When most employees speak of “juggling” tasks or “jumping through hoops” at their place of employment, they’re speaking metaphorically, but for future participants in CircEsteem’s Social Circus Instructor Training program, it’s literally part of the job.
Founded in 2001, the Uptown-based non-profit organization uses circus arts as a tool to foster connection, creativity, and self-esteem. With a focus on underserved communities, CircEsteem provides imaginative, transformative programming for thousands of Chicago youth ages 3-19, including workshops, summer camps, and the Chicago Youth Circus (which is held on Saturdays in Uptown and Humboldt Park). Scholarships and a sliding financial aid scale are available so that no child is turned away due to financial hardship. “We strongly believe that every child should be able to play with their peers, learn through play, and try new things,” says CircEsteem’s Director of Community Outreach, Patty Aikonedo. “We never want money to prevent such experiences.”
CircEsteem is currently growing a like-minded staff by rolling out a new, paid program to train future teaching artists in circus arts with a focus on social emotional learning. The Social Circus Instructor Training program is six-months long and consists of three parts: physical training that introduces several circus art skills, teaching skills centered on social emotional learning, and observation and integration within CircEsteem’s city-wide after-school programs. The organization is currently accepting applications, and BIPOC candidates are strongly encouraged to apply. For full consideration, participants must be Chicago residents and plan to continue working with CircEsteem after completion of the program.
CircEsteem’s enriching programming includes partnerships with several Chicago Public Schools (CPS) throughout the city, bringing their playful energy straight to students’ classrooms, aged 8 to 16 years old. Through their free Homework & CircusWork after-school program, they provide an environment of academics and play throughout the week for CPS students.
“In the first part of the program, we have tutors who support the students’ academic development by assisting them with homework and offering additional educational enrichment activities,” Aikonedo says. “Once their homework is completed, students spend their remaining time with our professionally trained Teaching Artists who focus on personal development through social circus activities, such as tightrope walking or acrobatics.”
“Our mission is to unite youth from across all backgrounds and identities and to build self-esteem and mutual respect through the practice and performance of circus arts,” Aikonedo says. “The great thing about our Social Circus Instructor Training program is that we are providing individuals who may not necessarily have circus arts skills or, for example, knowledge on clowning, the opportunity to learn all of that. And, in addition, we are instilling in them the necessary skills and methods to successfully pass that knowledge onto the young kids they will eventually teach.”
With support from an anonymous donor and a $4.2 million community development grant from the Department of Planning and Development’s Chicago Recovery Plan, CircEsteem has purchased the building they’ve long called home, and once was a movie theater at 4730 N. Sheridan. Plans are in the works to remodel the interior and restore the building’s exterior to its original 1920s glory. “This building is over one hundred years old, so we want to update everything on the inside to reflect modern day technology, while outside we want to keep that spirit of what the Uptown neighborhood and the community is all about,” Aikonedo says.
The Social Circus Instructor Training program honors that spirit of Uptown’s legacy as an arts and culture hub while passing the torch from one generation of Chicago artists to the next. “Our Teaching Artists are highly trained in identifying comfort zones and making sure that the environment is safe for students to explore and navigate these new skills at their own pace.” Aikonedo says. “Through the Social Circus Instructor Training program, our Teaching Artists build their own self-esteem around circus arts, so they will be able to relate to the students they’ll eventually lead through the shared experience of learning and performing circus arts.”