GLC 2017: City of Oakland’s Roberto Bedoya on Burning Man’s Role in Creative Place-Making

Check out more stories about the 2017 Global Leadership Conference.

On Friday, the City of Oakland’s Cultural Affairs Manager, Roberto Bedoya, will help open the Global Leadership Conference (GLC) with a talk on “stewardship of imagination” and creating civic well-being.

His presence on the opening plenary panel not only illustrates the variety of voices at this year’s GLC, it also highlights the City of Oakland’s recognition of Burner voices in its community, and its desire to listen and learn more about the culture.

“I am honored that Burning Man asked me to speak to them, and in some ways that’s part of a learning curve for me to learn about the Burning Man community more intimately, and for them to learn more about who I am and what the city of Oakland has in our limited sort of frames to be part of their lives,” says Roberto.

According to Roberto, the City of Oakland recognizes that Burning Man is part of Oakland’s history and sees Burners as part of the many constituencies that he serves.

“So you know that Oakland is the city of Black Panthers and Burners. That’s really fucking amazing. The legacies of these sorts of emancipatory visions, which operate and manifest in culture, have roots in Oakland. Very different ways of behaving, different strategies, different forms of production but there is something about the Oakland soil that says: emancipation,” he says.

And with politics, picket lines and civic activation on the agenda, we might all need to consider what stronger relationships with governments would look like: the benefits and pitfalls, and when and how to cultivate them.

The roof of NIMBY, the venerable DIY space in Oakland

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Roberto, who has a long history of creative place-making and was hired as Oakland’s first Cultural Affairs Manager last year, sees the importance of building bridges between artists and policy-makers.

“What I find among policy-makers and artists is how both of those worlds condition each other: the importance of imagination in the world of policy, and the role of policy-making in the world of greater artistic practices,” he says.

In particular, he sees the need for both art and government to play a role in creating the civic well-being of communities by being good stewards of imagination.

“So what does it mean to be good stewards of imagination, and how do you do that as a cultural arts division of a city government? And I say you do that through civic engagement and what I call cultural citizenship: through the arts and cultural group activities you make assertions about how you want your society to live and operate,” Roberto says.

As for the world of Burners, Roberto says they need to ask themselves the same kinds of questions: “You’re a good steward not just of the resources that you have but also of the imagination that is being generated in your community of Burners. And what does that look like?”

More importantly, what does it look like when we bring it back home? How do Burners use their arts and cultural activities to shape the way their societies live and operate?

“How do you operate in the confines of a neighborhood so then it becomes more like a civic life, because you have to deal with elected officials, with the police, with the grocery store and the mad person and the homeless person and the priest, all in the enclave of a particular neighborhood?” asks Roberto.

And most importantly, how do we ensure that our creative place-making and civic activation is truly inclusive?

“The Jewish Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas says, ‘We is not the plural of I’. So Burning Man can’t become a ‘we’ of my friends and I. It needs to exist in the secular world of ‘we the people’,” says Roberto. “So what does ‘we’ look like beyond everyone who exists on the playa? How do you animate it? How do you take your experiences, knowledge and camaraderie to the larger ‘we’ that you don’t know? That’s called living in the city and creating civic well-being.”

About the author: Jane Lyons

Jane Lyons (a.k.a Lioness) believes it takes a special kind of crazy to drive the foundation years of a Regional Burn, and she classes herself among those crazy dreamers and (over)doers who are sweating it out around the Regional Burn globe. After her first Nevada Burn in 2009, Jane spent five years knee-deep in the development of Australia's Burning Seed and its community. She built and managed Seed's Communications Team for many years, helped kickstart Melbourne Decompression and ran a range of other local events. But her Burner communities and collaborations stretch beyond the confines of her country. She helped build Temple of Transition in 2011; has worked on other big art projects on and off playa (including the Temple for Christchurch); and has run theme camps and built art at Nowhere, Kiwiburn, Burning Seed and Italian Burning Weekend. She now spends her time supporting Burning Man's Communications Team.