This is the fifth entry in a long-form series designed to spark conversation about diversity, Radical Inclusion, and differences in the global Burning Man community.
This is the fifth entry in a long-form series designed to spark conversation about diversity, Radical Inclusion, and differences in the global Burning Man community.
Ed Fletcher is a filmmaker, journalist, and the president of Sacramento Valley Spark, a nonprofit organization started in 2012 that aims to unite the local community through the 10 Principles, art, and radical change. He first visited Black Rock City in 2008 and has been back every year since.
Transcript edited for clarity.
Dominique: How did Burning Man come into your life?
Ed: I’m blessed to live in Northern California, and [I] started hearing about Burning Man maybe [around] 2004 after I moved back to Sacramento. At first, I didn’t believe it. There was no way it was as magical and as beautiful and as wonderful as my friend described it. Eventually, I went and Googled it and I saw that people from all over the world were [going]. Here it is in my backyard, [so what] kind of fool am I if I don’t go out there and see what’s going on.
At first, my biggest concern was that I wouldn’t fit in, I would be uncomfortable, and I’d have to come home in the middle of the week. Ultimately I went out there I think on a Thursday, and I was like, “Why did I waste all these other days at home in fear rather than getting here and jumping right in?” So 2008 was my first year.
So you started hearing about it in the early or mid 2000’s, and then it took a few years of convincing or planning to actually going?
Yeah, and that was back when you could still just buy a ticket so at that point I knew I had a friend with the camp and they had invited me. And, and then one day I told her, “Yeah, I bought a ticket, I’m coming,” and she didn’t believe me. Then we didn’t really talk about it much more and then I just sort of loaded up my car, and drove the mountain and then went to Burning Man.
Looking back on your childhood, your adolescence, your young adulthood, would you say there is something that perhaps made you open-minded to the possibility of going to Burning Man?
Yeah, certainly. I grew up in the Boy Scouts, so I had that going for me. I wasn’t afraid of the desert or being dirty or those sorts of challenges. I also spent a lot of time being the only [person of color] in various groups. I grew up in the suburbs of Sacramento. [I was] one of four black kids at my high school, but I ended up being the student body president. Then I went to live in Sweden for a year as an exchange student, and then I went to a historically black college. That was this whole other sort of adjusting and figuring out how to be “blacker” and fit into that environment. Then eventually moving back to California, at that time I was sort of juggling between two worlds.
How was your first year in Black Rock City?
It was mind-blowing. I mean, everything that you’ve been told didn’t live up to what it really was. We brought all of the magic that [was] out [there]. We brought it, and most of the people building things are just regular people. They’re not all experts in their field. They’re regular people that decided they could build a piece of art or a camp, or put an experience together. That resonated [with me]. I said, “I can do this, too.” So I quickly got involved with the camp. At first with [smaller] projects here and there in a specialist role, [and then] moving into helping run the camp.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the social makeup of Black Rock City, particularly around race. How do things compare in 2019 to 2008?
You know, I’ve always been counting Black people at Burning Man. It’s just like the time when you’re in Finland or somewhere else and you see another Black person, you get the head nod because it’s like, “Whoa, another one. That’s pretty rare.” It’s becoming less and less so, but you know, I was surprised to look at the [BRC Census] statistics and find that African-Americans still only [make up] one percent [of Black Rock City’s population]. That was a bit shocking.
I think Radical Inclusion is a great thing and that we should do things actively to help see that this is the reality. To the same extent we value diversity within economic groups, we should value diversity within backgrounds. It’s not only just color but it’s [also] environment. I’d like to see more people from Kentucky, I’d like to see more people from Georgia, I’d like to see more people from Alaska at Burning Man and not just focus on “Do we have [different] races for race’s sake?” but [also] different backgrounds and communities that bring what I consider the good medicine of Burning Man.
I say that to most people. If we think Burning Man is good medicine for society, then shouldn’t we want all people to have access to it? And if [the] Burning Man [event] is sort of the epicenter [of] how we radiate and share this culture, then we should strive to get more people of color there. But at the same time we can also work through communities that people are already in to share the good medicine of Burning Man.
Explain what you mean by the “good medicine” of Burning Man. What is it?
