Mayors of U.S. Cities Visit Black Rock City

Once you’ve seen it in action, it’s pretty clear why people call Black Rock City a city. But do the mayors of more permanent cities agree?

“The first time I came out, I kinda came out kicking and screaming,” says Mayor Hillary Schieve of Reno, Nevada, “but it actually really changed my life.” That is to say, Mayor Schieve has been to Black Rock City multiple times. In 2018, she was back with a contingent of 11 mayors of U.S. cities, a delegation from the U.S. Conference of Mayors (you may have heard about it on NPR). The Conference of Mayors has started to take an interest in what they might learn from our temporary city — which is big enough to qualify for the Conference of Mayors, by the way.

Mayor Hillary Schieve of Reno, NV, Mayor Elizabeth Kautz of Burnsville, MN, Mayor Stephen Benjamin of Columbia, SC, Tom Cochran from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and Burning Man co-founders Will Roger and Crimson Rose (Photo by Robert Burnett, U.S. Conference of Mayors)

They are definitely getting it. “It’s not a festival,” says Mayor Elizabeth B. Kautz of Burnsville, Minnesota. “It’s a snapshot into a way of life that everyone can experience, and enjoy. And then say what do I take away from who I am? And how do I live differently in my everyday life?”

“Seeing radical inclusion in action is amazing,” says Mayor Stephen Benjamin of Columbia, South Carolina, the current president of the Conference of Mayors. “It pulls out the very best of us.”

“The citizens of Black Rock City came out here and built a city,” Mayor Benjamin observes. “All the infrastructure needed to be a true 21st-century city is right here, right now, built in record time, and will be deconstructed in a way that reflects our commitment to sustainability.” Did you hear that? He said “our!” One of us! One of us!

Jocelyn Bogen from the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Mayor Benjamin came prepared. (Photo by Robert Burnett, U.S. Conference of Mayors)

The mayors participated fully in the spirit of things. They contributed to a “Before I Leave Office…” wall at the Everywhere Pavilion that had previously traveled to U.S.C.M. meetings in D.C. and Boston. Shout-out to DeOxidized camp for hosting the mayors for dinner, and to Controlled Burn, the fire troupe from Reno for performing there. The mayors later took a night tour of Black Rock City on Wednesday. Do you remember how dusty Wednesday night was? These people definitely got the Burning Man treatment.

“I just feel like it’s made me better able to relate to the full range of my constituents that have these kind of counter cultural tendencies, or interest in the arts, or in trying new things, or different philosophies,” says Mayor Christopher Cabaldon of West Sacramento, California. “It was a really profound experience.”

Danger Ranger and Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve (Photo by Robert Burnett, U.S.C.M.)

For the next two years, the agenda of the U.S. Conference of Mayors is focused on infrastructure, innovation and inclusion. As national politics get more divisive, city politics seems positively sane — even thriving — by comparison. These mayors came to a city where a giant shish-kebab of cars built by the locals is one of the central civic gathering spaces, and they fit right in. And they want us to bring our creative energy back from Black Rock City to our own cities, engaging with our elected officials and community leaders, perhaps even becoming those leaders ourselves!

“We need more people who care about the cultural fabric, the spiritual fabric — the fact that we are all in this together — serving in public office,” Mayor Benjamin says. “You can make a dramatic change in the lives of the people who need you.

Those crazy ideas you bring to life in BRC? They’re worth a try in the city you live in the rest of the year. “Don’t be afraid to actually reach out to your mayors,” says Mayor Schieve. “I get people all the time that email me with projects, and I reach out to so many [of them]. If you think that you have something that would benefit your city, do that!”

You can hear Mayors Benjamin and Schieve’s enthusiasm in this interview with Burning Man Project’s Megan Miller live on playa for Burning Man Information Radio.


(Top photo: L to R, Tom Cochran, CEO and Executive Director, U.S. Conference of Mayors; Mayor Debra March, Henderson NV; Mayor Craig Thurmond, Broken Arrow, OK; Mayor Elizabeth Kautz, Burnsville, MN; Mayor Pauline Cutter, San Leandro, CA; Mayor Jim Donchess, Nashua, NH; Mayor Stephen Benjamin, Columbia, SC; Mayor David Terrazas, Santa Cruz; Mayor Hillary Schieve, Reno, NV; Mayor Alberto Santos, Kearny, NJ; Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, West Sacramento, CA; photo by Robert Burnett, U.S. Conference of Mayors)

About the author: Jon Mitchell

Jon Mitchell

, a.k.a. Argus, is the publisher of the Burning Man Journal, the Jackrabbit Speaks newsletter, and the Burning Man website. He co-wrote a big story about spending 24 hours at the Temple of Juno in 2012. He’s been a Burner since 2008. He writes a blog about meditation called Grind Well. Email: argus@burningman.org

10 Comments on “Mayors of U.S. Cities Visit Black Rock City

  • Weird Gray says:

    Since there’s no mayor of BM, what do these mayors hope to learn from a bunch of administrators with no leader?

    Like every other festival with a keen interest in BM, they hope to decrease expenses, and are intrigued but BM’s free labor business model…. Can we pay the garbage men less if they get special spiritual points?

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    • Frogbeater says:

      Mayors want a constituency that engages with civic structures. Black Rock City has a very specific type of engagement that typical cities can only dream of achieving. How does Black Rock City cultivate that level of engagement? That’s what the mayors came to see.

      Now, you can say that such a high level of engagement results in people doing things “for free,” but that notion is also translated as “volunteering” it’s also translated as “caring about your neighbors and you’re municipality.”

      I personally engage in civic duties in the default world. Those engagements are “for free.” These mayors aren’t looking to reduce costs on trash collection agencies, they are looking for people to care about their communities. That caring doesn’t come from paying people, it comes from something else….

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    • Flamewolf says:

      There is a mayor of BRC that gets voted in I believe very two years :)

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      • janice bunny says:

        Everyone wants to know how to get people to work for free. That is why these people are interested in what BM is doing. It’s kinda easy to apply the model to other festivals (give them spiritual/cool points; changing the world) but it’s really hard to apply the model to actual civic environments where people are elected and budgets are accounted. But good for them for trying. We need more people like DPW off of their friends’ couches. This should work in the real world. People will make more money. I like it.

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  • Ken Mitchell (KT) says:

    I had the privilege of speaking at length with Mayor Jim Donchess of Nashua, New Hampshire. Jim was excited to be there and mentioned his interest in learning from the City of Reno Arts & Culture Commission as well as bringing more art, possibly even a piece from Burning Man, into his city. I hope we have more mayors attend next year!

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  • Dear All
    I had to smile when I just saw this. I have some great beads given to me 2013 BM which resemble a major & Mayoresses chain in the United Kingdom. I took a photograph at the IOM Classic TT 26.08.2018 the Mayor & Mayroess and me.
    I can send its a classic “Fid the Lid” Goggle King

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  • Dragon says:

    They got one helluva greeting at Greeters Station when their bus rolled in on Wednesday. It just so happened it was the Naked Greeters Shift! Now, that’s what I call a “Welcome Home!” Hahahaha….

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  • Joshua says:

    You May Already Be a Member…

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  • Ramichi says:

    Very cool. Kudos to Megan and the gang for coordinating and making this happen! I hope lots of Mayors make it out to BRC in the coming years, so much to learn about civic engagement, neighborly mindsets, even service delivery and infrastructure planning.

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