Diversity, Equity, Inclusion: Lessons from Cultural Direction Setting

Black Rock City changes every year and most of us find ourselves planning how we want to show up in its next iteration – from our personal experiences to our camps to Burning Man departments and our city as a whole. We are collectively fine-tuning our beautiful experiment in community. Without a city to build this year and in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, Burning Man Project staff has spent time focusing on Radical Inclusion and how our city can be more diverse and equitable the next time we gather together. This isn’t a political stand, but an expression of our Principle of Radical Inclusion in this important moment in time.

A group of us started thinking deeply about racial diversity through the BRC Cultural Direction Setting (CDS) project – a two-year process that began in 2018 to define the culture we wished to see in the next five to 10 years. For those following along, we began implementing many of the resulting recommendations made by community workgroups, but the cancellation of BRC 2020 stopped us short of full implementation. This piece will share some of the lessons that we’ve learned and applied to improve diversity within BRC as a result of CDS.

While CDS began as a way to address convenience camping and commodification of Burner culture, we could not ignore the importance of racial diversity and inclusion as a key facet of culture. CDS was the deepest engagement Burning Man Project has ever had across Black Rock City’s future, with over 4,800 surveys and 1,500 online comments analyzed, 65 interviews with community leaders, and 20 community conversations worldwide. We received a significant set of responses that noted shifting culture in BRC meant shifting demographics, too. Some selected quotes from the CDS survey include:

  • “There are those that think that Radical Inclusion only requires an open door and a smile, but with minority groups that is really only the first step. We need to go further by addressing safety concerns, fighting cultures of discrimination, and demonstrating a commitment to individuals and their community building efforts.”
  • “I would really like to see BRC and the Burning Man org make a huge effort to become more equitable and diverse. There’s a huge non-white community out there that would bring so much amazing depth to this culture, and such a huge opportunity for BRC and regionals to really learn what radical inclusion *actually* means. One hair pick art piece is a start, but it’s not enough by a long shot.”
  • “I think an outreach program to bring people that usually wouldn’t come to burning man would help push burning man culture to new heights.”
  • “As we move forward, I feel that BRC needs to address 2 important factors – social diversity – more people of color and ethnicity at the table and present and sustainability – trying to wean BRC off of fossil fuels as much as possible. Show the world that we can showcase new paradigms, yet progress with a minimal ecological footprint.”
  • “Burning Man changed my life. It’s one of the great pivotal moments and I’m forever grateful to Larry Harvey, the Burning Man staff, and most of the residents at Black Rock City. It’s truly been a magical place for me… The issues around race/class/gender at the event took me a long time to recognize. I’m embarrassed it took me this long frankly. But hopefully, me and many others can continue to grow and support this amazing event.”

CDS created a unique opportunity for vision setting and policy change, particularly within BRC’s Placement Process, and the facilitators (Victoria Mitchell a.k.a. Trippi, Simone Torrey, and I) maintained an equity and inclusion lens throughout the process. The strategies we used to infuse diversity and equity in CDS can be replicated across other parts of Burning Man’s communities as we all work more deeply and intentionally to address systemic racism. Here’s what we did with an equity and inclusion lens:

