What Burning Man taught me about liberation
How Burning Man shaped my activism, and the lessons from activism we can bring back to Burning Man
This essay is offered with gratitude to the Black, indigenous and POC organizers, artists, teachers and elders, most of whom are women and/or queer, who have generously and patiently welcomed and taught me, directly and indirectly. And to the Black Rock Desert herself, for being Home.
My nine years of participation with the Burning Man community have radically shaped how I experience myself and move through the world. The playa¹ and this community have given me a taste of what personal and collective liberation can be, as well as tools to practice and move towards it daily.
First and foremost, Burning Man taught me about my own liberation — the experience of being free. I think particularly for those of us socialized into whiteness, masculinity, straightness, an experience like Burning Man can be profoundly eye-opening about what human experiences and ways of relating are possible. I’m far from the first person to experience this, or even to comment on it. To interact with people, perhaps for the first time, in a way that isn’t mediated by commerce, by transaction, by my social roles or some other expectation about who I am supposed to be. The experience of interacting from a place of Gift, of Immediacy.
Burning Man taught me about Belonging — the sacredness of life, of being welcomed Home to a world that was grounded in joy and compassion and creativity rather than competition and extraction. Experiences like the Temple, the playa itself — one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. The care and presence with which people often treated me and one another. And to feel that I Belonged in this place. (Like many burners, my psychedelic experiences at Burning Man have also been a key part of this, but that would be a whole other essay, and many have already written on this subject).
Through Burning Man, I experienced that another world was possible. As I stepped into this temporary autonomous zone, the story of the dominant culture (the “default world”) about what was important, what was possible, who I was, even what was meaningful, began to loosen for me in a profound way. I had an opportunity to really examine these stories for myself.
All of this was deeply transformative (as it is for many burners) and even radicalizing for me. This was an essential lens for me in beginning to approach organizing, activism, and to work towards cultural and political change. For me, this journey really began in earnest beginning in 2015–2016 while I was living in Washington, DC. I was motivated in this journey by this feeling, this intuition that another world was possible, that there was more to life than the “default world” as it presented itself to me. An intuition I connected with most strongly at Burning Man.
My time in the Burning Man culture has given me several valuable tools and lessons for engaging in this work, and in many ways the ethos of Burning Man continues to guide me.
The power of immediate experience that disrupts our pre-existing stories of the world
Burning Man is rooted in the Cacophony Society (“You May Already Be a Member!”), and their ethic of culture jamming and story hacking as a countering force to capitalism and consumerism. My understanding is that the roots of systems of oppression are powerful social agreements and consensual stories — social constructs such as property, race, crime, right vs wrong.
Many of us walk through our days taking these stories and agreements for granted. Today we have this strong story of polarization, good guys vs bad guys, in ways that are very dehumanizing and even reinforce the underlying dominant structure. When we create spaces and immediate experiences that disrupt or subvert these stories, we can reach and change people at an emotional and narrative level, deeper than rationality and facts — much like how I was transformed at Black Rock City.
A sense of play
We don’t have to follow a script or some pre-existing notion. We can be flexible to what’s happening in the moment, let our creativity shine. This is invaluable in community organizing as well as direct action. Organizing queer dance parties where we take up space and block streets with a joy and celebration that’s disarming, that’s inviting to passerbys. Disrupting the narrative of the angry, aggressive protestors.
Bringing out an art car that encourages interactivity, welcoming people to join. Breaking down the barrier or story that says “I’m not an activist, I can’t join in.” Instead saying “no, this is for you, don’t be a spectator but come participate with us.” Guerilla art that explicitly invites further art and participation. Creating an action or a space that’s provocative — but not provoking conflict, rather provoking a sense of wonder and sparking the imagination.
Creating a “Permission Engine”²
We receive a lot of conditioning in the dominant culture that we need some authority to give us permission to take action or make change. I see this replicated at times in organizing and activist spaces, where we are confined to the ideas of a few leaders, or certain playbooks about what to do. Burning Man is a space where we all grant each other permission to experiment, try new things, to recognize It’s All Made Up. To the extent we can learn to unwind this conditioning, we can learn to give ourselves permission to act and move towards the change we seek, and reclaim our autonomy and our sovereignty.
This is, in itself, a liberatory practice. By doing this we create a field where others can practice this as well: a permission engine. All of this also makes us much more effective activists and organizers as well — no longer shackled by these notions of what we can and can’t do.
