While 35,000 idealists, artists, and dreamers were living it up at Burning Man 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. Best known for partying in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, some “burners” left their makeshift city with heavy machinery en route to the devastated coastal towns of Mississippi, helping clear a million dollars worth of debris. Soon after, Burners Without Borders (BWB) was born.
BWB takes the values burners celebrate—self-reliance, self-expression, radical inclusion, and gifting—out into the world. From Hurricane Sandy relief in New Jersey to screen printing with marginalized Haitian artists, their humanitarian projects tend toward the communal and, at times, eccentric. Executive Director Carmen Mauk explains.
Makeshift: Tell me about the early days of BWB.
CM: Our first major project was saving the beach fire pits [in San Francisco] because we had a lot of problems with trash—beachgoers not caring for the beach. So we thought, how can we help the National Park Service solve this problem in a communal way? And we were able to eventually have artistic fire pits placed on the beach, made by the community. That project became a symbol for everything we do. We really encourage the community to figure out what they care about and help them connect with others.
How does the Burning Man ethos translate to humanitarian projects?
It’s pretty much threaded throughout, but the one it really gets behind is gifting. And it’s not just about an object or a thing but really sharing our creativity. In Pisco, Peru, after they had an 8.0 earthquake in 2007, all the other groups were leaving after a year. But we decided to stay and create a volunteer cooperative based on Burning Man principles. Everybody was welcome and we created a relationship with the community. Over six years, with a hundred Peruvians being neighbors, we had language exchanges, they taught us different things they knew how to do with instruments, fire spitting, circus juggling techniques. And then people started to realize, “Oh, they have the same idea of community that we do.” It’s not that different—you just need to have the courage to say, “I have something to share.” That extended hand is something every community can appreciate.
How do you maintain your emphasis on creativity and fun in this kind of work?
It’s extremely difficult to work in a disaster zone where you’re surrounded by people who’ve lost everything. What we do well is we bring in the whole community. Our New Jersey crew probably didn’t take enough time off in the beginning, and they needed to inject some fun. So we did some beach cleanups, finding ways to invite the community in, so that we’re not just tearing up homes and moving on to the next one. Engaging the broader community infuses energy into a project. Nothing takes away the pain surrounding everyone, but we can help alleviate the suffering while also making people believe that when it’s all over, we’ll have this community we’re creating now. What I find is that it makes for an incredibly creative environment where people are excited, and there’s a lot of energy because everyone feels like anything’s possible.