Hosted by the inimitable Sassy VonDish, Blueprints is a new Burning Man Project oral storytelling project that documents the lessons learned and hands-on knowledge gained from being an active participant in Black Rock City. Each short podcast is a conversation with a remarkable human who, through diving in and getting involved in the Burner-verse, has learned resilience, empathy, kindness, and other qualities that bring a lasting impact well beyond the trash fence. Listen to Blueprint episodes on Kindling.
What does it mean to be an active participant, and to acquire knowledge that forever informs the way you live your life?
We sat down with Sassy to learn why he felt compelled to craft stories about Burners, and to get the lowdown on his own Black Rock City blueprint.
What made you decide to launch a Burning Man storytelling project?
I’m a big fan of NPR and StoryCorps and The Moth. I listen to that a lot. I’m always curious about people and I’m always making stories. It’s part of my work as a visual merchandiser. My job is to take an object and make a story about that object so I can present it in a visual way. So I’m making stories all the time.
I started translating that into what I do now. I started just looking at it from my experience. I know that being an active participant in Black Rock City, volunteering and what have you, has given me a set of skills that I didn’t have before, skills I’m using in my professional life and my day-to-day life — they’re relevant. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. I’m pretty sure more people who are Burners have gained a set of skills in Black Rock City that are being put into play.
I want to know: what happens after you leave Black Rock City? How is what you learned or not learned, or failed or whatever, how is that manifesting in your day-to-day life and making it different for the better — for yourself, and hopefully for your community?
So, Sassy, what’s YOUR blueprint?
Sassy: I’ve been going to Burning Man since ’97. I started volunteering the next year. I was a Ranger and I hated it. On my last day, my last shift, they sent me to Gate and I found my people there — punk rock. And I stayed there for a long time. I stayed there for 16 years. I love it, it’s a lot of fun. You get them all fresh, bushy-tailed and bright-eyed. They just come in and they’re all excited.
I like Gate a lot. It was good to see it grow, too. I got to see the whole growth. The city grew and we all grew and all the systems had to adapt. It was kind of awesome. At the 16-year mark the department grew exponentially, like the city. So I started feeling disconnected from it. And now I’m too old to be climbing in cars.
I looked at other departments. I heard they needed a volunteer coordinator for Art Support Services (ASS), and I was like, “sure.”
Oh girl, that was a traumatic experience at first. I’ve been doing that for around seven or eight years now. When I landed in ASS, it literally was a dinky little table at the Artery, two carports stuck together, and a shade structure in between them.
It was crazy. The artists would have to come, the ones in the deep playa, they would need to come to the Artery to submit requests. By the time they got there they got really angry. We were all cramped. We were working 18-hour days. By Wednesday of Build Week we were all like zombies, dealing with frustrated artists. There was too much demand and the systems weren’t there.
I survived that year and then I talked to the lead. I was like, “Dude. This is not sustainable. The volunteers are beyond spent by the third day they are here. We need more people. We need more resources. We need to figure this out.”
And he was like: “I have a plan.” He explained he wanted to do this whole squad system. They have a squad and they have a car and a radio and then they go to the artists instead of them coming to us.
It just took off from there. We got better and better and better. I’m very proud of that, to put all that effort together and then just see the results. The quality of the service, the support that we give to the artists is amazing. Right now we’re kicking ass. The results are very palpable and we’re pretty efficient, which I think is great.
There’s still room for improvement, don’t get me wrong. The city gets built anew every year, so the art is never placed in the same place. Every year we have to learn it.
How did that transfer to the world beyond Black Rock City?
Sassy: I moved to Oakland after working for 12 years down in Beverly Hills in a big department store. I’m a visual merchandiser by trade. I was recruited as a visual manager for a store in San Francisco. It was a completely different beast from dealing with luxury brands.
I loved it. I learned so much there. It was the volume. I brought what I learned by doing ASS as far as leadership and leading the team, creating systems to make things happen with results. It just all came into play, which I love. I ran the store like I ran my crew at Burning Man. They loved me, honey, they loved me to death.
It was a small store, which always freaked me out. But our numbers went right up high with the big box stores. We were selling a lot out of that tiny space. We had double trailers coming in three times a week. We had to unload that shit, organize it, put it on the shelf and make it look good, and then just keep going. It just never stopped.
And now, you’re storytelling. How does that feel?
Sassy: I’ve been very aware that people are trusting me with their stories. And I’m going to present them in the best way possible, in the best light possible. They’re trusting me with something really precious, really personal to them, so I have to be very aware of that trust. Trust is very fragile. You have to really handle it carefully. So I’m very aware of the responsibility I have to do justice to their stories and present them in the right way.
I push for them to focus on lessons learned and how have they been applied in their daily lives outside of Black Rock City. A big part of who and what I am today I can trace back to Black Rock City. I think anybody can benefit from hearing these stories. They give you hopefully a different point of view on how to do things.
It’s not that we’re reinventing the wheel here of how to do things, ’cause what we do at Black Rock City has been done in many cities around the world throughout the ages. You know, since Roman times. We’re doing it. It’s exactly the same shit. But it’s not what we’re doing, it’s HOW we do it. That is a big difference. We’re having fun, we’re building community as we go along.
So I think these are really important and relevant themes in these particular times. And they’re universal. It’s something that anyone can use. Hence the name Blueprints. When you hear Blueprints you know there is a set of plans to build something. That’s a blueprint. In this case, it’s blueprints for how to become a better person, and probably how to lead a better life, and how to make a difference personally on whomever is around you in your community, that ripple effect that happens.
So that’s the jist of it. That’s what I’m doing.
You learn all this in Black Rock City by being an active participant. That is the key part of it — you have to be an active participant to access all these experiences. I’m putting these stories together. You’re going to listen to them, they are information and information only. You need to act upon that information to turn it into knowledge; that’s when the magic happens, when you learn something and you apply it, it becomes knowledge.
And: Don’t fuck it up, people!
Top image: Volunteers at Art Support Services, 2019 (Photo by Julia Nelson-Gal)