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The Regional Network hums with many unsung heroes. Who are some leaders you didn’t see on the GLC’s Plenary stage, but are no less boss in their passion, vision and determination? I met seven women from the Burning Man community around the world who made me snap with pride and glee.
Suzanne Blake — Dubai, U.A.E.
Creating an oasis for healing and religious tolerance.
It’s one thing to be touched by the Temple on the playa, but it’s something else entirely to create a majestic healing space in your own community in the United Arab Emirates. “How do you bring this to the Middle East?” recalls Suzanne Blake, a community leader at Bedouin Tech in Dubai, where she says many things are prohibited or require complex licensing.
Undaunted, Blake (whose playa name is Zephyr, Mother of Wolves) studied everything about Burning Man’s Temple builds, assembled a crew, and worked her tail off so that Bedouin Tech could have its own space, called Spirit Oasis. For the last three years, it’s been a magnetic place that brings together people of all faiths.
“If I really want something, I’m going to make it happen,” Blake says. “My attitude is, ‘OK, I’m just gonna throw the suitcases over the fence and figure out how to get there.’”
“Women need to trust their intuition,” she adds. “We know when we know. And if we’re brave enough to trust that, it always works out. The only thing I would change is: I would trust it sooner.”
Nicole Brydson — Brooklyn, NY
F yeah, she can build your tech infrastructure.
An artist, journalist and community organizer in Bushwick, New York, Nicole Brydson has many roles, including running the tech infrastructure for an art festival called Bushwick Open Studios and helming a company called Misfit Media (which hosts the burningman.nyc Website featured in the GLC’s Tech Showcase). Her mission, she says, is to “create a shared visibility for creative people who are building a new economy of independent workers.”
Along the way, though, she’s had to deal with pushback around what someone in tech should ‘look like.’ “Particularly being a woman in technology, there’s a lot of micro-aggressions from guys. Just trying to present yourself to clients can sometimes go completely horribly, because they’re like ‘You don’t look like someone who could build my tech infrastructure.’”
Brydson is only too happy to bust up these ideas and move past them to do Big Work. Not only does she deliver technical prowess to creatives through open source tools, but she also leads tough conversations around gentrification in New York City.
“Being a white native New Yorker, I bridge the gap of native New Yorkers who are people of color and newer white people who are moving to New York City who don’t really have any real perception of the communities that were there before them,” Brydson explains. “I try to use my knowledge and background to unite these communities so that they can get to know each other better and find allies amongst each other.”
Cheyne MacLaskey — Austin, TX
Corralling 250 “Texas bitches” to do good for the community.
A Burner since 2007 and a Regional Contact in central Texas, Cheyne “Starbaby” MacLaskey has taken the energy of her playa community and turned it into a local force for play and service. Her camp, the Texas Bitches, is a 250-strong crew to be reckoned with that meets monthly in Austin, Texas, to support each other and their community. Meetups have included protecting women entering a Planned Parenthood in a Baptist region, organizing clothing drives for battered women, and pet adoption.
More recently, they’ve created a group for mixing and mingling with non-Burners called “So I Have This Single Friend…” The idea is to introduce Burner culture to people who may not be familiar with it, all within the context of fun activities like bowling and trivia games.
“I’m proudest that we’ve all learned how to let go of the ego. It’s a hard thing to get past, but we’re all proud of each other,” says MacLaskey. “We haven’t allowed anyone to stand in front of us and say, ‘You can’t do this.’”
Jennifer Richter — Washington, D.C.
Leading by listening.
When Jennifer “Preamble” Richter became a Burner in 2014, she immediately saw it as an opportunity for people to empower themselves as leaders — particularly for women whose voices may be tamped down in other arenas. She’s turned that awareness into some serious action in the few years since, including organizing the first Burning Man Mid-Atlantic Conference last November with Patty Simonson and Debi Arsenaux; running the women-led camp Third Space Place (named for that place after home and work: your community); and co-leading the D.C. Container, which involves coordinating 150 volunteers over two weekends to help D.C. Burners ship their art and essentials to the playa.
At GLC 2017, Richter came face to face with her “terrible fear” of public speaking to co-present a session called the Power of Asking Questions, and she shared her expertise by writing a GLC content guide for speakers on how to deliver a presentation with confidence and panache.
At the heart of her leadership philosophy is the importance of listening. “An effective leader is one who asks a lot of questions, doesn’t make assumptions, and doesn’t offer advice where it might not be warranted. A true leader really seeks to partner and listen to those around them. There’s always an opportunity to stop and ask questions.”
With that, Richter turned the tables on this writer and inquired about my story.
Tiya Coleman — Las Vegas, NV
Keeping the fire burning at home.
Tiya Coleman set foot on the playa in 1998, has been to every Burn (except two) since, and still feels “that feeling” of the first time. Now she’s all about kindling that flame in others and helping Vegas Burners harvest that passion when they return home.
“I see their excitement and I want to try to nurture that,” she explains. “I say, ‘Look at the resources around us. How can I help you implement those resources to make great things happen?’ I let them know that this is a shared experience and there is no judgment.”
When you live in the same state as the Big Burn, there are already preconceptions out there about what Burning Man is or should be. But this community leader makes a point to remind her region’s participants that “our community is what we make it. Our passion here is to support local art, performance, painting, sculpture in a positive way.”
L-Train — Boston
Blazing trails — literally.
A forest dweller and avid hiker, L-Train says she was living a 10 Principles lifestyle even before she knew that this was a code of conduct associated with Burning Man. So naturally, her friends thought the Firefly regional in Vermont would be her jam and invited her to join in in 2013.
It rained so much that year that the event was dubbed “Mudfly,” and participants struggled to deal with challenging hills and footpaths. That’s when L-Train realized which of her skills could be the most valuable to this community: while she lived in the woods, she worked for a trail crew and could tame the wildest of pathways. Bam.
“Second Firefly Burn, I came back, and immediately I was in the DPW leadership,” she recalls. “People were kind of mansplaining me how to fix the trails and I’m like ‘Yeah, OK, thanks.’” She is the first woman to be a core member of the DPW in her region.
Isabel VanTassel — Corpus Christi, TX
Teaching citizenship — and then you can party with us.
Isabel VanTassel’s a beating heart of the Texas Regionals and runs four Beach Burns a year in Corpus Christi. She looks after Safety, but since it’s a small leadership crew everyone does a bit of everything. “More often than not, I cat-herd the cat herders,” she says with a laugh.
A big focus of these Beach Burns is trash cleanup and “macro MOOP-ing.” In four years of events, participants have collected and removed 40,000 pounds of garbage from the beach as well as two derelict cars.
Because the Beach Burns are on public land with no gate and no ticketing, anyone is welcome to come — which means education is also a key part of these gatherings. “A lot of people show up because there’s naked ladies on the beach,” VanTassel explains. “So we have to make sure that everybody is on the same page, and that our veteran Burners don’t feel uncomfortable at our Burn because of outsiders.”
One thing she’s done to unite the worlds was withhold drinks from non-Burners until they could find a Burner, ask a question, and come back to the bar with at least one thing they learned: “Do that, and then you can party with us.”
Top photo R-Evolution by Marco Cochrane and Deja Solis, photo by ales aka dust to ashes (other photos by Mia Quagliarello)