What we’re trying to do out there in the desert is create an environment where people can have open and honest dialogues, where they can meet each other to foster creative discussion, and [where] people can feel like themselves and not [feel like they have] to wear a fake-self all the time.
I think all of those principles are good for the desert but they’re good for the [wider] community too. We should all know our neighbors. We should all participate in community events. We should all want to leave no trace and practice Civic Responsibility.
Decommodification may be the hardest to apply in the urban environment, but there’s a lot of good within the 10 Principles. When I look at Sacramento Valley Spark as opposed to other organizations, it’s a beautiful thing that we’re grounded in something positive and we know what we mean when we talk about standing for something.
Someone I interviewed previously made an interesting point. They said diversity and inclusion within Burning Man is sometimes framed as “Well, Radical Inclusion is one of our principles. Anybody can come. Anybody’s welcome.” He made the point that truly Radical Inclusion is not just saying, “Hey, you have a seat at the table. Look, there’s an empty seat. You should just sit in it.” It’s actually doing proactive stuff to level the playing field and to not just have more people of color come to the desert so the percentage goes up. It’s really considering the factors that are preventing more people of color from coming and figuring out how to organically and genuinely change that. I’m wondering what you think about that and if you have ideas around how that can be done.
I would agree that we should seek Radical Inclusions that truly reflect the radical nature of the idea. If you’re just making the statement that anyone can come but nobody comes, then eventually you’ve got to look and say, “Well, maybe we need to do something active to bring about that change.”
I’ve jokingly talked about going on a road trip with Michael Mikel to every [Martin Luther King] Boulevard in America doing an outdoor, free Burning Man kind of experience. Just this idea of popping up in Detroit and doing a free, one-day festival and bringing out the art cars and the artists, activating the community there, and making the conscious effort to try to make sure we get Black and Brown people there, and to really share the Burning Man experience in a way that’s free and open and public and that shares this culture. I think it could be transformative.
In the same way, Burning Man reflects who the founders are in a certain aspect and reflect San Francisco’s population to an extent. When the founders needed friends to do stuff, [I imagine] they mostly reached out to their circle of people. I think we need to reach a little further now. There could be [more] reaching out to artists of color or groups of people of color that are doing something similar and trying to incorporate them.
As a journalist, what are the interesting threads within Burning Man to you? What does this culture have to offer the world, and why does it matter?
Being a working journalist through my Burning Man evolution has allowed me to peek on some [things] you might not normally experience as just a participant. For instance, one year I did a story about kids at Burning Man, and it allowed me to have some conversations with parents and kids about what they got out of it, and it allowed me to get a greater understanding of how they view this experience. I’ve also [done] a story about the transformation of art.
The hardest part to write about is the day-to-day experience and this feeling of releasing your guard and accepting that you’re not quite sure what day of the week it is, you haven’t looked at an email, and you’re truly in the experience. That has been the hardest thing to write about and to try to express to people. This feeling that you can have rich, meaningful conversations with all kinds of strangers all day long, and you’re almost never disappointed with the interactions with other humans.
When you think about a lot of the problems of today’s society, Burning Man’s got a lot of great answers. Immediacy, Participation, Radical Self-expression. That’s been part of my evolving mission not just as a journalist but [also] as an activist.
That’s how I came upon becoming the president of Sacramento Valley Spark, the Sacramento nonprofit inspired by the 10 Principles of Burning Man. My mission I took on was we need to convince people that Burning Man is about a lot more than they know.
People outside of the Burning Man culture sometimes just think, “Oh, that’s the thing where they burn the Man,” but there’s a whole lot of other art [and] other experiences happening out there. So, I want to help them understand more, and that’s why we’ve created an initiative [called] “MOOP Your City” that will be a trash collection challenge. We got a small grant from Burners Without Borders to get that started, and we want to involve youth groups around the community and have them collect trash and encourage people to practice Leaving No Trace in their [cities] all the time. It shouldn’t be just something that’s for camping and for Burning Man. We’re also working to create a Sacramento Playa Art Park to showcase some of the interactive, amazing art that happens at Burning Man and give those artists another opportunity to share their works with the community.
You told me you are used to being the only Black person in white spaces. Can you tell me a little bit about your life experience, and what that feels like?
