Our annual rendezvous in the desert with 60,000 of our favorite people is a feast for the senses. It offers something — in fact, many, many things — for everyone. But what happens after the dust clears? How can our daily lives in the default world pay homage to our experience together in the desert?
The playa is obviously an inspiring place to explore people, activities, art, and experiences that may be scarce in the default world. Many, especially virgin Burners, may come to fetishize the playa, thinking it to be the only place we can embrace our most authentic selves.
But many Burners embody the Ten Principles on as well as off the playa. Given how many of our communities are concentrated in the west, I’ll focus this post on several inspired burners from places where you might be surprised to find our communities flexing in fascinating ways.
Like those working with Black Rock Solar and Burners Without Borders, a handful of Burners in the nation’s capital, and one in the Deep South, present moving illustrations of how our socio-cultural revolution in the dust can inform and inspire the default world. They practice the 10 Principles — and the various skills we build during our gatherings — to build conscious counterculture in the default world, and shift the latter in a more humane, peaceful, and sustainable direction.
A Burner in the Nation’s Capital
My first example demonstrates our community’s reach well beyond the playa. His exposure to Burning Man has been only at regional events, including Transformus in North Carolina and Freeform in New Jersey. But while he may not yet have seen our beloved city in the desert, Matt Grason in Washington, DC holds it down in lots of ways.
He’s an electronic musician, having developed several original live electronic acts including House of Soul, Inspiral, and most recently Oscar Pedalboard. A trained bassist, he pulls artists together, experiments wackily and without reservation, and has left DC funkier as a result of his musical innovation.
He’s also made it a better city. By day, Matt works for several nonprofit groups as a freelance grant writer, helping support green businesses through his work with Green America, and he fights for constitutional rights violated by police and intelligence agencies through the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (which, in the interest of full disclosure, I lead as executive director).
By night, he started DC Divest, a group of grassroots activists promoting awareness of climate change and promoting a local policy to divest the city’s government from fossil fuels and instead invest its pension funds in other industries. The recent climate justice march in New York included not only hundreds of thousands of concerned Americans, including the DC Divest crew, but also hundreds of inspired art projects. The same group facilitation tools that theme camps use to plan and execute creative projects, in their hands, are helping build a more sustainable future for all of us.
A Dancer and Intentional Community Organizer Promoting Global Peace and Justice
My next example is a bona fide hero, an inspiring young leader whose formidable work leaves me excited for a future I otherwise tend to fear. Alli McCracken is a fire hooper, a costume artist, a group facilitator of any number of projects (from rallies and civil disobedience actions to visual art and street theater performances), an international grassroots diplomat, a frequent voice in mass media, and among the most promising community organizers in the country. A consistent presence in the Occupy movement in 2011, she went from Occupy DC to working at Code Pink, where she helps run the proverbial trains on time at the nation’s most active women’s peace group.
Alli has trained, coached, developed and inspired dozens of Code Pink and Occupy organizers around the country to raise their community’s voices. She’s also traveled internationally to challenge war and militarism, bearing witness to abuses from flying remote robotic CIA assassinations wantonly killing innocents by the dozens, to armed occupation of civilian populations by some of the world’s strongest militaries, supported by US taxpayers. She’s also organized conferences of women coming together across countries, regions and faiths to raise a common voice for peace and justice.
And she’s no mere attendee in these venues. I’ve worked with her myself on creative visual arts projects including a banner drop off of the side of a highway overpass outside the NSA’s headquarters reading “Save America. Close the NSA,” a light brigade action outside the White House exhorting the President to #StopSpying, and a music video (in full disclosure, that I wrote & co-produced) connecting the Snowden revelations to the FBI’s documented plot to drive Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. to his grave.
That’s not all: Alli is also part of the Whytestone Creative Community, an intentional community outside DC that hosts everything from workshops celebrating World Hoop Day, to staging and prep sessions for sound camps and art vehicles, fire-spinning performances and workshops, yoga lessons, toy drives for kids, and supply drives providing needed resources in response to natural disasters.
A Veteran Activist Challenging Corporate Power
Rica Madrid is a Dutch-Latina-American (and my former housemate) who camped with UFOam in Black Rock City 2013. She’s worked on campaigns from Dallas to DC challenging not only war and militarism abroad, but also the failed and racist war on drugs, the secret addition of genetically modified organisms to our food, and the international trade regime that forces developing countries to compete on unequal terms with American businesses and drives manufacturing jobs abroad, eroding the American middle class while oppressing working people around the world.
Last summer, she reached the playa by driving across the country with a team of other DC Burner-activists in a fleet of fishy food cars: art cars themed with sculptures of various foods (corn, beet, and soy) crossed with fish. They held public workshops in towns large and small across the entire country promoting GMO labeling, a no-brainer policy to empower consumers to make our own choices about what we eat. This year, she was a key part of a successful campaign to decriminalize marijuana in Washington, and another to “legalize it,” poised to win overwhelmingly in an upcoming election.
Like Alli, Rica lives in and organizes an intentional community and group house which serves as a hub for Burners in and around DC. She also represents the global diversity of Burners, mixing cultures the way we DJs mix beats.
Doing Burner Work in the Deep South
My last example—although the first among them to whom I was gratefully introduced—is not in Washington, nor could he be described as simply a DJ, activist, and lawyer. Melvin Priester, Jr. was my tentmate on the playa during our first year back in 2003, when he helped build the Sonic Runway at Sol System that remains one of the most formidable engineering projects I’ve ever seen in the desert.
After practicing law at a major law firm in San Francisco and DJing events around the Bay Area throughout the 2000s, Mel returned to his hometown of Jackson, MS, joined his family’s law practice, launched an event series featuring Burner artists who also wield expertise in some field of public policy, then brought the Figment festival to an abandoned soda factory.
Last year, Melvin ran for public office last year and was elected to the Jackson City Council as its youngest member. He’s an African-American elected official in the capital of the state with one of the worst records on civil rights in the entire country. And that’s just the beginning.
He left home for an elite education, discovered the electronic underground during school, grew inspired by it, helped build it for years, and took it home where he came from, while applying his vast know-how and deep-seated dedication to public service to improving the lives of his neighbors.
Mel has helped make after school programs available to kids, enhance the city’s parks and attract jobs to struggling parts of the city, all while doing the critical work of upgrading the city’s infrastructure to address everything from potholes to stormwater management.
Examples for the Rest of Us
These Burners are not only artists, or fascinating people with whom to share an escapade (or a conversation during a dust storm). Each of them are inspiring figures weaving the principles of civic responsibility, radical self-expression, participation, immediacy, and communal effort into projects beyond fleeting and ephemeral events into the very heart of Babylon, challenging entrenched systems of power and control in their daily lives and making the default world less commodified and more inclusive.
They build a better tomorrow every day — for all of us, Burners and muggles alike. If you encounter any of these folks on the playa this year, thank them for their service. Then, as I’ve exhorted Burners at events from White Ocean’s burn night party in 2013 to regional festivals across the east coast, “soak up the energy of this community, bask in this effigy of the best in humanity, revel in insanity, but don’t stop there. Take the Black Rock vibe back where you came from: share.”
Do you know Burners in your community bringing the principles that inspire us into their communities in the default world? This post is the first in a series highlighting social activism by Burners, and I plan to expand the circle going forward. Please email me at [email protected] (at gmail.com) to suggest or nominate other Burners whose work in the default world to highlight in future posts.