#WeekofMaking: A Year in the Life of BWB’s Mobile Resource Unit

Part of a series about 2017 National Week of Making.

The maker mentality — whether you want to call it  DIY, Do-acracy or just figuring shit out — has been a part of Burning Man and Burners Without Borders from the beginning, and it continues to inform BWB’s most recent journey since creating a Mobile Resource Unit for Black Rock City in 2016.

A (Short) History of Making

The Black Rock Desert has always necessitated the creative reinvention of shelter and lifestyle, and this has shaped the Burning Man experience since its inception. Long before Burners were making sculptures and theme camps, they were prototyping living environments to make Black Rock more hospitable for human life.

After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, the makers of Burning Man headed to Biloxi and Pearlington, where they started the eight-month disaster relief project that birthed Burners Without Borders (BWB). When they returned, they set to work saving the public fires on Ocean Beach and making unique artistic fire pits for communities and friends to gather around.

Camp Katrina (Photo by Tom Price)

Two years later, after an earthquake in Peru, it was again the makers of Burning Man who created a ground resource center, established local NGO Pisco Sin Fronteras, and spent six years recruiting hundreds of volunteers from 23 countries.

The Birth of a Mobile Resource Unit (MRU)

In early 2016, BWB received a slew of emails from our community, which was starting to engage with the ever-growing refugee crisis in Europe and throughout the Middle East and Africa. This prompted a BWB research trip, which both affected and inspired me.

One of the founding beliefs of BWB is that “People have the inherent capacity to solve their own problems and social transformation is within reach of all communities”, so I wanted to explore what providing tools and resources to refugee communities would look like.

Interior of Mobile Resource Unit (Photo by Christopher Breedlove)

The journey began with Doc North, from ReAllocate and Ideate, who donated a 20-foot container after I cornered him at an event. The container had been used previously as a 3D printing shop at Burning Man and was the first of many gifts. Next, Cheryl Edison offered to house the MRU at The Gate 510 maker space so that we could build it out and give it a facelift.

Type-A Machines donated a 3D printer, the artist Allen Larson donated a laser cutter, and a slew of other people came together to make the space fully functional. Sam Bloch of Communitere, a close friend of BWB and expert at resource centers, joined the team to manage its activation. The Art Crawler, a mobile education center and maker space itself, agreed to join the mission and transport the container to playa. Everything seemed to be coming together.

Once we landed on playa, the container was anchored at the front of BWB camp and was immediately useful.

CNC workshop by Sean Pace (Photo by Christopher Breedlove)

We assisted artists in replacing pieces of projects they had left at home, we laser cut exit signs for the Catacomb of Veils, we CNC cut missing pieces of a Gregg Fleishman structure, and we let people fix electronics, fabrics and more. Throughout the week, we hosted workshops, which included building your own solar lamp, 3D design and spot welding.

From Playa to Nepal

After we returned from the playa, Nepal Communitere invited us to participate in the Kathmandu Mini-Maker Faire, the world’s first humanitarian-focused Maker Faire, which they were hosting.

It had been a year since an earthquake had rocked the country, and the city’s people were was still clearing the rubble and rebuilding some of their most iconic buildings and holy sites, as well as their daily lives.

It was the ideal setting, and our invitation to the event begged an interesting question: What does the Venn Diagram of the humanitarian community, the maker community and the Burning Man community look like, and how do we intersect?

Not surprisingly, we discovered that it included a unique group of individuals riding the edge of what it means to innovate, make a difference, and burn brightly in the world.

Communitere and BWB Team Up

Nepal Communitere is a resource center and one of three Communiteres around the world. Seasoned Burners pepper its board and executive staff and its Executive Director, Sam Bloch, was the Operations Director for BWB in Pisco, Peru.

Sam founded Communitere as a model organization for long-term disaster relief and community empowerment. This model focuses on providing resources rather than charitable handouts.

”What does the Venn Diagram of the humanitarian community, the maker community and the Burning Man community look like, and how do we intersect?”

