City / Culture: Burning Man’s Philanthropy

An interview with Carmen Mauk of Burners without Borders, which takes the community-building spirit of the late-summer mega-festival and brings it to troubled communities around the world.

Burners Without Borders volunteers in Pisco, Peru. Burners without Borders

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At the hot, ecstatic end of every summer – at least based on the back-to-school if not quite Solstice definition – tens of thousands of visionaries, revelers, seekers, sharers, and, yes, stoners gather in the Nevada desert for the annual, ephemeral city-building exercise, art party, and all-out release known as Burning Man.

The attendees, known as “burners,” famously build Black Rock City, then burn down its iconic sculpture and are expected to haul out everything else they’ve hauled in.

Most of the burners then return to their hometowns and their daily lives – at least for the next 51 weeks.

Some, though, attempt to keep the Burning Man cooperative community vibe alive year-round. Carmen Mauk is very much one of those folks.

Mauk is the executive director of Burners Without Borders, a group en route to non-profit status that launched in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and has since included people working in places such as Pisco, Peru; Gaborone, Botswana; Guatemala; the Gulf Coast; Reno, Chicago, San Francisco, and Detroit. Mauk says she’s been volunteering for Burning Man for twelve years, and is BWB’s sole paid staffer.

City / Culture caught up with Mauk by phone from “the playa” – the Black Rock City’s geological nickname – the week before the formal beginning of the annual event. The following has been edited for space and clarity.

City/Culture: Your website says that Burners Without Borders grew out of burners’ reactions in 2005 to Hurricane Katrina.

Carmen Mauk: At Burning Man, people were practicing being in community and already helping each other. When Katrina struck, it just seemed natural that people would carry that to go out and help New Orleans and Mississippi. Today, [Burners Without Borders] is people really just deciding, “Hey, I want to help, I can do something, I’m going to go.”

City/Culture: If Burning Man was a year-round event, or Black Rock a year-round city, how would that effect Burners Without Borders?

Carmen Mauk: Burning Man is very specific to the area that we’re in, being on a dry lakebed, and with the heat, it would be pretty impossible for it to be a year-round city. But what we’re finding is, we want the ethos to continue on year-round. Burners Without Borders, Black Rock Art Foundation, and Black Rock Solar are examples of [organizations] that started with Burning Man.

City/CultureSo what are the larger questions that BWB addresses?

Carmen Mauk: What would happen if everybody brought this creativity to their community that we allow ourselves at Burning Man? What would be possible if we dared to dream? Is Burning Man a physical place that we have to build a city for it to be there? Or is something that we all take responsibility to bring back to our communities?

City/Culture: What percentage of burners participate in BWB?

Carmen Mauk: I don’t know, because there are 50,000 people who come and they are not the same people each year. Most of the projects that we start, or that come to me, are from people who go to Burning Man. But for example, of the people who are in Peru right now, almost all of them had not heard of Burning Man. We have a lot of people on our projects who don’t have any idea – until we tell them the origin story – where this came from. So we’ve jumped beyond the community.

As far as people who start projects, last year we opened up a grants competition and we gave away $100-$1,000 for community projects. And what we want is for people to help learn from those projects. So they can be like, ‘Hey, I didn’t realize you could take over a crummy bathroom in a park and change it to an art gallery.’ Work with a city and it will only cost you $1,000.

There are different things that anybody can do without going to Burning Man. Being a burner is just being creative and going outside the box and solving the things you care about in your community.

City / Culture What can a group of burners do that a municipal government can’t or shouldn’t? In some of the places you go, there might not even be a functioning government.

Carmen Mauk: The truth is, Burners Without Borders really shines in places where there is not a lot of infrastructure. Like we saw in Haiti, there was so much militarization and occupation of the non-profits and everyone there that it made it very difficult for a group like ours to get in and take care of people the way we normally would. But a place like Peru – where we’ve had an action for three years – we can kind of do what we want. We do a lot of alternative building, we do wetlands restoration. And we’re doing things that the government is unwilling to do.

And these are things we are working with the community on – so its not like we’re coming in with our own ideas without asking anybody. But we’re really trying to figure out, in the face of a government or a system that doesn’t want to help you after an earthquake, what can we do?

City/CultureYou recently spent six weeks in Pisco. Can you talk more about what you and your colleagues are doing there?

Carmen Mauk: A steel company had been throwing away its wood crates. We went to the company and said, ‘We could use something like that if you want to give it to us.’ And they were like, ‘Yes, great, please take it.’ So we figured out a way with our carpenters to make a modular house out of the wood, and we decided to give the first one to a really hard-working family. The mother is a nurse; she works in the mountains. The father works two jobs. They have three children, and for three years they all have been living in a tent.

We decided to do an extreme homemaker version – have you seen that show? – and we filmed it and everything. All the family knew that we were building it except for the mom. It took a week to build, and after we did it, we surprised her.

When the family walked in it was incredible. You could see the looks on their faces and they could not imagine they were going to be in a house. It was occurring to them that now they get to lock their door, that their kids are going to be safe. It’s a big space for them. Their neighbors and everyone came in and were crowding into the house. The mother was crying and talking about how important it is for us all to help each other. And how we’d just come and gifted our work and we didn’t ask for anything back.

After she finished, her 12-year-old son burst into a song in Spanish, and it was the most beautiful thing that any of us had ever heard. It was all about how, ‘We’ll always be in each other’s hearts, we’ll never forget you, we’ve come such a long way together.’

[Mauk chokes up.] That’s why we’re doing it. When you do these organic acts, then everything just comes from that. We’re not trying to go in with our agendas, we’re just trying to help people. And we know that we can.

Read past City / Culture columns here. Email the columnist at lathinktank [at] gmail [dot] org.

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