  1. Building from our Principle of Radical Inclusion within the Cultural Vision for Black Rock City. Radical Inclusion as the first of Burning Man’s 10 Principles is a strong foundation to build upon. The CDS survey asked which of the 10 Principles were most important for camps to follow and the top rank among all respondents was Radical Inclusion (28%) followed by Leaving No Trace (19%). It was clear we need to double down on this principle and provide more context and information than originally stated within the 10 Principles. What resulted within the Cultural Vision is this explanation of how Radical Inclusion should look in Black Rock City: “Our city is a welcoming place for all forms of diversity, including race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, ability, socio-economic, political, and cultural backgrounds, and other forms of identity. Our actions serve radical inclusivity.”
  2. Intentional recruitment of people of color to participate. We thought deliberately about who could represent a wide cross-section of experiences and opinions in Black Rock City among the over 100 Burners engaged in CDS workgroups. It was important to recruit participants who both reflect the community that exists, and also the community we wish to see. Finding Burners of color in leadership among the groups was admittedly challenging, and required us to reach out further and deeper beyond traditional and obvious routes. Having more diverse groups ultimately leads to richer conversations and stronger outcomes.
  3. Instituting equity checks in our process. To ensure that diversity wasn’t simply an afterthought, we reviewed our decision-making at multiple points to understand their impacts on different types of groups. How might a new expectation impact veteran Burners vs. newer Burners vs. West Coast Burners vs. Burners from other parts of the world? And how might an action impact people from various backgrounds particularly low-income, LGBTQ, women, and people of color? This regular and added layer of thinking plus asking for review from experienced practitioners in these areas led to stronger and more inclusive results.
  4. Prioritizing access to BRC for new and more diverse theme camps. Since its inception in 2011, Directed Group Sale (DGS) tickets allocated by Placement were only given to theme camps with a history of participation in Black Rock City. The intent was to ensure that tried-and-true theme camps could return to the playa to preserve the core of Burner culture. It inadvertently created a “grandfathering” system that supported the status quo and over time became increasingly difficult to join. If we wished to see cultural change and demographic change, we had to loosen this requirement. We did in February by announcing a new pool of DGS tickets to bring new theme camps into the fold. While we value long-standing camps and their contributions making Black Rock City what it is, we need to make room for new blood. That includes camps that come from communities of color that have not yet been on playa.
  5. Adding “uniqueness” as an explicit value and criteria. In addition to increasing access to BRC, CDS also allowed Placement to be more descriptive of the types of camps desired in BRC. There is growing sentiment that BRC theme camps are losing originality and that Placement should encourage and reinforce greater variety and diversity. We addressed this head-on by adding “Uniqueness” to the Camp Placement Criteria in April and included that we’re looking for: “Camps that welcome, support and create interactivity for under-represented groups or people at Burning Man.” This new criterion will enable Placement to select camps that bring new exciting experiences and more diverse communities to the playa.
  6. Stressing the importance of safe and inclusive spaces in BRC and using language to reflect it. Inclusivity is more than merely allowing others to be present, and requires openness and even an invitation in. While this openness may be an obvious hallmark of the culture of theme camps in Black Rock City, it was important to clearly state, and it is something we intend to assess. “Culture and Values” is an added criterion for Placement and we’ll be looking for: “Was your camp offering inclusive and welcoming to diverse audiences? Camp activities may be controversial or even uncomfortable, but should never make any person feel unsafe.”

Our work to make Black Rock City more diverse and inclusive didn’t begin with Cultural Direction Setting, and nor does it end with it. It will take building Black Rock City again to see the fruits of these changes. Until then, we ask, how are your camps and communities examining this issue? How do you plan to show up to make Black Rock City more anti-racist? How can you help support the Cultural Vision that has been set? How can we build from this and do even better?

About the author: Bryant Tan

Bryant Tan

Level, Burning Man Project's Placement Manager, started burning in 2009 and joined the Placement Team in 2014 after several years as a theme camp lead for Dilated Peoples Eye Spa. The Placement Team is a vibrant volunteer crew responsible for reviewing, mapping, flagging, and placing theme camps and other groups in Black Rock City. Prior to joining Burning Man Project's year-round staff, he worked for the City and County of San Francisco. He also worked for several community-based organizations in youth and community development, transportation planning, affordable housing development, program design and evaluation, public finance, and Asian Pacific Islander and LGBTQ communities. In his free time, Level enjoys playing Sim City and Tetris, doing anti-oppression work, hiking around the Bay Area, and serves as an Urban Planning Representative on the SF Entertainment Commission. He holds a Masters in City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and received his B.A. in Ethnic Studies from UCLA.

9 Comments on “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion: Lessons from Cultural Direction Setting

  • Billy Sharpstick says:

    Tried to join the event. “Maximum allowed number of tickets that you can book is 1.” Tried on 3 different browsers. I give up. Is it being recorded?

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  • Uncle Sam says:

    Non-profits receiving federal grant money (Grantees) can no longer teach Critical Race Theory. Unless you want to give the money back, you really want to get away from ‘inherent bias’, ‘white man bad’, ‘America bad’ etc themes.

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  • Bryan – Thank you so much for writing this piece and elevating such an important subject to BM’s main webpage. Thank you!

    As campy Daddy to Yummy RUMInations and a person of color, I’m so excited to continue to step up our game on adding “uniqueness” as an explicit value that our camp builds to achieving.

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  • Joshua says:

    This is great! Thank you Level and CDS team!

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  • LookOut says:

    I really look forward to more unique camps hosted by purple people from venus, or whatever. However, my problem starts when they stop bringing creativity, and start bringing politics and dogma instead, which is precisely what most of us are trying to escape when we go to the playa once a year. The Black Lives Matter banners I’ve recently seen on the playa spring to mind. The part of our culture that is in danger of being lost in this push for non-burners joining us for reasons of optics- just to be “diverse”- will be their lack of understanding of that crucial, unwritten principle. I hope that, when you seek out and invite these lovely humans, you will transmit to them that we want to engage their spirits and minds, and that anything more divisive needs to be left at the gate, along with everyone else’s emotional baggage. No one can free themselves without leaving their baggage at the gate.

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