Thanks in part to a BWB Community Micro-Grant, Communitere was creating a makerspace that would be open and accessible to the local public, and BWB led both the set-up and staffing throughout the weekend of the Maker Faire.

(Photo by Christopher Breedlove)

Just days before my arrival, the flooring and doors were put onto the modified container building. And in roughly 48 hours, we created the base level for what will become the Nepal Makerspace, using tools that came from the Burning Man tool drive 2014, TechShop, United Nations, and the Robotics Association of Nepal.

Burners Desiree Tavera (Disco Chateau) and Nicolas Weidinger (IFTF) held workshops on creative upcycling in the space. On Sunday we held a collaborative effigy-making workshop, where we built a meter-tall wooden robot with a mouth that people could feed with written notes about their maker dreams and intentions. Naturally, we celebrated the end of the Maker Faire by burning the robot effigy!

(Photo by Bahar)

Burning Bright at the Faire

Faire highlights and Burner bright lights included:

  • Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM), which was presented by Midburner Sapir Caduri. This Israeli organization hosts international hackathons that focus on prototyping solutions for the disabled.
  • A presentation by Nathan, a.k.a. “Witch Doctor” of DPW and MakerNet, who talked about challenges of makerspaces to find appropriate software and networking solutions.
  • Field Ready, an organization co-founded by Burner Dara Dotz, talked about using 3D printers in the field for on-the-spot solutions and ran workshops on how to create O-rings.
  • Illac Ancellotti Diaz, another Burner, showcased Liter of Light, which is committed to providing affordable, sustainable solar light to people with limited or no access to electricity.

Beyond the faire, there were even more Burners relentlessly providing human-centered solutions to communities in need:

  • Matthew Rockwell, of the Burning Man Tech team and Disaster Hack, is providing “Tech to Empower and Art to Inspire” to out-the-of-way Nepali communities.
  • NIVAS, another recipient of a BWB Community Micro-Grant, is rebuilding the area and focusing on tree and soil remediation to help prevent landslides before the next earthquake.
  • Jay Pontil and Reza Samadi, Burners from LA, are rebuilding a school in rural Nepal.
  • David Best built a temple in Bungamati, a well-known traditional woodcarving village where 70 per cent of buildings were damaged by the earthquake.

Since returning from Nepal, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art has recognised our own work with the BWB Mobile Resource Unit. They invited us to showcase the MRU at their new show, ‘3.5 Square Meters: Constructive Responses to Natural Disasters’. The exhibition also highlights our work after Katrina and in Pisco, and will run until end of September. A coffee table book will be available soon.

The Journey Continues

Communitere is taking the next step in this journey with the launch of their Greece Communitere initiative. BWB worked with Communitere to connect them with makers paces and Burner communities along the route from Berlin to Greece and is looking forward to looking for ways to continue to support the initiative.

Communitere is building a new Semi-Permanent Resource Center (SPRC) in Thessaloniki, Greece, and one Mobile Resource Center (MRC) to travel around the country to support various stakeholder communities and refugee camps.

This past week they’ve been traveling across Europe from Berlin Maker Faire to Greece and building out the MRC. They will hand it over to the Greek community on June 21.

Where to Next for Our MRU?

Back home, we’re bringing the Mobile Resource Unit back to Burning Man this year and we’re currently restocking it with supplies.  If you’re interested in donating tools or supplies, you can see our needs list here.

The journey continues as we dream of ways that we can bring the MRU into the field too. But as I look back over the last year and contemplate this week’s National Week of Making, I am inspired yet again by the power of makers and Burners to collaborate, imagine and innovate to create a better and brighter world.

(Photo by Christopher Breedlove)

About the author: Christopher Breedlove

Christopher Breedlove

Christopher Breedlove is the Program Manager for Burners Without Borders (BWB). BWB supports year round initiatives from across the globe with innovative civic engagement solutions and community resiliency projects. Coming to the Burning Man Project from Chicago, Christopher has a history of creating dynamic and participatory civic projects with a particular interest in democratic granting programs. 2016 will be his tenth trip to Black Rock City.

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