Radical Self-Reliance (& Civic Responsibility)
I learned a lot in the desert about how to look out for myself — and the people around me. It can be equally as important to bring extra water, a snack, basic first aid and goggles (not to mention layers) when stepping out for a direct action as it is when stepping out into a dust storm. I learned to check in with myself often, see how I’m doing and what I need. As important, learning to do that for the people around me. “Hey, do you need some water?” “Are you overheating?” “It’s okay to chill for a while and take a break.” This awareness, habits and questions cultivated from years on the playa have come in handy time after time while doing street actions.
All of this becomes even more important while doing logistics or helping lead an action, such as being a marshal for a march. In many ways this is very similar to spotting for an art car (one of my favorite things to do on playa :) ), managing the line for your camp’s annual Pancakes and Disco Brunch, or working as a Ranger. Doing work like this at Burning Man, I learned how to read a crowd, identify potential issues before they escalate, and calmly de-escalate a situation (or avoid escalation in the first place). Inviting people to make choices that keep them safe or pointing out situations without attempting to force anyone to do something or creating a “power over” hierarchy dynamic. Again using the sense of play, keeping it light, not being too serious and recognizing their ultimate autonomy.
Facilitating horizontally led Communal Effort
We can accomplish so much when we have an expanding group of people, acting in their own autonomy and problem-solving skills, moving towards a shared vision. Being a theme camp and regional lead taught me so much about how to effectively create space for this (touching again on the “permission engine” point above). And just how effective it can be — I believe it’s one of the most effective leadership styles for organizing and especially scaling a project. No single leader or even small group of leaders are able to hold all the details or anticipate every issue. And that sort of approach replicates hierarchy, patriarchy, dominator culture.
Instead, leaders can focus on culture, vision, skill-building, and perhaps set a few boundaries or course-correct where needed. No need to get hung up on perfectionism or fixating on certain details. Instead, mostly just encourage people to claim their own autonomy and problem solving skills, and get out of the way! As I’ve seen time and time again at Burning Man and regional events, with this approach to education and leadership we will accomplish far more than I ever initially conceived. This is also a great model for collaboration and working across organizations or communities — coordination and communication grounded in person-to-person relationships, trusting emergence and avoiding too much top-down control.
Unlearnings, and Constructive Critiques for Burning Man culture
How people are valued and included in a “Do-ocracy”
Many Burning Man camps, art cars and projects are largely operated through a method known as “Do-ocracy” — basically, people are empowered and encouraged to solve problems they notice and/or make decisions by just doing it, or recruiting others to help them do it, using whatever solution seems most appropriate and available to them in the moment.
I have seen this approach work very effectively, especially in spaces where knowledge, energy and resources are distributed in a relatively equitable way, people are impacted by decisions to roughly the same degree, and there’s some solid existing trust and relationships.
My experience though is that this approach can be mis-applied in spaces where there’s greater inequity and impacts are not evenly distributed. When someone is less able to engage and do work, speak convincingly to a group, or contribute resources, their perspective and experience is often less valued and included in decisions and outcomes arrived at through Do-ocracy.
When difference in ability or access is based on systemic and historic oppression such as white supremacy, classism and patriarchy, organizing with do-ocracy tends to recreate the same conditions and patterns of oppression. Those who have more material resources, more free time and energy, more social capital, or are louder and quicker to make decisions, tend to be overly weighted in the collective decisions in a way that can be alienating and harmful for others.
A perhaps innocuous example of this that may be familiar to some Burners is the abundance of (largely whitewashed) electronic dance music and relative lack of hip hop, funk and Latinx music at Burning Man, presumably driven in large part by the preferences of participants with the history, resources and capital or social pull to bring a large sound camp or art car. This sort of dynamic tends to be self-reinforcing. My Black and POC friends have commented on this while biking around looking for music out there (I see you, Black Rock Roller Disco!) (also recognizing the Black roots of house and techno and the many Black and POC folks who prefer them).
In my activism, I saw this dynamic first hand when I showed up to help plan and execute my first protest, and began to roll up my sleeves and get things done. A lot was accomplished quickly, but several of my fellow organizers were excluded and felt alienated through my actions and how that was skewing the process.
Especially as a relative newcomer, in my eagerness and sense of do-ocracy, I wasn’t accounting for or accommodating their needs and perspective. In addition to the harm it caused my fellow organizers, this approach ended up creating a fracture that impacted our results, and necessitated repair work to get things back to a good way for everyone.
