From the Nevada Desert to Maui and Morocco: Lessons in Community Resilience

“I really feel that we go to Burning Man to prepare for the world. That’s our one week where we get to build our resilience, build our capacity — emotional, spiritual, physical — to go back and serve in the world and give back.”
– Yasmine Elbaggari

Just like that, another annual cycle of Black Rock City has come to a close. For those who thought BRC ended when you got home in early September with your muddy boots and dusty bins, know that there were still hundreds of dedicated humans on playa until mid October. Most are members of the Playa Restoration team, tasked with cleaning up every last zip tie and smoothing out wheel ruts so the Black Rock Desert can rest and recover from its busy season. 

Playa Restoration underway, 2023 (Photo by DA)

But long after the last crews leave the playa, that ethos forged through hard work and Communal Effort persists among Burning Man participants around the world. What Burners build and learn together comes home with us into our lives and communities, and touches the world around us through humanitarian programs such as Burners Without Borders (BWB). 

We caught up with some Burners involved in relief work to hear how they bring the skills and perspectives acquired in Black Rock City to the work they do together year-round. What happens out there on the playa that creates shared purpose and a desire to take Communal Effort out into the world? 

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Fresh back from “resto” season, DA is philosophical about his role as Black Rock City’s Playa Restoration Manager. While he’s immensely proud of the 150-person crew who dedicate weeks of their lives to the community, he is quick to admit that playa resto would be impossible without the commitment of BRC citizens to the 10 Principles — particularly Radical Self-reliance, Participation, Communal Effort and Leaving No Trace. “We are nowhere without the effort of the community; nowhere,” he observes. “Leaving No Trace wouldn’t be possible without them. They do a tremendous job.”

“That said,” he continues, “we’ve never had a year where we didn’t need Playa Restoration.” After all the city infrastructure is packed up and put away, it still takes thousands of people-hours to leave the playa squeaky clean and ready for the Bureau of Land Management inspection. Read “Notes from a (Mostly) Empty Playa” for a play-by-play of the 2023 Bureau of Land Management inspection process.

What does it take to rally all those humans to collectively de-MOOP 3,879 acres of desert in the dust, rain and heat? It takes a shared sense of purpose and collective responsibility. “Playa Restoration is the all-star team of Burning Man. We have so many different departments, projects, and camps represented. There’s something beautifully simple about channeling that focus into the single goal of leaving “no trace”.

It doesn’t stop there. Playa Resto staff brings it home — the relationships, camaraderie, shared purpose, and hard-won LNT know-how. “I’m bringing people on so they can bring this back to their projects,” DA continued. “I’ve let the people on my staff know, if you’re part of an art project, another department, a Regional, now you’ve got all the skills you need to lead your Leave No Trace effort. Now you understand, and you can apply this in your backyard.” Curious about the mysteries of DA and Playa Resto? Listen to “Dark Angel of Black Rock & Restoration Destiny” on the Burning Man LIVE podcast.

DA in BRC 2023 (Photo courtesy of DA)

From the DPW to Maui Fire Relief

It comes as no surprise that Burners who work together in Black Rock City and at Regional Events around the world find it hard to stop once the dust has settled. That shared sense of purpose and responsibility is powerful when it comes home with us, and even more so when applied in service to communities that need our help.

Trey Callender found his way to community organizing through working on large camp infrastructure for the camps Entheon and Fractal Nation. He spent several years working for the Gate crew, and eventually joined the Department of Public Works (DPW) staff. “Over the years, I found my way into the staff departments and fell in love with the people I was working with.”

As Regional Contact for the island of Maui, Hawaii, Trey puts his Burner knowledge to work in service to his community. “Taking the skills that I’ve learned from Burning Man, finding patience in the process of Communal Effort, I rely on my community. I believe that our collaboration is the foundation for our success.”

After devastating fires swept across Maui in August 2023, Burners in Hawaii and elsewhere mobilized. BWB co-founder Carmen Mauk, who lives on Maui, became a trusted hub for receiving and distributing donations to those affected by the fires. She took in $15,000 in donations, converted them to gift cards, and gave them to fire victims who needed supplies.

