Change: Racial Justice and Circus Arts

Wednesday, Apr 28, 2021
by Oyin Sangoyomi '23, Student Correspondent

This past month, multiple colleges collaborated on Journeys Toward Justice, a series of events that have spotlighted changemakers across the country in order to build a greater, collective understanding of the local, historical, and contemporary contexts of social justice issues. On April 20, Princeton contributed to the series with “Change with the Trenton Circus Squad,” an event sponsored by Breakout Princeton and presented by both the John H. Pace Jr. ’39 Center for Civic Engagement as well as the Trenton Circus Squad, an after-school program that uses circus arts to encourage youth to take big leaps in life.

“Empathy is the key. We don’t [all] have the same experiences, and recognizing that is how to advance the conversation.” - Bradd Jackson, Director of Operations, Trenton Circus Squad

For the Trenton Circus Squad, the summer of 2020 was spent researching and talking about issues related to racial justice. In the midst of this time full of political and social turmoil, the youth of the Squad decided that they did not want to be silent anymore, resulting in them filming a contemporary circus performance titled “Change.” 

In this hour-long video, the youth members of the Squad speak out against police brutality through dance numbers that incorporate circus stunts such as acrobatics and juggling. Afterwards, “Black Lives Matter” is displayed on each of the performers’ shirts as a musical remix of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous “I Have a Dream” speech plays. It is with this powerful image that the kids who participated end the show. As one of the creative directors, Tyshaun Thomas, puts it, this show “was an opportunity for [the Squad] to allow the youth to take charge.”

After a screening of “Change,” participants in the Journeys Toward Justice virtual event had the opportunity to speak to members of the Squad in small-group settings. 

In one such group, Squad member Breanna Moreland discussed her experience as both a creative director of and a performer in “Change.” Moreland’s act was about police brutality, and through trapeze art and dance, this act depicted children who had been caught in a shooting. Moreland notes that it was difficult to perform this because of the subject matter and because she needed to show a lot of emotion, but what motivated her through it was the fact that this is not just a scenario; things like this really happen. Moreland emphasizes that she “channeled all [her] anger into performing that.”

Putting on this show was originally not on the Squad’s radar, but given the events of summer 2020, when the opportunity presented itself, the Squad seized it. In just two weeks, “Change” was created, but that was not the end of the road.

Natasha Shatzkin, a member of the Squad, discussed how the Squad received pushback from their local supporters. Shatzkin explains that the Trenton Circus Squad had never used “graphic images like this,” causing some unrest. Shatzkin goes on to say that the directors had to fight for their vision, and ultimately they believe that “people who were originally skeptical are now swayed” in their stances.

Shatzkin is glad that the Trenton Circus Squad has now established themselves as an organization that speaks about racial justice, and going forwards, they hope to do more in that realm. In fact, Shatzkin notes that it is the Squad’s hope that “Change” is the first performance of what will become an annual tradition for the Squad. 

With actions like these, the Squad hopes to continue amplifying important subject matters just as they did with “Change,” working towards a better collective understanding. 

“Empathy is the key,” concludes Bradd Jackson, the Squad’s director of operations. “We don’t [all] have the same experiences, and recognizing that is how to advance the conversation.”

Journeys Toward Justice was a collaboration between Brown University, Duke University, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, Stanford University, Tulane University, University of California, Berkeley, University of North Carolina,  University of Richmond, University of San Francisco, and Yale University. The effort aimed to spotlight changemakers across the country who are driving justice and equity forward. The goal was to connect students, partners, and communities with one another to build greater understanding of the local, historical, and contemporary contexts of social justice issues.

Watch the recording of the April 20 event, which includes a screening of "Change."