Tabula Rasa³ — showing up as/for the “blank slate”
Through building our city every year on the playa, and the ritual of coming Home, many Burners tend to think that we can leave all our baggage behind and show up as a blank slate. Organizing and activist circles showed me how this is never really the case, on multiple levels.
Individually, we all have cultural baggage, bias, trauma and projection that we bring into every space that we’re in. Our stories come with us and tend to replicate, ESPECIALLY when we think that they aren’t, when we haven’t brought this to consciousness. No matter how much we may want it to, our cultural baggage and bias doesn’t go away just by adopting a playa name and a new outfit.
This is true at the systemic level as well. Many of us, myself included, often like to imagine that we’ve transcended the “default world” through the Burning Man culture and community. But the fact remains that the origins of this culture (and most of its standard bearers today) are white and hold positions of relative privilege. The systems and cultural conditioning of whiteness and privilege have, unfortunately, come along with us. Often in perverse and subtle ways, as the do-ocracy example above shows.
Just like at the individual level, this systemic baggage tends to cause much more harm to the extent that it’s unconscious and acted out without awareness. Becoming conscious of it and unlearning it takes hard, collective work. And, in my experience, much of our community at least here in the U.S. still has a lot of work to do in this area.
Finally, at a literal level, while the Black Rock Desert appears to be a barren landscape, it is actually a space with its own long and complex history and current existence. When we treat the land as nothing more than our playground to run social experiments, create art, and transform ourselves, we quite explicitly replicate the colonization and erasure practiced by the white settlers who conquered and stole America from its original native inhabitants, and continue to erase and oppress those native peoples through to the present day.
This brings me to my last point…
Our interdependence with (and accountability to) the default world and the land itself
Stay with me, as this one gets a little more esoteric. For many burners I know, myself included, we create a distinct personal identity, community and culture for ourselves as burners. Changing our names or how we dress. Embedding in this new culture and seeing ourselves as more authentic and separate from the “default world” (despite the trip to Wal-Mart or similar on our way to Burning Man).
Ironically, this habit of separation is a key pattern of the default world that most of us were trying to escape in the first place. Its most extreme endpoint in the burner community (in my view) is a sort of wanton, hedonistic individualism that we often code as Radical Self-Expression. But how is this different, really, than the selfish behavior of the increasingly maligned default world elites?
This is even coded a bit into “Leaving No Trace,” perhaps the most pragmatic of Burning Man’s 10 Principles given its implications for our annual permit with the federal Bureau of Land Management⁴. Yet “Leaving No Trace” as a guiding Principle implies that we can somehow escape the impacts and consequences of how we show up, that we are not already linked to the ground we step on, that it and we are not permanently changed by our act of stepping (there’s that habit of separation again!). As though the playa dust was not already working its way through our bodies from the moment we step foot on the desert.
My experience tells me that, try as I might to leave no trace, to re-create myself, I can’t really escape my own past. I can’t escape the deeds of my ancestors, or the land and community I’m born into, or the privilege I carry. In fact, these are the very things that ground and connect me to the great family of things, to the Earth herself, to my power. And the work really is to turn towards and embrace all of these. To recognize that we have always been connected, nothing separate. Not even “Leaving a Positive Trace,” but recognizing that we ourselves are the trace, our humanity as one interwoven part of the natural world, and the concept of Leaving as just another story.
This level of accepting our interdependence, of owning our shit and the accountability that comes with it, can be very painful and terrifying at times. It’s also necessary to truly connect to the sacredness of life, to the true belonging that we experience in moments in Black Rock City. In the end, I believe it’s what will really set us free. From this place we can find real and profound meaning in our work and our community building, an end to the void of individualism. From this place, we can cultivate a deep and true sense of solidarity, beauty and purpose that will energize and inform our work towards broader liberation. From this place, we can begin to understand what indigenous activist Lilla Watson meant when she said:
If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
 The Black Rock Desert where Burning Man is held is often colloquially referred to as “the playa.”
 Thanks Tom Price from Burners Without Borders for coining (? or at least popularizing) the concept of Burning Man as a “permission engine.”
 Tabula rasa (“blank slate”) is the theory that individuals are born without built-in mental content, and, therefore all knowledge comes from experience or perception
 The BLM manages and stewards the Black Rock Desert, and has strict requirements for the land to be returned to similar quality after each annual event. Each participant does their part for “leaving no trace,” and a crew of dedicated burners stay for a month after the event each year to ensure the playa is returned to this condition.