GLC 2016: Burning Man: A HUEman Experience Explores Diversity in BRC

Categories: bmglc,bmglc2016,radical inclusion,The Ten Principles

Radical Inclusion. It’s the very first principle of the ten. And those who come to Burning Man say they experience Radical Inclusion like never before. But are we radically including proactively — that is, including people we might normally not think to include? The evidence shows that’s still a challenge.

2015 Census figures reveal that Black Rock City is 80.2% white. And at only one percent of attendees, African Americans are so under-represented they sometimes play a game of counting how many others they see. You don’t need too many hands to hold the result.

Yeah, Radical Inclusion is a challenge, but it’s one Burners and Burning Man don’t shy away from. In fact, this year’s Global Leadership Conference in San Francisco saw a number of Burner-run unconference sessions on the topic. The subjects of including youth, LGBTQ and First Nations citizens were all explored. So too was the subject of cultural and economic diversity on playa. Or, should we say, the lack of it.

At “Participation of the Ages and Welcoming Diversity at Events”, the subject (along with the topic of youth) was front and center. For some of us from Washington, DC, this was the culmination of an exploration that began more than two and a half years ago.

In 2013, DC Theme Camp, It’s All Made Up (IAMU) hosted a workshop called, “I’m Black and on the Playa”. Months earlier, a few of our camp members found themselves discussing the obvious fact that so few people of color go to Burning Man. In fact, the playa didn’t at all reflect the cultural diversity we had in our particular camp. They wondered how it felt for those folks. Hey, let’s get ’em together and find out!

The BRC workshop was a success, and a year later, close to a hundred people came for the second “Black and on the Playa” meet-up. This was clearly a topic that inspired discussion.

“Why don’t you guys do a film?” Rosie von Lila was the lead producer of the GLC at the time, and her question to us at Burning Man in 2014 was more than rhetorical. In the spirit of do-ocracy that is a hallmark of the Burner culture, we took her up on the suggestion. It was a topic we felt deserved — no, required — a broader conversation. Michael Brown had been shot down in Ferguson four weeks earlier.

In short order, Jenn Richter, Neil Takemoto, Robert (Roman) Haferd and I began an 18-month journey to create a video vehicle that would inspire discussion. Why the heck is Burning Man so white? We began by doing what DC does best.

We held a focus group.

But it worked! We found out how people felt about the white elephant in the room and why it’s this way. From simple things, like the “black people don’t camp” cliche, to academic explanations on the sociological genesis of Burning Man and how cultures seek to be with their own.

Over 18 months, we conducted 20 in-depth interviews with Burners and the Burner-curious. We purposely spoke only to people of color. Were you concerned before your first visit? Did you think about your race while on playa? Did it matter? And then we came to realize that this issue of diversity was about far more than the color of our skin. It was about privilege.

“Burning Man, for me, is the refugee camp for the privileged class,” said Dave Nghiem on camera.

Duh. All it took was a little exploration to see how tightly race, culture and privilege are intertwined. Sure, we’ve got the principle of Radical Inclusion. “Anyone may be a part of Burning Man,” it says. “We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.”

Except money.

Okay, Burning Man does offer the Low Income Ticket Program. This year, 4,000 tickets will be sold at half price, $190. And it’s true that the Regionals are even more affordable than that. But the BRC experience “is not a poor person’s game,” as Salina Moore says in the film.

What can be done?

We went into this project with the intention of creating a vehicle to stimulate discussion. We specifically agreed that we wouldn’t suggest solutions; not for a puzzle this challenging. But then, a funny thing happened. Our camp did something about it.

We were in the middle of production when we became aware of Camp Que Viva! out of Los Angeles. Laura Diamond and her co-leaders were bringing underprivileged artists to Burning Man under a program she started called Project Radical Inclusion. Neil and Roman from our camp began collaborating with Laura and created a Project Radical Inclusion Facebook Group (which we urge you to join).

In 2015, camp IAMU sponsored a Burn for an artist from Washington, DC with support from Burning Man. Months before Burning Man, Quest Skinner was welcomed into our camp and quickly became part of our family. On playa, she painted art, both on boards and on bodies. When she returned, she dove into a prolific creative period, painting her memories of the playa and her Burner buddies.

She told her friends in Washington about Burning Man and her newfound community. This year, Quest is returning, and she wants to bring some friends along. By making Burning Man available to Quest, we have helped open Burner culture to Quest’s default-world community.

Quest gets, like most people we talked to do, that Burning Man is inclusive. They told us that when they’re on playa, for the most part, they feel included. That’s a start. But what Project Radical Inclusion does is turn “inclusion” from a noun into a verb.

To radically include.

To go out there and do something. Not necessarily how we did it. Do it in your own way. Because the first step to radically including on playa is to radically include in your own backyard.


Join the Project Radical Inclusion Facebook Group. If you would like to gift a Burning Man ticket to an underprivileged artist, please let us know; we will help find an appreciative match for you.

The producers of this film are happy to provide you with a digital copy to use however you see fit, or with code to embed it in your website. Email Kenny Reff at KR-at-LimelightDC-dot-com to make the request.

Author: Kenny Reff