The Poetry of Impact and Why Black Rock City Matters

Burning Man Project
Nov 20, 2020 · 18 min read

Gino Borges’ path led him from a California dairy farm to earning a Ph.D. in Communications from Purdue University, from Nevada desert quests to family ranch stewardship. And now from conventional real estate investing to impact investing.

Gino is a Partner at OpenPath Investments, transforming ordinary apartment complexes into thriving communities via their Urban Village program. Additionally, Gino invests in impact-driven companies, with an emphasis on social and ecological resilience, such as FullCycle, Blokable, and Aspiration.

Gino is dedicated to unveiling a different story of impact — the poetry of impact. He has dedicated his work towards creating a space for all to uncover the emotional, mental, and spiritual successes and challenges along the path of impact, revealing the deeply human side of impact in all aspects of life.

Gino first visited the playa in 2003 to experience the Double Hot Springs on the North side of the playa. For Gino, Burning Man is the only event where he can go a whole week without somebody asking “What do you do?” During Burning Man, people want to exist in “being” mode, and from that, all the wonders of life emerge — connection turns into love, raw ideas into rich imaginative moments, and doubt turns into trust. It’s the poetic realm of existence in action…”

What is POI?

Poetry of Impact (POI) is an invitation to impact-inspired investors, founders, authors and artists to explore eternal topics often considered irrelevant or off-limits in “money” conversations: essence, loss, love, nature, and embodiment, just to name a few. Poetry of Impact is a discovery process in which we come to better understand the archetypal trends and patterns that we, as a collective impact space, carry forward. Our stories work best together, rather than in isolated frames, to move our mission forward and to offer insight into the evolution of the impact space, illuminating a deep sense of alchemy and — above all — heart.

POI is the portal into the deeper, resilient forms of impact. It sets the table for us all to see our journey in impact against the backdrop of eternal issues (love, loss, essence, nature), which in effect helps all of us move toward seeing our circumstantial lives in a dialectical dance with our inner world, and even more with human history, a much bigger lens that invites multidimensional existences. I hope for impact-driven souls to consider the architecture of impact ontology (Being) and impact epistemology (philosophy of knowing) as the inner/outer toolkit that travels with them regardless of their preferred, secular context.

NOTE: This interview was conducted by Jon Mitchell, Burning Man Project’s Jackrabbit Speaks alum and semi-retired Publisher.

Jon: Tell me how you first ended up out at Burning Man.

Gino: The first time I heard about it was in 2000. I was still in graduate school at the time, at Purdue University, doing my Ph.D. in Philosophy. My dad called me up, and we’re having a typical conversation about sports and all that, when he drops this idea that he was going to Burning Man.

I was intrigued, so I asked him, “What is that?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” he replied. “I just read about it in the paper. It seems sort of colorful and fun.”

He ended up going without me, and I asked him afterward about how he enjoyed it.

Fast-forward to 2003, and I’m reading my parents’ newspaper, the Reno Gazette-Journal, and here it was again, this Burning Man event.

The woman I was dating at the time said, “We should go.” So, we started getting everything ready — but only a few days beforehand, my girlfriend realized she wasn’t going to be able to get off work. She encouraged me to still go out alone which I ended up doing.

As soon as I arrived at night, I realized I had come woefully underprepared. I only had a tent and very little food. And, I got lost. I was like, “Oh, shit.” So, I went back to my tent and started reading my book. I figured I could wait until the next day to voyage out more in the daylight!

The next morning I felt much better: got my bike, got some orientation, got started…only to then, that afternoon, did my tent completely blow away because I hadn’t fastened it down. My food got clobbered with dust since I didn’t fasten the lids on tight. It was a complete debacle, all because I was poorly prepared.

You obviously were open to returning to Black Rock City. What kept you returning?

Good question. I experienced a couple things: I fell in love with the concept of Center Camp and with the “Moulin Rouge” feeling of ongoing, evolving performances there. The sheer eclecticism of it all connected together…I loved that. I enjoyed the morning coffee routine. Plus, I was just so amazed by all the color in the space and just all the work that goes into the process.

