Amidst a Sea of Torches, Mid-Atlantic Leadership Conference Passes the Flame

Leadership transition isn’t simply the passing of a singular torch from one generation to another; it’s many smaller torches passed from person to person as we all figure out how to fit into this jigsaw puzzle of a community.

This thought returned to me again and again throughout our second Mid-Atlantic Leadership Conference (MALC), which was held at the artist makerspace Creative Labs on April 20–21, 2018.

Conferences like the MALC are a way to pass these smaller torches of experience, knowledge, responsibility and community engagement to each other. They are also an opportunity for Regionals to feel a sense of ownership over this transition process in our culture.

Amplifying Ownership

In my blog on the first MALC, I talked about our Regional community’s sense of ownership over this conference and everything we’re doing in the Mid-Atlantic region. I also touched on how Burning Man staff reinforced that by being present and plugging into our event, both as presenters and attendees.

With Larry Harvey in the hospital during this year’s MALC (and, you know, hindsight being 20/20), this sense of ownership seemed amplified as over 100 Community Leaders from 50 different Regional Events, theme camps and other community-based organizations and collectives gathered for educational knowledge-sharing and network strengthening.

This year’s conference was almost double the size of the first MALC and was timed to coincide with the gap left by the Burning Man Global Leadership Conference taking a year of pause. Like the first year, we also found ourselves gathering with heavy hearts but not because of electoral events.

“To Burn is to continually learn, and there is not a right or wrong way to do it.”
— Ursula Wright

Double Whammy

The week before the conference started, we were hit with a double header when we learned of Larry Harvey’s hospitalization and the death of a dear member of the Baltimore Burner community, Jason Smith.

Jason’s funeral service was scheduled for the first day of the MALC. Many attendees had known Jason, so the MALC leadership and attendees did what Burners do best: The leadership was creative and responsive and rescheduled the first day of the conference to accommodate a later start, while attendees were compassionate and understanding about the changes. And with Jason and Larry in mind, our conference began.

Day One Highlights

Megs Rutigliano, Regional Network Associate Director, kicked off the conference with a delightful presentation on the “Overview and Future Visioning of the Global Network.” There were two things in this presentation that struck a chord with me.

The first highlighted that the Regionals Committee chose to take a break from hosting the Global Leadership Conference (GLC) to allow some space to examine the scope, audience and purpose of the gathering. Megs also highlighted the work that local communities have been doing to convene leaders (like what we did at MALC), and how MALC is a an example of a larger network-wide trend towards self-organizing. Megs encouraged this work to continue as it helps keep local leaders motivated and gives them a chance to be active and more engaged in the sessions than they might be at the larger GLC event in San Francisco.

Mark Shays, a community leader from the New Orleans Elephant Collective, Richard Best of Baltimore’s Creative Labs, and Beau Turner of Norfolk and Virginia’s 757 Makerspace then co-led a presentation on “Cultivating Creative Art Spaces and Culture.”

They talked about establishing, building and growing a community of artists, builders and collaborators in shared creative spaces. They also shared insights into their business models and challenges, and discussed the importance of a DIY community and how to measure the value of these collaborative spaces.

“Regional events and networks will be paramount for growth and sustainability of the Burning Man community going forward.”
— Kiba

Day Two Highlights

I was particularly excited about the second day of the conference, and the numerous panels and conversations I was involved in.

The day kicked off with participants exploring “Being a Burner in 2018” through a world salon format led by Theresa Champagne Pop Rocks and Dave “Not that Dave” Koren. Volunteer facilitators held space for nine different topics around the room, and attendees then moved from space to space over the course of 15 minutes, picking three topics that interested them and taking five minutes for each one. The volunteer facilitators then closed the salon by reporting out.

I volunteered to facilitate discussions about how we welcome younger Burners into the community — be it in age, experience or both. There were three main threads: invitation, acculturation and stewardship.

When inviting the Burner-curious into our community, one important takeaway included being intentional when you are in spaces dedicated to invitation, like regular events such as meetups and fundraisers. A common story was the tendency for people to socialize with others they already know, rather than proactively welcoming new people.

