Inspiring Latina: Isabela Coelho Proves That Circus Arts Can Bring About Serious Change

Isabela Coelho is co-founder and co-director of the Organization of Permaculture and Art, a non-profit organization based in the city of Salvador, capital of Bahia, on the northeastern
coast of Brazil.

How did you get become inspired to create OPA (Organization of Permaculture & Art)?
I went to college in the U.S. and started working with a community based woman’s theater called Wisefool in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We did a lot of work bringing arts to low income communities in New Mexico. I saw the value of art education and that it is an amazing tool to empower youth. When I went to Brazil in 2004 and did a permaculture course I came up with the formula to start OPA. Permaculture gives us a lot of solutions to problems that we find in the big city like pollution, huge amounts of trash, and energy waste. I decided to unite the circus arts with permaculture and that was the philosophy we used to start OPA in 2004. 

What exactly is permaculture?
Permaculture is a system of design that was founded by an Australian, Bill Morrison in the 1970’s. Basically it’s about designing sustainable environments, in terms of energy and food production. The idea behind permaculture is that to take care of the people you must take care of the environments and build community. That is what OPA started doing in Salvador, Bahia; but we use arts to get the people involved as well.

Why did you decide to start this organization in Salvador da Bahia?
I started connecting to Salvador specifically through capoiera, I was practicing and I would go to Salvador once a year. I got to know the community there. Salvador was the part of Brazil that brought in the most slaves during the trade and 80% of the population is Afro-Brazilian. It’s a very oppressive situation that they live with there; yet all the famous artists that people know from Brazil, they all come from Bahia. Art is their common language, so I thought to reach the community through the arts and environmental education. I’d had all these great experiences in the US using arts in underprivileged communities and I really wanted to bring that back with me to Brazil.

How do you get the community involved?
We make a connections with ocal NGO's, or any kind of group that is organized and we partner with them. We put out the word about the projects and get the kids involved. We teach circus skills like trapeze, stilt walking, juggling and puppet making. We also pick a place in the community that is ugly and trashed and help to transform that place with the kids. That’s how we get to teach the permaculture concepts, we build gardens and help create nice public spaces. We have a center in the neighborhood in the historic part of Salvador which we’ve had for two years now. It helps us demonstrate techniques of sustainability that are usually applied in the rural area but which we have brought into the urban setting. Our center is where we have the studio, and youth come and they have classes: circus arts, music, multi-media, and gardening. We’ve served about 500 kids so far in the community and we also have programs for adults and classes.

How can people help OPA out?
In Brazil it’s very difficult to gain access to technology like computers and digital cameras. We always need stuff like that because we have a multimedia program. General educational tools, like notebooks, basic teaching and art supplies are alwawys welcome. Tennis shoes are also a big deal, a lot of our kids don’t own a pair of shoes! Another thing we always appreciate is organic seeds because we plant a lot. We have a volunteer program for people who want to come to Brazil and have a cultural experience and share their skills. If you are interested in helping us out visit our website: