Burners Without Borders

By Alex Marino, Staff Writer

IT’S TIME TO GO HOME!

For those of you unfamiliar with underground counterculture, Burning Man is it; the venue of solace where your inner self comes alive in a reinvigorating journey of self-awareness and self-identification. “Burners” simply call this “going home.” Going home means leaving the socially constructed reality that confines us to the established system and imposes neurological restraints on our consciousness. It means leaving the everyday comfort zone created to control our innate passions to sell us a prepackaged lifestyle intended to cycle wealth to protect the system from being exposed as a controlling mechanism limiting human potential. When I say human potential, I mean the potential to break free and rediscover our innate humanity that connects us to nature and one another. Home is the desert playa where we all become one again and the enlightenment of purpose becomes apparent. Home is where who you are goes to die and who you can be comes to life. Home is Black Rock City!

Burning Man 2011
Burning Man 2011

We all know the marketing concept that if you fail to verbalize an intended brand perception the consumer will create their own. Despite the growing popularity and awareness, most people have never heard of Burning Man, and those that have often develop a mental perception of drug-induced naked hippies having an unregulated orgy in the desert. This odd perception comes from the fact that the Burning Man culture does not advertise the festival, because commercialization is counter to the foundational principles. The truth is that BM is whatever you want it to be. It is manifested as a zone of free and unregulated self-expression defined from an artistic culture of inclusion, acceptance, and love. Uniquely, part of the journey is breaking away from the preconceived falsities that outsiders use to characterize the radicalism that is Burning Man. In today’s society, especially in America, the term “radical” carries a negative connotation as it is used to describe outlandish concepts, practices, and people. Those “others” who behave irrationally and counter to societal norms are demonized as radicals aiming to shake things up. I say: Why the hell not! Be radical and challenge everything! Embrace Mark Twain’s sentiment that, “whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect”. Reflection awakens us to opportunity and purpose, and Burners are unique in the sense that they take the initiative to listen and react.

burning-man-art1-Burning-Man-2014-DSC_0211In 2005, the Burning Man culture, aka “Burners”, courageously responded to the Hurricane Katrina impact zone along the Gulf of Mexico coastline. In an 8-month period, respondents voluntarily rebuilt a destroyed Vietnamese temple and contributed more than $1 million to reconstruction and debris removal efforts in Mississippi. The Katrina aid project sparked the creation of a non-profit organization called Burners Without Borders (BWB), which created a mission statement to “promote activities around the globe that support a community’s inherent capacity to thrive by encouraging innovative approaches to disaster relief and grassroots initiatives that make a positive impact.” Today, BWB’s activities span around the world on 5 different continents and include a diverse range of innovative projects such as the “MotoMoto Circus” in Mobasa, Kenya, “Improving Woman’s Health” in Estali, Nicaragua, “Natural Medicine Free School Project of Guatemala” in Antigua, and “Greening the Beige” in Beijing, China.

At its heart, the BWB organization represents the 10 core principles that characterize the Burning Man festival and the “burner” participants. The 10 principles include: 1) Radical Inclusion; 2) Gifting; 3) Decommodification; 4) Radical Self-Reliance; 5) Radical Self-Expression; 6) Communal Effort; 7) Civic Responsibility; 8) Leaving No Trace; 9) Participation; and 10)  Immediacy. These charismatic principles define the BWB culture and continue to draw more active volunteers every year who not only believe in the principles, but also want to put their words into action. BWB’s most recent project is the “Refugee Playground Project” in response to displaced peoples following the Syrian refugee crisis. The project aims to build playgrounds to provide a place of solace for the more than 30 million displaced children around the world. These unique ideas and projects are not heavily financed or technologically innovative, but rather they stem from a community ideology re-linking people to their own humanity.

I interviewed BWB Director Christopher Breedlove to gain an inside perspective of the organization and its fundamental principles. I am gracious to Mr. Breedlove for providing insightful responses that really demonstrate the unique nature and passion which characterizes BWB and its participants:

How would say the BWB projects align with the 10 principles of Burning Man?
“BWB was birthed from the Burning Man community’s instinctual reaction to Hurricane Katrina- and it is a reflection of the 10 principles in living action. The *Immediate* response from the community was the first thing that happened. When BWB went down to Katrina they decided to be *Radically Self Reliant* and start *gifting* the clean-up efforts and relief without waiting for permissions- but just doing it. The work that was done was both *communal effort* and *civic responsibility*- as we saw our role as citizens to be that of helping our neighbors. The entire effort was *decommodified*, we were not sponsored or under any corporate banner- this was citizens doing the work under their own personal directive. While down there, our crews did not look like the normal crews because we were *radically self-expressive* and we realized that our actions were louder than our nonexistent uniforms. Of course all of this was *participatory* and anyone was free to join so it was also a practice of *radical inclusion*. BWB is not just aligned with the principles- rather it is an example of the principles acting out in the world.”