I discovered I’m more of a daytime person than a nighttime person at Burning Man, too. I mean, I’m normally the guy who comes back like at one o’clock in the morning, not the one staying out ’til sunlight. But that first night, when I rode out to the deep Playa and just felt the energy… Going out there the first time, I’ll never forget that..

It really warmed my body up to the possibility and the central role that social collaboration and social connection have as a driving force. That may be what this whole experiment on Earth is about. It’s not functionality. It’s not efficiency. It’s not performance. It’s really about all of those things as merely vehicles or channels to put people, potentially, in a better position to collaborate and connect. And that’s what I felt out there.

How do you feel the Poetry of Impact connects to your experiences on the Playa?

I realized early on in my twenties that the world and culture around me was overly occupied with what I now call the world of grammar and form. Just basic form for form’s sake, and little questioning about the form. But then, I started to think, “Wow, what’s it take to actually understand that life requires a certain amount of form, but that form also must be permeable, to the extent that it can also be reimagined and recreated to adapt and be resilient?”

I didn’t know that in my twenties and thirties, but I wasn’t really identifying with the cultural forms around me, either. If you’re in that place, and you don’t know your way out, the tendency is to engage in resistance, right? All of a sudden, “Rage Against the Machine” and the “Smashing Pumpkins” mentality starts taking over your psyche. And that, to me, was exhausting!

So, there I am, in my thirties, thinking there’s got to be a better way — the thought process going something like, “Wow, there must be a way to honor life’s patterns that are necessary for everybody to come together and for things to function…” The question then started to percolate in my mind: How do you maintain an element of luminosity on a day-to-day basis, so life doesn’t feel like an ongoing series of administrative tasks?

As a society, in this moment, we’re saying, “Hey, these are the instructions on how to live now. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to fulfill your full life force as a result of merely being 100 percent compliant with these current forms.” So, how do you get to that 100 percent?

That’s part of our job, part of our existence. The reason why social collaboration is really crucial is because it — all of a sudden — allows for a potential challenging of those forms so we can consider them as malleable. That’s what Burning Man does really well.

That’s why it’s really important to get out to Black Rock City — because all of a sudden, you start getting all these new perspectives through incongruity. You’re surrounded by a lot of people cutting against the grain of culture, and the result becomes a certain evocation of consciousness that emerges from that cutting against the woods.

It’s like, “Wow, I never thought about that. That’s great. I’ve never felt that way.” It’s that glimpse of possibility that leads you to the opportunity to perform that way in your own life, in your own context.

For me, that context became the world of money and finance — because it was putting me to sleep. My life force was withdrawing in that world that didn’t consider transformational opportunities or what things like money and finance actually do in the world.

The Poetry of Impact essentially is the opportunity for possibilities. I think it resonates with a lot of Burners because most people out there are legitimately and authentically interested in transforming and changing the alchemy of existing forms, employing new forms that honor the ecology we live in, and unleashing the potential for full justice. The challenge is that there often isn’t a framework or vocabulary for understanding how to make that migration between being out on the Playa — which is pretty much all poetry — and then, all of a sudden, having to come back into a world that’s essentially “grammar.”

So, this is what I’m about: giving people the vocabulary and the container to understand that it’s in the migration between poetry and grammar that authentic life force emerges. That your “luminosity,” as I call it, can find a way to actually arrive in your life and come out of dormancy. Otherwise, what happens is that there’s a sadness once people leave something like Burning Man — because the toolkit is empty, and they don’t know how to go back. It goes for me, too. How do I migrate back into this world of grammar, this world where these particular forms that the majority are abiding by aren’t necessarily providing me with those life force moments…and bring the life force in?

I’m very interested in that migration, the way that Burning Man connects with people’s lifelong spiritual puzzles. Did Burning Man in some way help to teach you this, or was it something you already practiced?

