On October 29th, hurricane Sandy single-handedly demolished the New Jersey beach towns of Ocean City and Long Beach Island. Also, Atlantic City―the classic coming-of-age, right-of-passage East Coast Sin City―where fortune laid at fingertips and hookers strolled the strip. The Jersey Shore has been an iconic summer retreat for generations of New Englanders who spent long July days walking the boardwalk, eating huge slices of pizza, playing arcade games and tackling waves. The post-tropical cyclone reduced many of these nostalgia inducing beach towns into flooded debris strewn sandlots.
Upholding the 10 Principles, Burners Without Borders has come to the rescue.
They do it through gifting―donating volunteer time and labor. Gifting tends to have a snowball affect. You get back what you put out―it’s synchronistic―give a little and get a lot in return. Tangible donations of cash, construction equipment, vehicles and places to stay come pouring in with very little coaxing. Everyone has something to contribute. Just like on the Playa.
Currently, BWOB is rock and rolling through Manasquan, New Jersey, in a valiant attempt to clean up Sandy’s mess. Loyal and true to the cause, BWOB member Richard Scott quit his new job in Tahoe and bought a one-way ticket to NJ just after Sandy hit. He wanted to help. After just a few weeks, along with Richard’s extraordinary on-site help, BWOB has procured two donated houses for volunteers to stay in, signed up six structures for demolition, and was a fleet of construction vehicles from a fellow burner’s dad’s company. Not to mention, the town of Manasquan asked BWOB to help build their annual Thanksgiving Day bonfire, since fire is a little specialty.
BWOB’s goal is to provide easier and faster clean-up efforts, eliminate hazardous structures, save homeowners money and energy, recycle parts of structures, work alongside other organizations as support, and to bring creative collaboration and fun to these projects.
Most importantly, they do it all for free. No money; no strings attached.
Tom Price, founder of BWOB, sums up just how seamless it was for him to transition the problem-solving skills and Burner morals from the Playa into a disaster-relief, volunteer-based organization that has been helping change lives since 2005.
BAR MAG: How did you get involved with BWOB?
Tom: Well, I started it in 2005 at Burning Man. We asked for people to donate money for Hurricane Katrina victims at the gate. We raised $40,000 in cash. At the gate. In one day. People wanted to help more so I organized some people to go down to the Gulf. We stayed for eight months.
Two things happened at the same time here: a disaster relief group was formed and it was an extension of the Playa. This turned into a long-term experiment in whether the values of Burning Man could operate in the default world. Burning Man is boot camp for disaster relief. After a disaster, all the normal pieces of society are there, but jumbled up and mixed around―like the Playa.
BAR MAG: What is BWOB?
Tom: BWOB is a vehicle for people who share values to be of service to their communities in whatever form makes sense. The only other group who really does this is the church: people united in certain values. Anybody can empower themselves to organize like-minded people to do anything. It’s a thought platform for like-minded people to work together.
I gave a talk on the Playa a few years ago on what I think Burning Man is. Burning Man is a permission engine. A place where you are given permission to do whatever makes sense to you. BWOB is a portable permission engine that lives in you. It exists to give people permission to do what they normally want to do, which is to connect with other people. Commitment and follow through, checks and balances, and support are essential elements to BWOB. Nobody will tell you not to do something, as long as you have the intention and commitment to finish it.
BAR MAG: Describe the concept of a “do-ocracy.”
Tom: Everyone can intentionally contribute in some way―like the Playa. Ideas on-playa generally are accepted without question. There is no “I need an expert” mentality. People have ideas and they run with them. If you let people participate in the way that they are able, you get amazing results.
We’re doing it because we can. No one’s going to stop us.
How does the Burning Man experience parallel disaster relief efforts?
Filling gaps in ways that are inventive and inclusive is what Burning Man is about. There is nothing inherent about Burning Man that says we’ll be good at disaster relief, except that it’s a chaotic environment that requires creative thinking. There is no set way to do it.
These opportunities to spend time in resilient communities are important. Fairly significant climate change is going to have very unpleasant consequences in the near future. Being flexible and resilient is important. These storms are only the appetizers. It’s going to get worse. It’s good practice in preparedness for bad situations.
BAR MAG: How does BWOB compare to other disaster relief organizations such as the Red Cross?
Tom: People realize the hard way that there’s nobody who has the job of taking care of someone whose life has been destroyed. Red Cross and FEMA give out food and blankets and provide temporary solutions. Nobody wants to clean up the mess. We build an entire city in the middle of nowhere overnight, so taking one apart is easy enough.
BWOB is empowering to the victims of disaster relief, too. Receiving help from people they may not ordinarily socialize with takes them outside of their own box.
BAR MAG: How does the Burner concept of “gifting” make your organization different from others?
Tom: Most organizations have just one aspect to them: financial gain. The Playa teaches us that money is worthless and what really matters are the amorphous personal interactions. For example, I may give you a can of coconut water on the Playa. That may have cost me $1, but it is invaluable to you in this situation.
How can you do $100,000 worth of work for free? Because we decided to. If you’re motivated by something other than how much money you’re making, it’s amazing what you can accomplish.
BAR MAG: How did you get all of this donated demolition equipment for the Sandy relief project?
Tom: It was really easy. Just like on the Playa. I love this story.
This guy from New Jersey came to Burning Man for the first time in 2006 and was inspired by the BWOB camp. So he went to Peru to volunteer with us. When he heard BWOB were coming to New Jersey after Sandy, he got in touch with us to tell us his father owns a construction company who wanted to loan us the equipment. When the New Jersey emergency response system put out the word to their people that we were coming, a volunteer for the Emergency Medical Services for Black Rock City confirmed to them that we were, in fact, the real deal … and it turns out this EMS guy has family nearby where we could set up a base for our volunteers to stay at.
And someone just donated $10,000 to the Sandy fund.
After Katrina, this guy called me up to tell me he wanted to give $50,000. We hadn’t even properly established a non-profit status. I told the guy I wouldn’t even be able to give him a tax write-off. I didn’t even have an official BWOB bank account. The guy’s accountant calls me up the next day and asks for my personal bank account information so he could deposit the money. He said he didn’t care about the write-off as long as the BRC Department of Public Works was involved.
It’s not about trying to take your piece, but trying to add a piece.
Other projects BWOB has worked on in the recent past have ranged from beach clean ups, flood relief, lumber recycling on the Playa, building houses for low-income families along side of Habitat for Humanity, managing alternative currency programs for slums in Kenya, fundraising for Haiti, promoting art awareness, and putting on “Oh Shit! What Now?” exercises in radical self-awareness concerning earthquake preparedness. Tax-deductible donations to BWOB are available through the Black Rock Arts Foundation. BWOB has also spawned Socialalchemy.org, a social network for people who want to help people and for the spontaneous collaboration of community projects.
Burners, if you feel so inclined―BWOB needs you: volunteers, donations, local connections, information regarding communities that may need help, questions, comments, concerns, or bacon. No contribution is a bad contribution. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and they will respond in a timely fashion.