St. Louis’ Regional Arts Commission announced its very first Social Impact Fund grants today, with nearly one-third of the 28 winning projects related to Ferguson.
One of the winners is Circus Harmony, an organization that promotes social change though circus arts. The group will use its $2,200 grant to bring kids from Ferguson into the tent.
Last summer, Circus Harmony’s St. Louis Arches spent an extra week in Israel when flights were canceled because of fighting there. Days after they returned home, the shooting death of Michael Brown turned Ferguson into a hotbed of unrest.
Circus Harmony founder Jessica Hentoff said the local conflict wasn’t all that different from what happened along the Gaza Strip.
“It was the same basic problem, it was us and them, us and the other, and there is fear and mistrust,” Hentoff said.
Hentoff will use the RAC grant as seed money to begin circus classes at the Ferguson library in February. She says children who learn circus skills begin to define themselves by their abilities instead of by the labels that society gives them, something she hears in their conversations.
“They don’t go, ‘What school do you go to, again?’ They go ‘Do you juggle, do you flip?’” Hentoff said. “And then they find what connects them and what they can focus on to create something amazing together.”
Another way Hentoff hopes to help kids in Ferguson is to award circus-training scholarships. Some funding for those scholarships will come from a special arrangement with Cirque du Soleil. Those who buy their tickets for the Jan. 9 performance of Cirque’s “Varekai” through the Circus Harmony website by Dec. 27 will ensure that 100 percent of the proceeds benefit Circus Harmony scholarships.
Ferguson residents in the footlights
The Gitana Productions organization is also a recipient of a Social Impacts grant for a Ferguson-related idea. Gitana will use its $2,500 in connection with an upcoming play called “Black and Blue.” The play explores the complicated relationship between African-American communities and the police.
Gitana executive director Cecilia Nadal said the money will be used to train Ferguson residents to audition for roles in “Black and Blue.”
“We’ve been doing all these interviews with people in Ferguson and we’ve met many talented people who have stories they could tell themselves,” Nadal said.
Nadal plans for 15 spots in the theater program, and hopes to cast five of them in the play. All theater-training participants will emerge with improved presentations skills, Nadal said.
In all, RAC’s Social Impact grants total more than $56,000. The full list can be found on the RAC website.
Besides Circus Harmony and Gitana, six other groups and individuals plan to use the money with Ferguson in mind. The full list of those:
- Artists as Tutors (Ferguson and St. Louis): $2,000
- Circus Harmony: $2,200
- Gitana Productions: $2,500
- Leverage Dance Theatre (for St. Louis and Ferguson): $2,500
- Missouri Jobs with Justice: $2,000
- De Andrea Nichols: $1,200
- St. Louis Children’s Choir (for Riverview Gardens, Jennings and Ferguson): $2,000
- St. Louis Dancers Step-UP: $2,200
RAC launched the Social Impact grants to address inequality in the area. In a news release, RAC executive director Jill McGuire said the program “allows us to immediately respond and meet the changing dynamics of our region.”
“The need for positive change in our community has never been greater. The arts can be the catalyst for that change, through collaborative and culturally-informed efforts,” McGuire said.
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL