This is the third entry in a new, long-form series designed to spark conversation about diversity, Radical Inclusion, and differences in the global Burning Man community. Topics will include: where the lines are for cultural appropriation of art, music, and fashion, is “Why aren’t there more people of color at Burning Man?” the question we should be asking, how far the 10 Principles stretch beyond the playa, and what being a year-round, worldwide culture means for the inclusiveness and diversity of Burning Man.
Rachel Sadd has been the Executive Director of the Ace Monster Toys makerspace in Oakland since July 2015. Born into a multiracial family in the Bay Area, she’s been a maker all her life and previously worked in the tech and finance industries. Known as Crafty on (and off) playa, she’s been building for the Burn since 2008 and going to Black Rock City since 2011.
Transcript edited for clarity.
Dominique: How did Burning Man come into your life, and what has it meant for you?
Rachel: Burning Man first became a part of my life when I was living down in Monterey, CA. That was back when Craigslist was a thing. I was looking for art partners and somebody said, “You should come cook for our camp.” I was like, “Your camp? What’s that?” So my first experience of culture was cooking for a random art camp and coordinating food for a group of both friends and strangers. I did not know what to expect. I [had to juggle] a lot of time as a single parent, friends supporting me and watching my kids, rolling the dice and getting the time away from the two jobs I was working. I didn’t want to miss out on life experiences just because of money or circumstances.
Once I got there, it was nothing like what I expected. I was woefully unprepared for the depth and the physical discomfort, [and] that was trying emotionally. [The playa can push] you into that worst toddler-state ever where you have no patience with yourself, or [with] anyone else. But [there were] these beautiful and pivotal moments where I would get to see the artworks and it would change my entire attitude. The homogeneity [of Black Rock City] was definitely apparent to me immediately.
That was my first introduction into the Burning Man adventure 19 years ago.
My relationship [with] Burning Man has been more about building the art before and on the playa [and] creating the experience. That was [always] pivotal to me, as opposed to just being a pure consumer.
I wanna make something, I wanna be [a] part of it. Burning Man’s excellent for that. It’s formed [the] basis of some of my core communities. It’s informed my art. It’s informed how I’ve raised my children in various ways.
Was making always a part of your life and where does that come from?
Making has always been part of my life. As early back as I can remember, drawing, creating art, doing something was my happy place. Making is how you take care of the people around you. It’s how you contribute and balance out what you take from any given community, whether it’s your workplace, your family, etc. There’s got to be healthy reciprocity. [That’s] always been [a part of] my work ethic, something deeply instilled in me by my father. [I was involved in making] the most rewarding things in my life. I didn’t just sit back. There’s some connection that you get when you make things with people.
[Part of] what attracted me to Burning Man was the knowledge I had in my previous life [about] how you connect and build with people. My dad’s side of the family is Native American, Mexican, and French, and my mom’s side [is] German Jew, Italian, and Norwegian. I existed in a separated family, running back and forth between my mom’s predominantly white culture and my dad’s very Mexican culture. The sense that you needed to contribute to a group so that everybody got what they needed and so that everyone would become empathetic, was definitely on the foundational level in my near family; Five kids and various adults at any given time. You [had to] do your part, and it’s also how you can take care of and express love in a very tangible way to those around you. Whether it’s making a piece of art, or making some food, or making a room pleasant and beautiful, or making the garden awesome, that’s how you can affect positivity around you in your near family.
When I [was] going out in the world as a kid, I existed in the places in between. I absolutely have white skin privilege, but less so when I was a child. I didn’t look like the kids in my school, [and] the way you bridged that gap was with experience and with connectivity. When you made something with the kids around you, you shared this experience and you got connections.
Since I was already existing in between, that kind of bridge experience was just part of how I learned to make myself a place in the world when it wasn’t defined very clearly for me.
On the Ace Monster Toys website you guys talk about the space’s “social contract.” What’s that all about?
After I became part of the Ace community, I was voted onto the board and became part of various leadership groups. I started the textiles program and [was getting] involved on lots of levels. In the middle of a board meeting one day, [a colleague] asked me if I wanted to take on the executive directorship of the space. The Occupy movement was going on at the time, and I was feeling powerless after dealing with years of having a stereotypically horrifying experience [in the tech and finance industries]. I felt powerless to address my own pay [and racial] inequality, [my experienced] sexist devaluation, [and] dealing with folks who were [pushing back and saying], “All lives matter.”
