What I learned from the Burning Man culture about community
In 2013, my sister told me about an event that she thought might interest me. She told me that it involves art and good people. She also talked about principles and traditions. I literally thought she was weird.
But as a wonderful older sister, she always knew how to introduce me to the best things that exist — from great, unknown music bands and interesting exhibitions, to innovative trends and creative concepts. So I said OK, and I went.
And that’s how I got introduced to the Burning Man community.
For more than 30 years, tens of thousands of people have been gathering every year in Black Rock City, a temporary city created by the participants, which celebrates art, creation, and of course, community. Throughout the years many local Burners (the Burning Man community members) around the world have started adapting the Burning Man culture and have created their own version: Nowhere in Spain, AfrikaBurn in South Africa, Midburn in Israel, and others.
From spark to flame, the entire Burn experience is a huge school for learning about community, even as a member of the community and as a community consultant. The Burn community is a model for any organization, business, or person interested in creating a culture that nurtures collaboration, growth, creativity, and innovation.
Applying community guidelines
Every community needs fundamental guidelines in order to protect and promote its culture.
The father of Burning Man, Larry Harvey, created the Burning Man 10 principles in 2004, almost 20 years following the first event. As the community grew and grew, with more people at Black Rock City and more regional events, he wanted to keep the community’s culture. Until today, the principles are not rules but rather guidelines to what the community values are.
Here are a few principles that I like the most:
When people reach out to me to learn about the Burn experience, I say that the more you participate, the stronger and more meaningful the experience is. The Burn is not a commercial festival where you can buy everything. You bring everything that you need and want. What you bring is what you’ll get. There is no place to buy forgotten supplies (except ice). People prepare months before the event to create art, develop content, and arrange themselves to the Burn.
The Burn experience is not only about participating by doing, but also about collaboration. That’s why all members are responsible to protect other members and their interaction and the public spaces. The community couldn’t thrive without this collective effort.
There are no prerequisites to the community. Anyone can become a community member and participate.
I’m glad to take part in a community that literally does that, as someone who believes in DEI (Diversity, equity, and inclusion). You can join no matter what your background: if you’re a man or woman, regardless of religion or what type of work you do. I can be a community consultant in my regular life and during the Burn, experience being an artist even if I never studied art.
The only thing you can buy is the ticket, which covers security and infrastructure for the public spaces. Therefore, the community serves as a safe space that isn’t driven out of interests, hidden or known. During the event you can buy ice, to help participants survive in the harsh desert. There are no sponsors, advertising, and other commodities – and that secures the culture and support the members’ experience.
The principle of Decommodification opens the door to create a wonderful culture of gifting. There is no exchange or bartering, just giving. And when members are open to give whatever they want, beautiful things happen. There is a common phrase called “the playa provides,” (the “playa” is where the event takes place) and it literally does. Imagine a crazy wish such as riding a dragon, and suddenly an art car in the shape of a dragon will appear in the playa.
Leaving No Trace
Just as Black Rock City or Midburn City arises from the dust, when the event is over and all participants have left, you won’t find any trace of them. The community is committed to respect the environment and take everything back home, from art installations to garbage. That’s why you won’t find public garbage bins in the event, and you will find people hanging around with their non disposable cups.
Developing the community rituals
Great communities have their own rituals. Sometimes it is a weekly discourse at the virtual platform, sometimes it’s a monthly group-learn, and sometimes it’s a yearly event (as the Black Rock City formation). Not only do the rituals encourage engagement, they are also nurturing and fostering the community’s culture.
The Burn community has many rituals too— some are intended and some are not. Long queues await the participants in big events, which open the doors to start the event before its gate. When reaching the gate, greeters welcome the participants. Beyond a warm welcome, they onboard members and emphasize community guidelines such as Leave No Trace and answer questions raised. The courageous participants are ringing a big bell and even lying in the sand to form sand angels.
Speaking about onboarding, the Survival Guide helps members, new and veteran, to understand the community guidelines and learn everything they need in order to experience the temporary city at its most.
