This is the final part in our blog series from Naomi Shafer. In this post she talks about how she uses the lessons she has learned from her previous experience of volunteering (shared in parts one and two on this blog) to run the Clowns Without Borders international volunteer program.
I’m the Executive Director of a non-profit called Clowns Without Borders. Our mission is to promote resilience through laughter. This means we perform in refugee camps, conflict zones, natural disaster sites, and for communities experiencing crisis.
Our volunteers are incredibly talented, incredibly generous people, who all volunteer within their existing professional skill set. That means our performing volunteers are already professional clowns, circus artists, and musicians. We also work with non-performing volunteers like website designers, photographers, videographers, and writers.
One of my favorite—and one of the most challenging—parts of my job is selecting volunteers for our tours and determining if a non-performing volunteer is a good fit.
What does the partner need?
Clowns Without Borders always works with a project partner and we only go where we are invited. This is a conscious effort to shift away from the colonial framework of international aid and volunteering. I do not propose (or impose) projects. Instead, I build partnerships and respond to the needs of project partners who are already working in the area of the proposed tour.
Once we are ready to collaborate, I ask the project partner what they want to accomplish and what type of program would serve them best. Sometimes the partner is not able to provide a translator, and asks that all performers be fluent in the local language. On a recent project for women and children who had survived human trafficking, the partner requested only female performers. Sometimes the partner’s main concern is the comfort of the team. It’s important to choose volunteers who can work with challenging conditions, like when running water or electricity are unavailable. I ask, “What does the partner need?” before asking, “What does the project need?” That way, I keep the perspective that the partner may not need, or want, a Clowns Without Borders project.
Our audiences are incredibly vulnerable. Often they have been displaced by violence, natural disaster, and/or economic circumstances. This means they may have limited agency. Our project partners are also incredibly vulnerable. They may also have limited resources and agency. I try to remind myself that hearing “No, we can’t work together at this time,” is actually a win. It means that we successfully built an honest relationship based on both our needs.
What does the team need?
Let’s say the project is confirmed. Now comes the fun part! Once I hear back from artists, CWB’s selection committee starts building a performing team. Building a team starts with balancing skills and representation. I put a call out to our artist network, including dates and an overview of the project.
Some projects need a specific skill, like musicians, a teacher, a director, someone with street-performing experience, an acrobat, an Arabic-speaker, a puppeteer…etc. When this is the case, we look to cast volunteers who are experienced clowns and possess the required skill set.
Watching a performance is a powerful experience. It is important that our teams represent our values of being “without borders.” This means that all of our teams include artists from multiple countries and cultures of origin. Except for when a project requests an all-female team, we also consider gender diversity. Whenever possible—which is most of the time—I work to include at least one team member from the country, or country of origin, of our audience.
What are the volunteer’s strengths?
I strive to cast volunteers based on their existing strengths. Those strengths include performing skills , but also who they are as a person. A three-week project is about so much more than time on stage. It’s about how each artist interacts with the team, how they interact with the project partner, their curiosity and cultural humility, and their self-awareness.
What kind of support does the volunteer need, and am I able to offer it?
It is best for both the organization and the volunteer to be honest about what sort of support is needed, and what is available. Sometimes this is easy to describe— a volunteer might need refrigeration for a medication. Sometimes it is a grey area. A volunteer may know that, from their own experience, they will have challenges working with an audience who has experienced sexual violence.
When is it inappropriate to use a volunteer?
Clowns Without Borders has persisted for 25 years because artists around the world donate their professional time. That said, making a living as a performer is hard. We know asking for volunteers automatically rules out those who cannot afford to give their time away for free. Volunteering often reinforces systemic patterns of privilege and access.
For example, we do not use volunteers when we work with artists who are “local” to the project. When we perform in Colombia, we pay the Colombian artists who join us on the project. This way, we try to make sure that artists don’t have to choose between paying gigs and CWB.
The team participates in daily debriefs to find out how to support each other. I also stay on-call to check in with individual volunteers. Recently, we have adopted the best practice of offering volunteers access to professional therapeutic support when they return from the project. While I stay in contact with the team throughout the tour and offer a debrief on their own, I know that some experiences require professional intervention. Many aid workers experience secondary trauma, and thus burnout. As someone who coordinates volunteers, I believe it is my responsibility to address and mitigate the potential for PTSD. I also recognize that volunteers may want to process difficult experiences with someone other than the person who hired them!
I also encourage all volunteers to think about what brings them comfort. Sometimes this seems counterintuitive, especially on a project where long car rides, cold showers, and simple meals are the norm. I travel with essential oils. No matter where I am in the world, whether or not I have access to a hot bath, the smell of lavender makes me feel calm. I worked with someone who traveled with Jolly Ranchers. Someone else traveled with a coloring book. One volunteer told me that she dedicated some of her small luggage space to a foam roller, while another brought printed photos of his children.
Effective volunteers are not martyrs and not heroes. They bring their skills, their curiosity, their learner’s mind, and their ability to take care of themselves.
Naomi Shafer is a clown and producer. She uses humor, playfulness and physical storytelling to turn power dynamics upside down – see her in action here. As the Executive Director of Clowns Without Borders USA, she produces clown tours in refugee camps, conflict zones and sites of natural disaster. She holds a B.A. from Middlebury College, an M.B.A. from Marlboro College, and a rubber chicken from the San Francisco Circus Center Clown Conservatory. The main photo shows a CWB audience in Palestine in 2019,
Photo Credit Clowns Without Borders.