Trey stepped in to help his community organize relief efforts for people displaced by the fires. The big project he’s involved with — helping to set up containers as temporary housing — will take some time to implement. “We’ve been talking with BWB and trying to get some Burners who want to come out here and have shown interest in helping us rebuild. We just need to find the right project to include them in.” In the meantime, he’s working behind the scenes with Maui Rapid Response to build connections and pool resources between community groups. 

Trey, right, and Maui leadership speak about Maui fire relief at BWB Camp, 2023 (Photo courtesy of Trey Callender)

Trey is proud of the many Burners who have rolled up their sleeves to help those affected by the fires. Maui Burners are involved in an effort to help displaced families write down their stories and fill out paperwork that will help them move to more permanent housing. “It’s amazing to watch this network of people that I’ve known and loved over the years step into these roles during this hardship and become leaders in this community.” 

And when the time is right, Trey has DPW friends ready and waiting to come to Maui to work on bigger relief projects. “That’s the big thing about Communal Effort… those friends I’ve worked with out in the desert, we’re sweating and we’re making things, and that connection bonds us and they say, ‘Hey, I’ve always wanted to come out to Maui and visit with you, but now is the opportune time because I can actually do something as well.’ That’s a lot of what drives me to keep coming back.”

A Two-day Pivot — From BRC to Helping Earthquake Victims in Morocco

Sometimes our Burner know-how comes in handy close to home. Other times, we get to apply our logistical and interpersonal learnings in response to faraway humanitarian crises. 

Yasmine Elbaggari had a circuitous route to Burning Man. At 17, she moved from Morocco to Kansas as part of a program to break down cultural misconceptions. She eventually traveled to all 50 states, meeting with everyday Americans at every stop. Along her journey Yasmine came across Burners… and became one herself. 

2023 marked Yasmine’s eighth BRC Burn — and her second year camping with BWB. “I go back every year to remind myself that this world of peace and connection and empathy and understanding is possible.” Her experiences led her to launch Voyaj, a global platform that connects like-hearted people through unique cultural experiences.

Fresh out of Black Rock City 2023, Yasmine received a call from her friend and fellow Burner Sam Bloch, who serves as Director Of Emergency Response for World Central Kitchen. A 6.8 magnitude earthquake had just destroyed hundreds of villages and displaced 300,000 people in Morocco. Could she jump on a plane and help deliver meals and ensure injured villagers were safely evacuated?

Yasmine delivering supplies in Morocco (Photo courtesy of Yasmine Elbaggari)

Yasmine didn’t hesitate to say yes. “If we don’t go do this kind of work, then what is the point? I really feel that we go to Burning Man to prepare for the world. That’s our one week where we get to build our resilience, build our capacity — emotional, spiritual, physical — to go back and serve in the world and be able to give back.”

Yasmine was in Morocco two days after leaving Black Rock City. She found herself in the remote Atlas Mountains, where villages had been leveled by the earthquake. “We were on the helicopter team… two helicopters going in because all the roads were completely destroyed… We ended up delivering over two million hot meals that month.”

Here, we’ve shared a few of the thousands of stories of Burning Man community members who have found their calling through learning skills and building community in Burning Man events around the world. We can’t even begin to quantify the accumulated impact that the Burning Man movement is having on the world today.

“It’s training the community in the field,” DA observed. “That perspective is one you can only get from doing it, and you understand what the impact is on a big level… and realize the work that you’re doing is magnificent and Herculean.”

Cover image of Resto MOOP sweeps, 2019 (Photo by Steve Tietze)

About the author: Kirsten Weisenburger

Kirsten Weisenburger

Misadventures led Kirsten Weisenburger (aka kbot) to Black Rock City in 2004. She was captivated and hoodwinked into organizing theme camps, rangering and participating in Regional Events. As Communications Strategist, Kirsten works across the organization and global community gathering stories and writing for the Burning Man Journal, the Jackrabbit Speaks, and the annual Dispatch. She went to journalism school in the 1990s and then spent two decades at startups and digital agencies.

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