11.13.2014

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One of the most successful real-life communities is Burning Man, an annual event where nearly 65,000 people create a pop-up city in the middle of the Nevada desert. Jenn Sander directs global initiatives over at Burning Man and shared her insights around helping this grassroots community confront significant challenges and flourish.

A Movement is Born

Burning Man started in 1986 as the brainchild of Larry Harvey. It began as a small gathering of friends and bystanders and became an annual tradition. In 1990, it was an event of 500 people. Ten years later, it swelled to 25,400. The festival sold out for the first time in 2011, with 53,963 attendees. In 2013, the location maxed out capacity at 69,613.  As Jenn puts it, “Burning man is a community of communities. A patchwork of countless stakeholders with the least amount of control and the most amount of freedom.”

This freedom was hard-earned. In the mid-nineties the event had a free-for-all, “Mad Max” feel. The community banded together to implement safety, especially around fire and structures. Burning Man formed an LLC, and deliberately organized the space by creating a Department of Public Works. It instituted an acculturation process, where greeters welcomed everyone to the event with a hug. “Without intending to they stumbled onto the principle of civic responsibility,” says Jenn. “This was a city. This was the creation of the city as a platform. Lots of communities being born within this space.”

Burning Man’s Ten Principles

Burning Man’s Ten Principles are crucial to the organization’s success. “Important that you embody the ethos of what you are trying to do to curate the community you want to have,” says Jenn.

1. Radical inclusion
2. Gifting
3. Decommodification
4. Radical self-reliance
5. Radical-self expression
6. Communal effort
7. Civic responsibility
8. Leaving no trace
9. Participation.
10. Immediacy.

Burning Man Today

The Burning Man culture and values were so compelling that the community has continued to build on the energy and passion the event inspires throughout the year. This includes a grassroots regional network of 65 cities around the world that organize events, allowing people who might otherwise not be able to attend the annual event to still participate in and contribute to the community’s culture. Burners Without Borders pulled together to run community relief projects such as helping New Orleans rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Artists organized to launch Black Rock Arts which makes impactful, interactive artwork.

“We had a history that led to a community. The community led to city. The city led to platform for creativity. That platform has allowed that culture to expand all over the world,” says Jenn, proving that any community, online or off, is born from a strong sense of place and belonging. 

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Mara Zepeda

Mara is the co-founder and CEO of Switchboard.