Then I was offered this opportunity to be the leader in this maker space. I let them know, “Hey, if you’re gonna have me do this job, I’m gonna do it all the way.” That [meant] that I [was] gonna go for diversity intentionally and I [was] going to grow the space. We [were] locked at about 80 members, which meant that we weren’t serving everybody.
So I told them, “If you don’t want to go on that adventure with me, then I shouldn’t take this role.” The resounding reply from that group was, “Yes. We would like to go on the adventure,” and so started my four year adventure as the Executive Director of Ace Monster Toys.
The fact is that I was taught about social contracts in my Burning Man community. It was like, “Oh, yes, let’s make an agreement about how we will treat each other. Yay.” What is the social contract in my camp? What is the social contract for decompressing camp out? Knowing those things lends confidence to how you’re going to go into a situation that might be socially anxiety-provoking. All those reasons [are] why people don’t venture into groups that don’t look like themselves. Knowing what the social contract is upfront makes a group that doesn’t look, sound, or feel like you much more accessible.
So when I manned [the] team, we had [a] membership agreement. It’s got one line at [the end] that says that whoever’s signing the agreement attests that they will not be a jerk.
Well, it turned out that the practical application of that is super muddy and is based on where you are in society. It’s based on your privilege, or lack thereof. It didn’t [give] people enough meat to actually be able to play on it. We asked [ourselves] what it means practically, and we honed it down to this: It means transparency and respect.
First of all, respect for yourself. Make sure you’re hydrated. Don’t use power tools when you’re altered. Wear your safety gear. If you’re angry, maybe that’s not the best time to be doing precise measurements. Then as you get into a shared space, respecting others, and [not just when] it’s easy. We mean when it’s hard. Like when someone moves your gear around, you can speak to them about it but you have to do it respectfully, and you need to tell people where your boundaries are. Lastly, of course, we expect that people will respect the space. Leave it better than you found it, which sounds a lot like Burning Man and ‘leave no trace.’
After that, we have the basic foundations of most social contracts: we have zero tolerance for bigotry, sexism, violence, hate speech, or any of those things. Generally speaking though, in the Bay Area that’s not what comes up. What comes up for us is the stuff in the gray area.
All of our unconscious bias that everybody has. You, me, everybody. How do you deal with that? How do you hold people accountable without shame? So we’re pretty intentional about that, [and] we’re also like, “Hey, none of us have degrees in this.”
So we went out and we hired consultants to advise us, and we bring them in to help people manage their unconscious bias, if they choose to do the work. That’s kind of where, where we go with the social contract. It’s a little bit more nuanced and we teach it directly. We have a class every month, sometimes twice a month, called “How AMT (Ace Monster Toys) works. Half the class, is all about the nuts and bolts. Where do you take the trash? What trash can you throw away? How do you get your bill? How do you reserve a machine? The second half of that class is all soft skills. It’s all the social contract. We talk about what does “no” sound like? No doesn’t always sound like “no.” Sometimes it’s, “I’m too busy,” or, “Maybe later.” Because a soft no is still a real thing. We talk about our ‘no explaining rule.’
We’re big on consent in our maker space. What happens most often is you’ll find somebody who’s really excited and is a subject matter expert. They might come across somebody who is doing something the hard way on their learning journey. [At AMT] it’s considered extremely rude to roll up on somebody and start telling them how to do their project.
“Oh, you should do it like this.” Even in a friendly tone, don’t do that! What is considered ok is to ask somebody if they would like to know the information you have to share. So, literally saying, “Hey, I know an easier way to do that. Would you like to know?” We also teach people that sometimes the answer can be no. Some people are on their own learning journey and their own making journey and it’s ok.
One of the things that we teach and we let people know immediately when they start, is that AMT is public space. What you do is not gonna be talked about in the back room, it’s gonna be talked about in the front room and it’s gonna be talked about in an open way. So whether it’s something amazing you did or something that you did that had a negative impact.
So that’s, that’s all part of the soft skills and the social contract we teach. It sounds super simple, but it’s, it’s a practice. It’s like learning a musical instrument or martial arts. It’s a muscle you have to build.
The social contract page on the AMT website says, “Respect also means hearing if somebody tells you you’ve crossed a line. Arguing with them about their experience is not acceptable behavior.” Can you tell me a little bit more about that line at AMT and in your experience?
That line is the culmination of not just the social contract that I learned in my Burning Man groups, but also in other spaces, specifically Double Union writes amazing social contracts, um, and parameters around such things.
When you argue with somebody’s experience, you’re automatically framing things as, ‘you’re right, they’re wrong,’ and you go to this place of judgment instead of dealing with the impact of your behavior.