Probably more the latter, honestly. I did my Ph.D. in the philosophy of rhetoric. That had me looking at how cultural symbols create people’s perceptions of reality, images, and personas. I craved this: I was just so desperate to feel alive in my twenties and thirties, but not through artificial stimuli. I wanted to oxygenate my life in ways that didn’t require constant inputting. The result is a life of seeking places and peoples that actually embody and show you different ways to do that. So, there was this natural attraction between Burning Man and me.

It was just natural for me to go out there, because — even though I didn’t know the name of it at that time — I was seeking the world of poetry. I didn’t have the framework yet. All this stuff works together in collaboration, and it’s an evolution. So, that framework between grammar and poetry really came to me in the last couple years, even though internally, I’ve been working on it for decades, with the help of the places I have sought out, and vice-versa.

So, when COVID started, were you already thinking in this grammar-versus-poetry way of observing what society is doing? And how did you see that framework popping up in the way that we’re having to adapt to this new reality?

I tend to be really fond of thinkers and philosophers who actually transcend circumstance. So people like Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance, had a big influence on me. He educated me and mentored me, even though he was already dead, through his texts about how you have to be conscious of just swinging from one circumstance to another.

Look at the Latin breakdown of the term circumstance: circum means round, and stance — the Latin root — means dwelling. So, in your personal life, your inner world is your dwelling, and you have this circle around you…if you forget about the stance part, you’re going to be occupied with whatever the topic of the day is.

Not to say those topics are not legitimate, but what I’m saying is that if you are able to discern that there’s going to be COVID today, there’ll be social protest tomorrow, there’ll be climate disasters the next day, there’ll be gender inequalities the next day…there’s going to be something that constantly keeps your focus on the outer world, as if that’s 100 percent of what it means to be on this Earth.

Poetry of impact tries to create space. Life happens between the inner and the outer world, between that round circumference and your dwelling — that’s where these topics are coming into your life. For me, the idea has been to actually understand how circumstances and my inner dwelling interact, because I get exhausted easily if my life is merely an ongoing series of chasing mediated moments.

Above all, I listen to my body. I feel like that’s my ultimate governor. Inevitably, every time I get sucked into circumstance 100 percent and lose sense of my inner dwelling, I get exhausted. And when that happens, it’s telling me that it’s time to pull back inward to understand how I can go into the world and serve in a way that feels meaningful, as opposed to just being occupied by the constant flux of circumstance because the world of circumstance is pretty much all grammar. If you look at COVID, for instance… look at the way people are understanding COVID and look at how it’s mediated. It’s all through numbers and statistics. Look at how the human body is being reported on through all of this. It’s this anatomical — just physiological — piece of matter.

During these challenging times, when there are so many rules of communication and a greater emphasis on grammar, it’s all about coming together and collaborating. While we find ourselves literally withdrawn, in our physical dwellings, is there a disconnect in that situation that you can speak to in poetical terms?

There is a way the poetic can speak to this. I know this first-hand because I had a certain amount of sadness and depression when I was in my twenties while working on my dissertation. You’re just hanging out by yourself in your room for hours. That isolation was not unlike what we’re enduring now.

I didn’t really have a toolkit then, either. So, what happens when you don’t have a toolkit on how to respond to physical isolation, which we’re not really intended for? No animal is designed to be physically separated from all others — our co-regulating features depend on our bodies actually being close to each other.

It’s an essential nervous system function. If you look at most animals, they herd together constantly. They lay on each other, or they’re very close to each other. They move as a group. There’s a sense of separation, but yet they come together and move as a group, just the way birds move through the sky. You can feel the collective energy that is holding you as an individual, an individuated animal, on this Earth.

I certainly realize the privilege of this. For me, it’s been a great meditative pause, while in a lot of cases it hasn’t been for a lot of people. The world of grammar keeps everybody up in their heads. People get updates through the world of grammar and create sort of a chin-up moment, which leads to a certain level of neurosis until the body gets to flush out this general sadness; then all of a sudden, you actually get to see yourself in an expanded scope.

