Burners Without Borders

Burners Without Borders


By Mary Eisenhart

Rex Foundation board member Freddy Hahne says:

Burners Without Borders springs from the unique scenario when a group of individuals have a common shared experience–in this case, Burning Man, where creative people collaborate in participatory works of art.

Many projects at Burning Man are large installations requiring specific fabricating skills and large equipment. In addition to the artwork, an infrastructure is created to accommodate a city of up to 50,000 people. A huge volunteer crew of carpenters, machine operators, and laborers accomplishes this task, then dismantles it leaving no trace–the Burning Man ethic.

My experience attending several decades of Grateful Dead shows is what I had always wished the Grateful Dead parking lot scene would turn into–a group of creative, skilled people assembled for a common purpose to accomplish a shared goal. With both Burners and Dead Heads,  fun is the result of the effort.

Fortunately, more than fun also happens: Burners Without Borders and Rex Foundation are altruistic examples.

Rex Foundation board member Nick Morgan says:

Burners Without Borders and the Rex Foundation represent some of the best and most heartfelt of modern culture. Born from the Burning Man and Grateful Dead communities, we each represent a community that seeks to do more, give more and be more everywhere we go.  And we both have traveled near and far making the world a better place.  Not only can you say, We Are Everywhere, but you can also say We Are Everywhere Making The World A Better Place. Now let’s keep on waving that flag and sending out those positive ripples!

MotoMoto Circus co-founder Will Ruddick gives a lesson in fire poi to Kenyan street kids.

Rex has often helped young people get their start in the performing arts–one outstanding example being last December”s (2009)  debut of the MotoMoto Circus at the Lamu Cultural Festival in Lamu, Kenya.

It all started when Will Ruddick, serving in the Peace Corps in the area, had a brainstorm about how to give some of Kenya’s thousands of street kids a path to a better life.

Fire poi.

Fire poi (derived from the Maori word for “ball”) is a juggling-related art form that involves attaching balls of highly combustible material to metal chains, setting the balls aflame, and swinging the burning orbs. Ruddick had become a practitioner of the art at Burning Man. He wrote:

What can reach children that have been kicked out of society, are addicted to sniffing glue and only find identity through gangs?

What can bring together communities of the wealthy, poor, different religions and tribes of Kenya?

The same things that bring us all to the Playa…

Dancing, Drumming, Strangeness, Sharing, Community, and of course Fire!

Ruddick and fellow Peace Corps volunteer Nemo Curiel launched MotoMoto Circus in Mombasa, and continued their work there when they returned to civilian life. By last fall their efforts were beginning to pay off, as the MotoMoto fire show was becoming a sensation at hotels and local festivals and, as Ruddick reported in the MotoMoto blog, the performers were coping with the novel experience of appreciative audiences after a lifetime of being studiously ignored and abused.

They were invited to perform at a national cultural festival, but the expense of getting the three performers, their support crew and the necessary supplies from Mombasa to Lamu and back made the whole thing seem impossible. Then Ruddick thought of his Burner connections.

Carmen Mauk of explains, “They didn’t have the money to travel, and it’s not cheap.” Ruddick filled her in on the ongoing work–and challenges–of giving street kids the tools to build and live a decent life, and how a very small amount of money, by U.S. standards, can have a huge impact.

Thanks to a grant from Rex to Burners Without Borders, the MotoMoto Circus was able to perform at a national festival in Kenya.

As it happened, Burners Without Borders had recently received a $5,000 grant from the Rex Foundation. “We thought it was a real opportunity,” Mauk said, and sent $1,000 of the grant to MotoMoto. That was enough to get the troupe to Lamu, where they were a huge hit. “They ended up getting on national TV,” Mauk said, “and were able to use that as a leverage point forward.”

The show has been so successful that the performers are about to move into their own apartment for the first time in their lives.  MotoMoto has expanded into various other endeavors designed to build a thriving and healthy community, and to promote similar efforts elsewhere in the country.

Meanwhile, says Mauk, “We still have Rex money left that I will be putting into a stimulus package for this year like the one we did last year–put out a $5,000 grant and choose people who need from zero to $1,000 to get a project going.”

Projects like the ones Burners Without Borders has funded in big cities, remote villages and disaster areas throughout the world. In Pisco, Peru, helping locals recover from a catastrophic earthquake with everything from a a biodiesel project to a new school; in Beijing, greening the environment; in Malawi, saving a lake.

Wanting to learn more, we found Mauk emerging from a flurry of activity in response to the earthquake in Haiti. Within days, Burners Without Borders had managed to bring together surgeons, nurses, and other volunteers with a plane and supplies, sending six medical missions into Haiti over two weeks, at a total cost of less than $5,000.

medical team in haiti

Medical volunteers from Burners Without Borders provide health care in earthquake-ravaged Haiti.

“The only reason our project in Haiti was possible, and for so little money,” Mauk said, “is that immediately when a plane became available and we knew we needed to base ourselves out of this airport in Fort Lauderdale, Burners from the community and former Burners Without Borders volunteers immediately offered up a warehouse. A meeting was held within 24 hours, and plane mechanics came forward to donate their time. Over a two-week period they ended up taking the plane apart in the middle of the night several times, driving three hours to get there and doing it for free.”

Rex Foundation: Who are you folks, and how did Burners Without Borders come into being?

