One might ask what Burning Man Project and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) have in common. For those who know that either (or both) exist, you may be surprised to learn that Burning Man Project is a year-round global cultural endeavor, and that the United States has an Institute of Peace that is funded by Congress. Perhaps equally interesting is that Burning Man Project and the USIP have virtually the same founding date: The United States Congress authorized the United States Peace Act in October 1984, with the first office opening in 1986; Burning Man Founder Larry Harvey burned the first Man on Baker Beach in 1986.
It is not too far of a stretch to state that these twin impulses were engendered by the post-World War II generation, seeking — in their own way — a better world. Fast forward to 2016 when the USIP President, Nancy Lindborg, was anticipated as a guest at the annual Burners Without Borders dinner at the Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert. Megan Miller, Burning Man Project Director of Communications, and Kim Cook, Director of Creative Initiatives (formerly Director of Art and Civic Engagement), were jointly given the opportunity to meet with Lindborg.
Driven by a mutual curiosity about one another’s organizations, Kim Cook and Burning Man Project co-founder Harley K. Dubois visited Lindborg in the fall of 2016 at the USIP headquarters in Washington D.C. It became clear that the mission of USIP (to promote international peace and the resolution of conflicts … without recourse to violence) and Burning Man Project’s mission (to facilitate and extend the culture that has issued from the Burning Man event into the larger world) aligned. Both organizations were passionate about building global culture, developing educational tools and processes by which to advance their mission, and thereby provoking a better world.
As the leaders talked, they acknowledged that the operational methods between the two organizations are quite different, though they could see some commonalities in interests and activities. They talked about Burning Man Project’s Regional Network, the Midburn event in the Negev Desert, and how Burning Man events are social levelers that allow people to discard their public identities in favor of human-to-human rapport. Everyone understood that social connections build bridges, which are essential components of a peacekeeper’s toolkit.
Also discussed was the way Black Rock Rangers (participants who volunteer a portion of their time in Black Rock City and at Regional Events in service of the safety and well-being of the Burning Man community) derive their ‘authority’ from the community they serve. This was interesting to consider when reflecting on how United Nations’ peacekeepers — who are, in effect, a military force — might also derive authority from the residents in the communities they protect. This thoughtful discussion inevitably led us to a desire to explore what we could create in partnership together.
The question of where to start a collaboration rested on finding a topic that was important to both organizations and also where any skills or history were additive to one another. Looking at the last several years of projects spearheaded by Burners Without Borders as well as tracking both the Regional and Theme Camp networks, it was clear that as Burners built civic projects in the world certain tools in their cultural tool-box were missing. Whether it was Burners building housing in a refugee camp in France, Red Lightning traveling to Standing Rock, or bringing tools from the playa to Nepal to create a makerspace, knowing how to be culturally competent was a skill the team could speak to, but also refine through the process.
Four years later, what has emerged from this initial conversation is the launch of our Culturally Attuned Podcast and Cultural Synergy Course curriculum. As a point of departure for the USIP and Burning Man Project partnership, this series is grounded in the awareness that both of our organizations engender and deploy global efforts for peace and community. We know from centuries of colonial and post-colonial history that there are perils in going forth to ‘aid’ others. This can bring the risk of a ‘missionary mindset’ — wherein one individual or a group of people is intent on giving benefits to others that they deem useful. Often these efforts have not had the advantage of human-centered design tools, and frequently people who go out to ‘help’ may find themselves with blind spots with regard to their own shortcomings and lack of cultural awareness.
This new podcast series and course seek to address those potential pitfalls. When well-intentioned people find themselves in unfamiliar circumstances, when official delegates or impassioned individuals embark on their efforts, they are inevitably going to encounter unforeseen circumstances and risk blunders. This series provides concrete examples from practitioners to aid in developing a learning posture, integrated with both humor and humility, such that it is possible to recover from missteps, and continually grow the skills needed to do good work in the world.
Over the course of the past three years, building this course and content, we identified and interviewed a number of valuable individuals who were willing to share their impactful stories and experiences. While the people interviewed for the podcasts and the providers of the course curriculum can be substantially referred to as ‘experts,’ our intent was to lean heavily into their experiences in the field as practitioners.
We specifically steered away from the terminology ‘cultural competence’ even though that may be the best understood language, because we wanted to explicitly state that there is no arrival or endpoint. One cannot achieve a place of established competence; one must become comfortable with a growing capability over time that will always be aimed towards improving competence without definitively achieving it. Compassion for our own shortcomings, empathy for the realities of those we are hoping to serve, and respect for deep processes that build across time — these are the hallmarks of those who have curated a lifetime in service.
We offer you this culmination of our work in the hope that you will find it useful as you walk in the world with the intent to serve.
Visit the USIP and Burning Man Project Partnership webpage to listen to Culturally Attuned podcast episodes and learn more about Cultural Synergy course offerings.
Cover image design by Tanner Boeger