So, for me, if I can’t meet with people, then I am pretty adamant about being in a relationship to nature. That’s been my one saving grace — like right now, I’m walking through the desert while talking to you. I’m walking three to five miles a day in nature, and I’m changing my indoor habits to force myself outdoors. I do as few Zoom calls as possible. I do everything on a phone while walking. Because, for me, if you look back in the poetry of impact, the body is a major part of being able to know how to migrate between the worlds. If you have a relationship with your body, it allows you to feel your general somatic state and your nerve state.

If I’m in my head too much, I come to realize that my body has been trying to talk to me about my proper course of action. It essentially wants to play the role of curating where to go next and understanding what my authentic impact would be that’s naturally aligned with me. That’s how I’m dealing with it now.

In terms of relating and communing with people, I’m actually inviting people out to our family ranch. Most of the people who come out are urban dwellers looking for a break. We’re doing this micro-communion concept; it can be small groups anywhere from five or six, potentially upwards of ten to twenty people. People are doing it really wisely, though, and my friends are quarantining before they come out here. My wife, child, and I don’t see anybody at the ranch, so we’re naturally quarantined right now.

That’s the short-term. That’s what those micro-communion moments do for us — they allow us to restore our campfire storytelling and animal features that we have always had at our core. They also provide an audience for us. When you’re by yourself, you have all these thoughts, but when you’re with a small group of people, like five or ten or twenty — as opposed to a big city, for instance, where you feel anonymous and nobody can really hear you — your voice gets heard. And when your voice gets heard, your existence feels confirmed. When your existence is confirmed, there’s an affirmation about your existence that enables you to go out in the world in a much different way.

Just watch people who have an affirmed existence. Just look at their posture and how they’re experiencing their relationships with others. They’re actually adding life force not only to their own lives but to everybody’s around them. To me, that’s a much more interesting project than just being stuck in a world of grammar.

Does the word “impact” have some broader meaning to you, then, in terms of perhaps spectrum or a measurable outcome?

Absolutely. I mean, do you really need a scorecard from 1 to 10 on how this moment between you and your neighbors is having an impression on you? You’re receiving your measurement internally. The world of grammar disembodies people so much so that they have to go into the outer world to have things confirmed for them. As opposed to being, where when you’re in relationships, authentically and openly, viscerally and embodied, they’re saying, “Shit. This is fucking fantastic. I feel great talking to Jon. This all just feels right.”

Essentially, the poetry of impact invites grammar to say, “Guys, we can actually trust our evolutionary inheritance, that gift we were given — that interior voice that says that when we are in relation and when we are open, whether it’s to other people, to animals, or to the planet, we can trust the impressions we’re having.” And, we can actually build a body of impressions that start feeling like we are living impactfully.

Does the greater world, with 6.5 billion people on it, need a language of impact that has some degree of outward measurement? No doubt. But, we’ve gone so far as to outsource our own humanity, living based on the externally-guided outcome versus inner-guided outcome. The inner-guided life is where you’re co-creating life together based on what you intuitively know as your inner need to belong and connect, manifesting it yourself. That’s your evolutionary inheritance, being resilient in life. That’s what’s happening right now. That’s what’s happening all over this country. And, as a result, that’s what the opportunity of COVID is.

We can actually live in dread. We can live in the world of grammar. You can open up The New York Times, which I do every day — I spend way too much time in it — as opposed to giving breath to your body. If you look at the word “inspiration,” its original basis was to give breath to the body. So, I’m asking myself, “What’s it take to give breath to the body?” And in this particular context in impact, it’s about honoring the fact that there are actually people, real humans, behind the statistics.

For me, the term ‘impact’ means this: an invitation to see life more holistically and actually follow the cause-and-effect relationships of what I’m involved in. In my case, I’m involved in the world of money and finance. So, my responsibility is to actually track how money moves through the system and what impressions it leaves on people, or what impressions people leave on it…

Say, you’re a coffee shop owner. You can be a one-dimensional coffee shop owner and just turn a blind eye on all the supply chains, on your surrounding community, and just seemingly serve coffee — or you can be somebody who uses what you’re occupied with, serving coffee, and understanding the whole ecosystem and all the relationships involved, in order to manifest more life-affirming opportunities for everything that you’re coming into contact with.