“[I] Hope we can use this steam to step out of comfort zones and broaden our borders to be radically inclusive globally.”
— Quest Skinner

Once an individual accepts our invitation, how do we orient them to the community generally, and to a Burn or event specifically? The challenge is to provide enough foundation so people feel informed while still enabling them to figure the rest out on their own. And finally, with stewardship, we talked about how we check in and continue to build relationships with younger Burners once they begin to have those formative experiences.

I was then on a panel about implementing consent initiatives in intentional communities. It was my pleasure to join Emma Kaywin, Meso Creo’s Consent Co-Lead, and Maddie Boom Boom who leads consent work in the regional fire and flow community. I was inspired by the proactivity of different Regional events and communities, which have started their own consent processes and systems, including something as simple as creating a “consent@” email.

I also highlighted the challenge of dealing with consent outside events and venues, as we’ve been trying to figure out our own consent work in the D.C. Burners community. Because if you have a repeat consent violator in your community, you can’t just kick them out of the city or region. A common theme, regardless of the initiative, included using a restorative justice lens to inform consent systems and practices.

“Our actions, words and deeds that may seem small to us can sometimes have the greatest impact on strangers.”
— Marvin “Sherpa” Roxas

Eleventh Principle and Diversity

After that, I joined six presenters on our Ignite interlude, where I talked about my own 11th Principle, Radical Civic Engagement, which is a combination of Civic Responsibility, Communal Effort and Participation.

I shared how I’ve used arts and arts management experience to partner with organizations and galvanize audiences to advocate for young people in the District. The general idea was how we can take the creativity and energy that we generate for and at Burns to become better and ever more creative advocates for the issues we care about.

And my day wrapped up as one of the panelists in a breakout session on People of Color in Alternative Spaces. Ajshay Barber and Ursula Lee Wright initially presented this panel at the most recent Catharsis on the Mall.

As a person of Filipino and Black heritage, I found this conversation dovetailed with so many other conversations of diversity, equity and inclusion in almost every other part of my life. One takeaway included the importance of making space for voices that are not heard or represented as much as others — not just at events but also in our own casual, social gatherings.

“It’s so inspiring how committed and diverse our community is, and how we bring the 10 Principles into daily life!”
— Monster

Looking to the Future

Michael Mikel, a.k.a. “Danger Ranger,” closed the conference with his insightful presentation on “The Five Ages of Burning Man,” which included a comprehensive examination of Burning Man’s 30-year history and the external and internal forces that affected its evolution.

As we consider the future of our culture and communities, I challenge you to think about the torches you’ve been handed and that you carry. And it is never too soon to think about who will carry them next.

Photos by JR “Nexus” Russ

About the author: JR "Nexus" Russ


Nexus (he/him/his) was born and raised in the traditional territory of the Pamunkey and the Piscataway, part of which many of us now call Washington, DC. He is a queer cisgender man, who practices ethical non-monogamy. He received his B.A. in dance from the University of Maryland, College Park, and went on to American University for his M.A. in Arts Management. He is devoted to the District’s creative community, including volunteering as a board member on local performing arts organizations. He is passionate about building community through the arts, and unpacking issues around diversity and equity. One way in which this has manifested has been an ongoing storytelling project, providing DC Burners opportunities to tell true stories on stage throughout Washington. Beginning in 2014, this project now has a year round presence with seasonal performances and workshops at local and regional events. Nexus is particularly dedicated to naming whiteness and dismantling white supremacy in all his endeavors. He currently also volunteers with Burning Man as one of the five Regional Contacts for Washington, DC.

One comment on “Amidst a Sea of Torches, Mid-Atlantic Leadership Conference Passes the Flame

  • Lee Szkolnik says:

    Having only heard stories of friends’ experiences at BM, I decided to dig deeper. Wow! I am blown away. It’s easy to, at times, lose sight of the fundamental principles in which makes communities prosper. Our ability to continually engage, feel, , learn, experience, grow, facilitate and transcend is fuelling my desire to get involved in something as special as Burning Man. And I cannot wait! A seemingly magical event managed, run and attended by like minded, responsible and quality human beings.

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