It’s a really common thing in our culture to want to say that what we did didn’t have a negative impact on somebody else because our intentions were good. The easiest way to rationalize that as a reality is to say the other person is not having that experience because we didn’t have that experience.
The whole premise of that line is that it’s not ok to argue with somebody else’s experience. Just accept that. Not everybody is like you, you are not like everybody else. When you can accept that and move on to how we can connect and how we can improve each other’s experience, you sweep away this huge spiral of energy output that really doesn’t go anywhere for anybody.
So at AMT we try to model the behavior. When people see things come out well, they’re gonna be more open to that behavior in the future. When somebody’s having a bad experience, the first thing we’ve done with our language is to acknowledge, “I hear you’re having a bad experience.” Not, “I think you’re falling out over something trivial,” or, “But it’s so simple. Why don’t you just get it?”
Say that you hear they’re having a bad experience. Ask what you can do about it, or admit and own the fact that you may be powerless to change the experience they’re having. Lack of argument and the affirmation that you’re seeing somebody else’s experience, instead of judging it as valid or invalid, changes everything. We [have those conversations] publicly.
What are “micro-inclusions?”
Micro-inclusions are small, sometimes not even verbal things you can do to create an inclusive and welcoming environment for people who are not like you. At AMT, we [train people on] these skills. I have a lot of older white, male instructors [who were asking] for ways to be more inclusive.
It’s about paying attention to someone’s body language and giving them their physical bubble. It’s amending your language to be less gendered. It can be something as simple as understanding the nuances in a ‘no,’ and this has to do with listening skills. Women are often socialized not to say ‘no,’ so they will often give what’s called a “soft no.” We did a whole training with some of those instructors around what that [sounds], [looks], and [feels] like.
Sometimes micro-inclusions are making sure that the imagery [we put out] is representative of what we desire our membership to look like. Let’s make sure that the photographs we post on social media and the art and achievements we celebrate represent our diversity goals. It’s all about subtle things like that.
I’ve watched it bloom out into other parts of my life. My friend tells this amazing story of how she executes micro-inclusions in her day-to-day life. Sometimes it’s as simple as being on the BART platform during the morning commute into the city and just letting the black woman go first. My petite white woman friend and I will get pushed out of the way by all of the guys in suits, but we recognize that whatever we’re experiencing is only a piece of the pie for what the black woman standing next to us is experiencing. I’ve got the choice to step back and let the person who has less privilege than me enjoy my privilege. Give it away.
Have you seen an impact?
Absolutely. People took this back to their workplaces. They took it back to how they talked to each other, and not assigning blame to something. When something bad happens, we talk about what happened and not about intentions because at the end of the day [intentions] don’t mean much compared to actions. How is what I’m doing going to impact other people? ‘Cause it’s going to, for good or for ill.
You know, somebody who’s trying to do the right thing might do it imperfectly and celebrate the effort that went there and steer it forward better the next time.
Sometimes I’m tired and I slip back to [using] pronouns I was raised with [from] very strict Catholic school teachers. I try to do better the next time and not make anybody uncomfortable with my course correction. Celebrate people trying.
How do Burners who are eager to learn take lessons from the Ace Monster Toy space and apply them to their lives? What’s the entry point?
My advice is to keep it small and keep it local. Start with a little thing. Instead of making [your playa] gifts by yourself at home, go to your library and make them with as many people who live in your area. They get to learn about the playa and Gifting, and you get to learn about your neighbors in a different way.
Have open conversations about how you, as a Burner, are spending your resources. I’m all in favor of everybody having awesome experiences in their life. As much as I touted work ethic I’m still somebody who loves a really good meal, a beautiful garden, and a great glass of wine. These things aren’t sinful just because they’re not solving a social problem. But maybe look at the quantity of what you’re putting in the world and look at who’s consuming it. If you’re putting a huge amount of effort, and money, and time into a project that is predominantly for a singular audience, maybe ask yourself if that’s what you really want to be doing. Perhaps there are avenues to bring that experience locally, to spread that support to something that happens in everyday life, or to open your door and welcome folks who don’t look like the typical Burner.
Wherever you live, find [ways] to remove the isolation [between] Burners and the people around you. Look outside of the amazing Burning Man experience you’ve had. See how you can invite people into that experience because that experience isn’t just when you land on the playa. That’s your craft. That’s your thought, that’s your energy. When you get back from the Playa, look at who you can invite to the table. Don’t just stay in your burning bubble. Grow out of it.
Top photo: Rachel in the Ace Monster Toys co-working space. (Photo by Matte Straube, 2018)