How the Regional Network & Burners Without Borders Extend the Burning Man Ethos in the World

Roxane Jessi is a world traveler who spent the last few years participating in Burning Man Regional Events — from Blazing Swan and Burning Japan to Fuego Austral and Midburn. In 2023 Burning Man Publishing released her new book, Once Upon a Time in the Dust: Burning Man Around the World. This is the first in Roxane’s Journal series on the global work of Burners Without Borders chapters.

Burning Man. A surreal place that brings up images of desert landscapes, towering art, and unlimited play. When we strip all that away, it is a year-round community of people that now expands across 34 countries. 

Amongst the people Burning Man culture touches are the ones who are called to give back to their community long after Black Rock City or the temporary towns and cities of its Regional Network have vanished. They bring together a can-do mindset, a thirst for connection, and an ability to work in challenging environments, all of which they channel to do good. Working behind the scenes, they teach us that Burning Man is about much more than building beautiful physical structures — it is about building creative, resilient, human communities. 

BWB campfire gathering in BRC 2022 (Photo by Zac Cirivello)

When I first went to Black Rock City in 2015, I felt disillusioned. I’d been working in the international aid industry for over a decade and was questioning a system that seemed out of touch, trying to solve local problems with ready-made solutions in very different contexts. I saw how the push for rapid industrialization and poor urban planning was chipping away at the social fabric of many of the countries I worked in, and witnessed the impact of severe urban poverty firsthand in some of the poorest slums around the world.

It is too late to completely turn the tide on modernity and urbanization. But we can work to bring back that sense of community, that togetherness, that dignity that makes us smile. Closer to home, I had seen vacant stares while riding the tube in London. People locked in the prisons of their minds. I had felt that niggling sense of isolation myself, lost in a sea of people staring firmly at their phones to avoid eye contact. We are dealing with a disconnection epidemic that knows no borders.

Cue a very different environment. I entered the parallel universe of Black Rock City. The wheels of my bike churning up dust, I marveled at avenues of art, a kaleidoscopic array of wearable art and human expression, the way strangers became instant friends. It resonated with something I had been missing for a long time: the need for community. Once outside, I started to question — is there another way?

“Krewe of the Dusty Playa” by John Valentino, 2015, marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and the founding of BWB (Photo by Galen Oakes)

A huge amount of effort and resources go into building Black Rock City (and indeed the temporary towns/cities and events across the Regional Network). The extreme environment means that sustaining the city long-term is unrealistic, and the ephemeral nature of the event is part of its magic and appeal. So its lasting legacy is the minds and behaviors it changes, and what they do when they emerge from the dust.

“Beyond the events, Burners are taking on difficult projects and solving difficult problems in challenging environments.” 

Burners Without Borders (BWB) is striving to do just that. It is a grassroots, volunteer-driven program working with local communities around the world on civic impact and community resilience. It started during Black Rock City 2005, when several participants headed south into the Hurricane Katrina disaster area to help people rebuild. Over the next eight months, BWB volunteers gifted more than $1 million worth of reconstruction to the residents of Mississippi. Today BWB supports 44 initiatives, with 16 chapters and 13 Active Working Groups. Although the micro-grants BWB gives are modest, it provides a support network of like-minded people who combine decades of experience enacting change in their communities with a wealth of knowledge, advice, and resources. 

Given the time and resources required, participating in Black Rock City or Regional Events is not an experience everyone has access to. But Burning Man culture and community is not only about events and gatherings. It is about bringing a set of values — represented by the 10 Principles — into action. And that can happen anywhere, anytime. For instance, in the Black Rock Desert Fly Ranch attracts volunteers from all walks of life, whether they’ve been to Black Rock City or not, to build community and support sustainable practices. 

LAGI Campout participants explore a SEED prototype at Fly Ranch, one of the Land Art Generator Institute 2020 challenge finalists (Photo by Joe Childs)

Burning Man tends to be discredited as a big party in the desert — this is the reflection the media too often portrays. The “less sexy” aspects of the events, such as: IDEATE‘s participant-led composting program in Black Rock City; the repurposing of “humanure” at AfrikaBurn; the fully decentralized governance system at Borderland; or art projects with a social message, such as “Liquid Forest,” which repurposes plastic waste, or “Change the Name, End the Stigma” which seeks to eliminate stigma around HIV, get a fraction of the limelight.

This downplays the potential of the event as an incubator for innovative solutions to real life problems. Back in 2005, programmers created the Burning Man Earth Project, a mapping and communication tool for BRC. Given its potential application in disaster relief situations, it was later used to help locate at-risk populations during the Haiti earthquake. One of its lead programmers Mikel Maron went on to work on Map Kibera in Kenya, a humanitarian effort to map the pathways and alleys of Africa’s largest slum. Given the vast collective knowledge and resources of the global Burning Man community, its legacy of creating community and gifting, you start to wonder what could be achieved if we harnessed its full creative force. 

Pedacito de la Tierra project, 2020 (Photo courtesy of Alight)

The charge is already underway. Recently, Burners joined forces to support Ukrainian relief efforts. In Mexico the BWB Pedacito de la Tierra project gave a voice to migrants and refugees on the US-Mexico border. In Colombia, a BWB affiliated project Ancestral Foundation (AF) is restoring the páramos, an ecosystem unique to the Andes region threatened by mining and agriculture. In South Africa, AfrikaBurn’s social arm Outreach is supporting local communities, including feeding local schools in the Tankwa desert year-round. AfrikaBurn is also currently piloting Hammer School, which will offer hands-on hard and soft skills training to youth in Cape Town. In the words of its organizers “Midburn is empowering the liberal, secular and people loving parts of Israel as a driver for change.” Some of its community members have repurposed the model, setting up grassroots initiatives to promote peaceful dialogue in-country. 

The Regional Network is ever expanding. As the network grows so does its reach, calling new actors that are committed to lasting change within their communities to action with its values. These actors understand the local challenges and can respond with local solutions. In these contexts, any positive social change can have a major impact.

In the coming months I will be blogging about some of these social initiatives around the world in the hope that their stories will inspire others the way they inspired me. I hope to broaden the conversation around Burner values and shine a light on its unsung heroes. I hope that you will join me for the ride.

Go Deeper:

With support from BWB, Global Coralition placed the underwater sculpture “Atabey” to catalyze coral reef regeneration in the Dominican Republic. (Photo courtesy of Global Coralition)

Cover image of Burning Japan community members participating in the BWB 128 Initiative (Photo courtesy of Burning Japan) 

About the author: Roxane Jessi

Roxane Jessi

Roxane Jessi is an aid worker and roving Burner who has participated in more than a dozen different Burns around the globe. In 2023 Burning Man Publishing released her new book, "Once Upon a Time in the Dust, Burning Man Around the World," which chronicles the year she spent participating in seven Regional Burning Man Events on six continents.