What projects have you participated in and what drew you personally to those specific projects?
“What draws me to this work is a deep belief that there will never be enough not-for-profits or government organizations in the world to fix the problems we face as humanity- and that it is up to us as individuals and global citizens to take on this work. I believe that it is through the collected efforts of dedicated citizens that we can truly change the world. Not all at once mind you, but slowly through our growing collective actions, we can change one life at a time, and then encourage that life to go on to affect more. It is an exponential effect. One of my main projects I’ve started is called the ‘Chicago Community Grant Program,’ which is a democratic granting program giving out micro-grants to community and civic projects in Chicago that enact lasting change. We’ve been running this program since 2012 and have given out over $10k to local projects. While that total number is not a lot, we have found that targeted micro-grants can create far more effect than the dollar amounts would suggest. We’ve supported safe spaces for immigrant women, yoga & meditation classes for Chicago Public School students, community gardens, safe houses in Chicago’s South Side, art classes for homeless teens, and biking programs for African Americans on the West & South Sides of the city. With these small grants, we can help alleviate some of the stress these program organizers face in meeting their budget goals and let them focus on the work that truly matters.”

The BM/BWB culture and organization is very unique in its open-minded and participatory approach. What do you think it can bring to the rest of the world as it extends projects globally and why do you think so many people are willing to participate and contribute?
“People are willing to participate and contribute because we give them the permission to try, and we also give them the permission to fail. Both of those things are absent in much of the world. So often people must seek approval before they try something, and once they are given approval there is a pressure to only succeed. This stunts many people from ever trying. Not all ideas will work- but how can you know before you try? We believe that prototyping and iteration are part of creating truly innovative and (eventually) successful projects. Also, even if the project is not a total success, often the personal learning that comes from attempting the project is a unique reward all its own. I touched on this slightly before, but I also believe we give people the ability to become activated citizens. While in Black Rock City, you are not a spectator, you are a participant. This means that when you come across a problem or an issue, you are immediately empowered to help, to assist, to problem solve. These lessons in BRC translate out into the world, our homes, our cities. Why are we not empowered to take ownership of our public land, our neighborhoods, our communities, our collective space? For me personally, Burning Man reconnected me with this passion – and BWB is a vehicle to enact the projects that I want to see in the world.”

What does being a part of BWB mean to you?
“Being part of BWB means that I get to be part of the Burning Man community that wants to put our money where our mouths are. I get to be part of the community that walks the talk. I get to be a member of the crew that really takes the principles into action beyond the orange trash fence of Black Rock City. I get to be a part of a grand experiment attempting to prove that the lessons we learn at Burning Man truly mean something to the larger world.”

bwb

 

As a fellow Burner and New Orleans native, the BWB hurricane response effort holds a personal sentiment in my heart. It’s unfortunate that the media coverage during the Katrina catastrophe focused primarily on negative footage of martial law in the streets, political corruption, and looting. From an insider’s perception, the three-month blackout period following Katrina resulted in community integration and support; from sharing resources, welcoming displaced strangers into your home, to traveling hundreds of miles through flooded streets to find medical supplies and gas. People are innately sentimental towards one another in the absence of the mob mentality triggered from media distractions and social negativity. BWB principles teach us that if you believe in yourself and love one another, opportunity and purpose presents itself.

New Orleanians wade through flood waters after Hurricane Katrina.
New Orleanians wade through flood waters after Hurricane Katrina.

How far are you willing to go physically and psychologically to refresh your mind? In every society you’ll find some form of spirituality presented either as a religious or meditative practice. Each practice works to strengthen our moral commitments to a projected character or identity, while also helping us cope with our inevitable mortality. At Burning Man, spirituality is about taking a participatory approach to life and learning to love and respect one another through innovative artistic expressions and shared experiences. The result is a profound transformation that is more accurately characterized as a transference back to our innate humanity. With a clean slate, our purpose and passion becomes obvious, and no distance is too far to travel to reconnect with ourselves. Opportunities to change the world are all around us, but effecting change starts from within. If you’re willing to help and passionate about non-profit work, BWB provides a “portal for participation”. You can find more information on the websites burnerswithoutborders.org and burningman.org.

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