I grew up in this suburban community outside of Sacramento. At my high school, there were four black people that graduated in my year. I’m 45 now, so this is the 80’s, and even in California racial issues would bubble up now and again. My family’s from Arkansas and Louisiana and we go back there often enough that I had a broad enough understanding to know that California isn’t [like many places in] the world.
You kind of bounce back and forth between thinking, “Oh things are great,” and then, something comes along, the N-word gets thrown into a party, and you have to recalibrate and think, “Oh, this thing that my parents or grandmother or cousins in Arkansas told you about white people, it’s true.”
You’re always sort of trying to modulate, [trying to] figure out how many racist people there are around you at any given time and whether any of those are threats to you. I remember I was 15 or 16 at a Boys Scouts camp, and a grown redneck pulled a knife on me. It was another sort of reminder that we think things are good, but there’s [still] a percentage of blatant racists around you. You’ve got to watch your back and be careful at times. That was part of my experience growing up. You look around the room count and see, “Well, I feel OK here,” or “I don’t feel OK here.”
Then going to Sweden was another kind of mind-blowing experience. It was a different kind of racism. There were racists there but it wasn’t sort of on the slavery foundation. They were angry at Africans coming to take their jobs in Sweden, it was mostly an economic thing. So it was sort of a weird sort of double-standard racism for them. [When] they found out I was an American they were fine with me, but if they thought I was African then that was a different story.
Then you switch it up. I went to a Black college, Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where I then needed to adjust and figure out how to talk a little “blacker” and edit my stories to better fit in with the environment.
Going to Louisiana and spending a lot of time there was like this massive recalibration to understand like, “Whoa, this is what Louisiana racism is like.” Now I need to assume that maybe 60 percent of the white people are comfortable with me and you’re still trying to sort of understand what’s going through white people’s minds when you encounter them.
I remember writing an editorial, I met this guy at an electronics store and we talked about electronics. Then as I’m leaving I see he goes and gets into a car with a Confederate flag. I don’t think he knows how I feel about the Confederate flag. What it means to him and what it means to me are two different things.
This is always the sort of duality about some white people. They are OK to work with you but they don’t want you to date their daughter.
Fast forward a little bit to the Obama election. I was convinced there’s no way Obama would win. He did, and that was shocking to me. I felt like we had made a lot of progress, and then of course 2016 happens and I go, “Oh, OK. This is what I thought was the case.” You find that there’s a lot more people who are tolerant of racism and there’s a lot further to go than where we thought we were at.
So the adjusting and recalibrating to racism has been a consistent theme. I think to a large degree Burning Man is an environment where race is not a concern and that’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. But for people who haven’t been yet, they don’t know that and they don’t believe that until they get there. So for them they look and say, “Well, what kind of music do they play? What’s the environment like? How many people look like me there?” Maybe it’s not worth that risk financially and time-wise to go to Burning Man. For a lot of people, the burden is a little bit higher.
There isn’t a physical sign that someone is part of the LGBTQ community, for example. If somebody has a mental impairment there isn’t necessarily a physical sign. So for some groups it takes several layers of finding out information about someone for internal biases to come out. Unfortunately, race usually has a visual component that sometimes activates people’s prejudices before you’re even given a chance to begin to show who you are. With the experiences you just talked about, especially in Black Rock City but also in the larger Burning Man community, what can white Burners do to better recognize this and to help shift the narrative?
A lot of what could help starts before we get to the Burn. It’s bringing people into our camps and to our Regional Events and experiences to break down some of those concerns before we get out there.
I certainly don’t want to see a bunch of people try to come talk to me basically like, “Oh, let me go talk to a Black person.” But we should foster that organic cross-pollination and cross-communication and talk with people who don’t live in our camps. Whether they’re old, or young, or Black, or other, we should welcome them all in and figure out ways our camps can be more interactive on a conversational level and not only the big party level. We [don’t want to] become an event where people just ride in their packs of existing friends from their camp.
If you live in that insular world it can be beautiful, but it’s not the same beauty as riding your bike across the desert and [being] open to all these interactions and random experiences and random relationships you’re going to make if you’re open to that.
That may be the biggest mission or sort of takeaway. Leave your camp or art car and come experience Burning Man and be open to the random conversations. If everybody does that, they’ll naturally be talking to Black and Brown people and we don’t have to say, “Go talk to a Black person today,” because nobody wants that.
Top photo by Lu Young