Other rituals during the event are burning the man statue, not surprisingly, and also Tutu Tuesday when many wear Tutus. Additionally, there is White Shabbat at Midburn City, where many wear white clothes to welcome the Shabbat on Friday’s eve. This is an interesting interpretation of the sub-community of the Burn community.
Creating a supportive space for community values
When forming a new community, many leaders that I work with are mistaken to think that everyone can be part of the community. It might be tough, but it’s best to think about who the early adopters are. Which people will likely most benefit from the community’s values and will also likely contribute? And overall, who’s not the right fit for the community?
One of the natural filters for the Burn is the physical conditions. Although everyone is welcome to join and contribute, not every person can go to the desert and spend a week in such harsh conditions. We’re talking about water, shade, and food, all items which the participants need to bring in order to survive. The Burn experience is intensive also, and sometimes it serves another filter. Happiness, sadness, and even boredom are all part of the experience. And those filters are totally fine, because those who are willing to do so will likely contribute to the whole community experience.
And what’s more beautiful is that there are many ways to be part of the community. One can contribute to building the city without attending the event itself. Or participate at a smaller event, with better conditions, during the year.
Forming the community language
Community culture is also about the language. Many communities form their own language that distinguish them, such as:
- The community members and event participants are “Burners.”
- Moop (Matter out of place) is anything that is not originally of the land on which the burn event takes place.
- Playa is the land where the event takes place.
- Playa name is a name given to a participant, whether by others or the participant itself. The playa name is another Burn ritual, as it allows participants to experiment with their identity.
Community language creates the sense of belonging. Saying that, it’s crucial to pay-it-forward so new community members will feel comfortable.
Building the community institutions
When a community grows, its members’ roles are more important than ever. And when a community is based on participation, such as the Burning Man community, it needs to find its way to establish and maintain institutions that will support the community.
That’s why the Burning Man has a board of directors and a staff that works all year-round. There’s also Emeriti, distinguished alumni who, while not currently filling official roles with Burning Man, have made substantial contributions to the event and the culture.
Midburn members have founded an NGO to encourage and support community effort and art making based on the 10 principles and the Burning Man event. While three members are working for the NGO, other members can become the NGO members — the general assembly. Among their responsibilities are deciding the NGO’s goals and changing its standardization. They also select the board of directors — five volunteering members who lead the NGO activity. They approve its workplan and budget, supervise the activity, and also represent the organization to stakeholders.
Community members also serve in the production departments, i.e., Communication, that communicates everything the members should know about the event, the Public Projects that build the temporary city’s infrastructures and public spaces, and the Access department, that implements the radical inclusion principle and supports members who need assistance to participate.
Another institute of both the Burning Man and Midburn are the Rangers. They are members who are trained and receive authority from the community to ensure the community’s continued well-being. They help members in acculturating the community’s culture, support them in need, facilitate when a conflict arises, and answer questions. If you already guessed, I can tell you from personal experience that serving as a Ranger is such a fulfilling role, and it’s a wonderful example for a community institute that serves the whole community.
One of the most important points I took away from the Burning Man culture is that there is no hierarchy. Every participant, whether they’ve been coming for one week or two years, has an equal say in how they want to engage in the community.
How to start a movement
The Burning Man community has a deep culture, and it’s interesting to learn how it evolved from just one man. It reminds me of this great video on how to start a movement. When the community grows, sub-communities rise and interpret the original community culture and also create their own adaptations, as we see in the regional Burning Man communities. At AfrikaBurn, the 11th principal is Each One Teach One. Since the community believes in communal effort and participation, it moves the responsibility of spreading the culture from the community leaders to the members.
External changes also influence the communities’ culture. In recent years, the principle of Leave No Trace is transforming into “Leave a Better Place,” meaning we should leave the event space in a better condition than when we found it. I guess that climate change concerns have contributed to this change.
To sum it up, what made me truly amazed about the Burn community was realizing why we were all there in the first place — to experiment and create something together that is larger than each one of us. A temporary city in the desert. That’s a community.
Which community inspires you?
Want to learn more about communities and what you can implement in yours? Let’s talk.