To me, that’s impact.

That’s not to say that a one-dimensional person doesn’t have impact; of course, they do. What I’m interested in is people who encourage other people to actually think about life-affirming impact. For example: Is what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis — in my work, in my art — a regenerative moment? Does everything that comes into contact with you and your life take more energy? Are you feeling a finite space, or is it something that just internally has enough momentum that all of a sudden it starts multiplying and compounding its life force?

Do you currently hear the word “impact” being thrown around as a buzzword, in a way that doesn’t really sound authentic to you?

I’m a little hesitant to answer that question, in that I’ve really worked hard trying not to pick arguments. That’s why I have enmeshed myself in everything that I’ve shared with communities and in the media. I could write about this stuff as a social scientist and detach myself, and you would never know anything about my personal life. But now, I have actually said, “Well, here’s how I’m living my life. Here’s what’s happening in my life.” If it can be of any benefit to you, and if there’s any resonance for you, that’s what I have come to trust.

I have to trust that if I can share my seekings for resilience, luminosity, and aliveness with others, then that alone will provide a moment where somebody can say, “Ah, I can see myself as part of that story even though my details are different. He’s encouraging me to actually start from my inward state, share my story, and use my life as my ultimate platform for understanding.”

This is in contrast to what I’ll call the “social scientific” approach, which is me putting my Ph.D. hat on and writing this intense argument of how this is impact, and this isn’t impact. The Wall Street titans are using the term “impact” right now because it’s a trending tool to sell more product. And yet, at some level, I realize that when you’re out creating, that all things get appropriated by the larger culture. That’s what happens. Early on in my twenties, I used to get mad at that, but now I use that as an incentive to constantly co-evolve and to understand that everybody’s moment in cultural and social history comes at a certain maturation point.

For example, I’m not the guy to hierarchically organize a bunch of things, put them into taxonomy, and scale it to bring it to the larger public. I’m the guy on the front end that gets people to potentially pivot, or who gets people who already are predisposed and already have this warrant internally in their existence who want to be regenerating life. That’s my locale, that initial phase of being on an imaginary front, and as the frontier gets more and more domesticated, letting other people do that work.

Do you think that maybe this crisis that we’re in — including the political, social, and racial crises — are all kind of precipitating this migration for our society right now? Are we just in a phase, or do you think this moment of crisis is catalyzing that migration? How do you see it playing out right now?

For me, my migration is always on. A lot of great things happen when people are in movement, and movement occurs when something is set loose. So, at present, something has been set loose. The normal practices, the normal behaviors, all of those have been set loose. And anytime you set something loose, you get a momentary window of chaos, a sort of philandering going on.

When people are trying to grasp for certainty, a lot of people will turn backward and look at yesteryear, trying to hang onto the past. Some people will try to create something in the moment and hang onto that. What eventually happens is that a “settling” ends up occurring once a certain amount of people feel that a certain amount of life-affirming qualities have been restored or the new design feels better and actually restores what the next chapter is going to look like.

All of this is balanced against the migration of human history and Earth’s history. So, again, if we get ourselves locked into the media’s secular, topical, circumstantial winds, it’s very difficult to see this. But we can use eternal topics to navigate between the circumstances of today. Eternal topics have no answer and are ongoing discoveries — love, loss, essence — those are not circumstantial topics. All of these topics that are being blown around right now will all be gone, and we won’t be talking about them as much, in five to ten years. Then, there’ll be a new set of topics. But loss, love, community, resilience, essence, all of these things have been around through lots of pandemics. They have been with us through a lot of civil unrest. If the migration occurs between the eternal and the mortal circumstances that our bodies occupy at the moment, great things end up happening.

When people are merely embroiled in being 100 percent occupied by the circumstance, without a larger circumference or context, that’s where life becomes exhausting. That’s because it is. You’re just being tossed around by all these events that surround your dwelling. But the things that are eternal and transcendent…that’s where the poetry enters. And, ultimately, we need both!

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