect between what young people are prepared to do and the types of jobs available. The educational system in the region does not prepare young people adequately. For example, social-emotional skills still have not been incorporated in a systematic way in the upbringing of children and young people.

La estrategia

After several years touring as a professional circus acrobat and then bringing elements of circus arts into low income schools in southern Buenos Aires, Mariana founded Circo Social del Sur in 2002. Both through her experience with professionals and through her work in marginalized schools, Mariana saw how learning circus skills changed people, building self-confidence, teamwork, and other important life skills. Circo Social began by offering stilts workshops, and over time they extended their classes to all kinds of circus arts, through community workshops. These workshops are still offered today in 4 locations in Greater Buenos Aires. In the last 3 years, 1,000 young people have finished the year-long courses and 1,500 have attended for at least 3 months. The Circo Social team began with a team of 5 volunteer circus artists, and they have grown to over 40 people including circus instructors, psychologists, social workers, technical support, and circus artists.

Four years after the organization’s founding, they began training tutors through the Advanced Social Circus program. The objective was to get young people to “perform” better in adult life based on circus skills and tools. Still underway today, this training lasts 3 years and has a curriculum that includes courses in Entrepreneurship, Art History, Social Circus Pedagogy, Nutrition, and others. All graduates from the first class are currently leading educational or artistic activities for groups of children and young people. Meanwhile, Mariana is working with the Ministry of Education to obtain accreditation for Social Circus formation so that it can be a formally recognized form of education.

Now Circo Social is replicating in two cities in the interior of the country through the training of tutors. Circo Social Pehuajó (Social Circus Pehuajó) works annually with 120 children and young people and it is supported by the city’s Department of Culture. Acción Creativa de Coronel Suarez (Creative Action of Colonel Suárez) also works with 120 children and teenagers, and is led by a young graduate of the tutors training program.

Cultural industries are a growing part of local economies in Argentina. The Observatory of Creative Industries of Buenos Aires estimates the contribution of the “Creative Economy” in the capital, in terms of added value and employment, to be 9.1% of the GDP, and 9.5% of registered employees identify as working for this sector. In terms of economic impact, 11 of the 16 most significant economic branches of the city are cultural industries (2007). Mariana found these factors powerful arguments for systemizing the circus experience and tying it to young people’s development through employment.

In 2014, Mariana initiated a new institutional phase for Circo Social beginning with the program Superarte to help young people gain independence through work. The program has three components. The first element involves both soft skills and technical training as well as mentorship to ensure that students are prepared for the workforce. The non-technical training covers topics such as self-esteem, leadership, creativity, empathy, communication, and compromise. These are discussed in the context of the circus skills the students are learning. Then, students actually work in companies, through partnerships that are developed according to the students’ interests. The technical training therefore depends on the type of job; for example, students currently work with consultancies, food companies, and in programming. All of this training is accompanied by support from social workers, who follow the work and life trajectory of each student. Superarte partners with companies, other CSOs, and academic institutions to develop the course content. In the first edition of the program, 55 young people, three companies, and the Government of Buenos Aires city participated.

The second component of Superarte is aimed at creating demand for employment for young people that is suited to their skills. Circo Social led a research effort to clarify the connection between supply and demand for young people in the labor market. It focused on three economic sectors: technology, gastronomy, and culture. The results helped define which specific roles are best for training young people and include, for example, manual testing (for computer programming) with Arbusta and Accenture.

The third area of the Superarte initiative generates knowledge products and learning spaces for replication of the model. The consulting firm Zigla helped develop impact measures to track the Superarte students’ progress. Currently, Mariana is focused on using this information to systematize Superarte and spread it to other institutions that work with art and young people, but that are not yet focusing on the unemployment issue. Superarte already has the support of the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Education. In the next 2 years, with the technical and financial support from the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF), the model will be transferred to another 2 organizations that will reach 300 more young people in the region. Cirque du Soleil, the prestigious Canadian circus company, will lend their contacts for Superarte to be spread globally via other social circus organizations; they have a platform for exchange with about 400 organizations globally.

Meanwhile, Mariana is establishing other channels to promote social circus throughout Latin America. She co-founded the Latin American Circus Federation to try to get circus art into schools across the region. The organizations in the Federation share best practices and even funding, and work together on strategies for influencing public policy related to youth employment and education. Each organization commits to organizing exchanges for the partner organizations from different countries to come together and share their successes and failures. In 2016, the Federation will hold an international meeting of circus instructors in Buenos Aires.

In 2014, Mariana developed a training for companies called One Day at the Circus. It adapts the circus resources to provide experiential learning for employees in subjects such as teamwork, leadership, creativity, and empathy. The objective of One Day, which is carried out in partnership with Unilever, is two-fold. It generates financial support for Circo Social, but also builds relationships with the formal labor market from the inside, so they can later connect the companies with the young participants in the Superarte program. Circo Social is also supported through ticket sales from circus performances and through the MIF partnership.

Long term, Mariana sees a society with guaranteed employment opportunities for the most vulnerable young people throughout Argentina and the region, where cultural industries will continue to grow as a key component of the economy, and where traditional schools will have circus skills included in the curriculum to better prepare youth for this. The first steps toward this include a certificate of informal education from the Ministry of Education for the Superarte Course, which should arrive by the end of 2015. She is also working with the Labor Ministry, which is planning to introduce mandatory courses on soft skills in the Ministry’s own job training. In 2016, with the support of the Panama Más Foundation, Panama will offer Circo Social’s teacher training as an innovative option for young people.

La persona

Mariana grew up in a family of hard-working parents, who also had a strong appreciation for the arts. Her father was an independent theater actor, her mother a teacher, and both were tango dancers. As a child Mariana was active in many sports and was a gymnast on the national team.

At the University of Buenos Aires, she decided to study Psychology and Body Language. In her fourth year, she won a scholarship from a university in Trujillo, Peru. She travelled there along with a group of researchers and advanced Psychology and Anthropology students to learn about therapies used by indigenous groups. That experience influenced Mariana’s view of how change and transformation occurs in people: she saw social and community concepts as essential elements for successful change.

Back in Argentina, Mariana switched from studying Psychology to Social Psychology, which has a community focus. In Peru, she had seen the necessity of society’s role in individuals’ mental health and development, so she studied under Alfredo Moffatt, the founder of a preeminent psychology school in Argentina.

At that time, Mariana was also invited to be an acrobat in a professional contemporary circus company, where she fell in love with the discipline. She participated in many national and international tours, and saw the power of the circus to communicate and transform. She decided to take a circus workshop to schools, starting with those located in the most marginal zones of Buenos Aires. Later, along with her circus company, Mariana took a show to Villa 24, one of the most infamous slums in the city. The enthusiasm of the children in the neighborhood drove the creation of a three-month course stilt construction and use. Two years later, Mariana, along with residents of Villa 24 and other circus artists, founded a circus school called Escalando Altura (Climbing Heights), which served as the location for the workshops until she founded Circo Social del Sur in 2002.