Carmen Mauk, Burners Without Borders: Hurricane Katrina struck during Burning Man in 2005, and a lot of people decided they wanted to help. In addition to the Burning Man community raising about  $50K at the event, which went to the Red Cross and a smaller group that was helping, a bunch of people went to New Orleans to try to help.

What grew out of that was an eight-month volunteer action in which people just started coming to Mississippi.  We ended up doing about a million dollars’ worth of debris removal and construction out of recycled wood, mainly because we were given an excavator and front loader to do all that with. We were able to change the landscape of a city very quickly and help people get back on their feet, and able to help people access the money that we knew wouldn”t be there later.

Rex: So how does this come out of Burning Man?

BWB: I would say at Burning Man there’s a city that’s built by the people, where permission is given for you to bring your gift. No matter what that is. People are more able to be themselves at Burning Man than they find they are in their lives back home.

When Katrina happened, over 300 people went through the project we had there and had that experience of really making an impact. I was there for four months, and I saw that this community was really ready to take the potential that we live in at the Burning Man event and start solving some of the problems we really care about in our everyday lives.

school kids

A new school in PIsco, Peru, built with the help of Burners Without Borders

We had a strong community that had been going for 20-some years, and it was easy for people all across the world who wanted to be part of something larger than themselves and loved Burning Man to look at how they could bring the creativity we use at Burning Man to solve some of their own issues in their own communities.

Rex: How do particular projects get on your radar? How do you decide what to do?

BWB: Sometimes someone will step forward from the community and say, for instance, I’m going to Peru to help out with the earthquake.  In that case, the person had helped with building a café at Burning Man.

After he’d done some reconnaissance there we decided it was worthwhile to create a volunteer infrastructure so we could invite people in to help these poor people rebuild their town and get some projects going. We made a one-year commitment.

In the case of the fire poi, somebody called in and said hey Carmen, I’m a Peace Corps volunteer. I’ve been teaching fire poi to the kids, and I wonder if I could make a program of helping get these kids off the street by teaching them this and getting them dignified performances in places where they’d get paid. I said, I would totally help you with that, so let’s figure out what the next steps are in making this project a success.

That’s my gift to anybody who has a good idea:  We can help promote it, I can give them ideas, I can connect them to other people who can make it a success. We have all these opportunities to volunteer, but the real expectation is: No matter where you are the world, what gifts do you have to bring to bear on this community? And how does being a part of this community help you raise the bar on what’s possible?

Rex: How did you happen to align with Rex?

BWB: I’m on the advisory board of the Black Rock Arts Foundation (another Rex grantee), and (Rex board members) Freddy Hahne and Nick Morgan are on the foundation’s board, so for years we’ve known each other. When I was telling them about some of the projects that were outside disaster relief, specifically how we were bringing art and self expression to communities,  and integrating a lot of these things, they became excited and started poking around on our web site, and things went from there.

Rex: Lots of people have great ideas that never come to fruition. What helps make them successful instead of might-have-been?

BWB: That’s a really good question. What we have seen–Haiti’s a good example. There’s billions of dollars in Haiti right now, but what’s really being done? And what happens when we throw people and community at problems before we start thinking about the dollar?

burners in Pisco

Pitching in in Pisco: “The community is really where the energy lies. The money can facilitate things later, but the community is the one that will carry it through,” says BWB’s Carmen Mauk.

The community is really where the energy lies. The money can facilitate things later, but the community is the one that will carry it through. So we were able to set up six medical missions to Haiti for less than $5,000. While the Red Cross …

We don’t have the framing of, OK, you want to do a permaculture project in Africa? That sounds crazy! How are we going to do that? That”s way too big for us. We say yes and know that the right solutions will follow; people knowing what needs to happen in order for a project happen. So many times people come to me saying hey, I’ve lined up this thing, we need $600 to save this lake, and then it’s a no-brainer to support that.

When we have a community mind around problem solving, there’s much more that’s possible, because we’re all bringing these gifts to bear, and we’re not just looking at it as solving it with a project that has a dollar amount attached. And there’s a lot more creativity available then too.

Rex: Any practical advice you can give people who might be seeing something that needs doing, but think that they’re just one person and what can they do?

BWB: I struggle with that sometimes too. Then I realize, when I start talking about it, or I just start asking people if they’re interested in joining me–people are longing for these experiences in their communities, but we just don’t know it. We perceive that everybody’s really busy and they might not have time, but what we find is that we can find ways to connect with other people who care about what you care about.

That’s why we’re lucky to have a big, diverse list of people we can call on. So when something happens we can say, for those of you who care about this, there’s going to be a conference call, or please contact this person. You don’t need 50 people; you generally need maybe 10. And if you have enough of a network, or you find an organization that cares about what you care about, then you can start building a community and you don’t feel alone.

To try to do it by ourselves doesn’t really work. It’s exhausting. I’ve tried it myself (laughs). It’s much more enjoyable, and I think much more powerful, when we can align with others who care about what our passions are.

If someone’s got a great idea, you don’t need to be a Burner to participate in Burners Without Borders. This network is sitting here, and there are people in it who are interested in helping you. The line has blurred whether you’ve gone to Burning Man or not;  it’s about who are we in our community and what do we care about, and how do we use our networks effectively to get some of these things done. This is something anyone can get involved with anytime.