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‘Always leveling-up’: CEO Marian Goodell on the evolution of Burning Man community and culture

Art project at Burning Man 2019 | Jamen Percy/Courtesy the Burning Man Project

The CEO of the Burning Man Project, Marian Goodell, sat down with The Standard for an in-depth interview in August 2022. The conversation took place just two weeks prior to the organization’s famed gathering of 80,000 revelers in Black Rock City, its first since 2019.

In the first part of the interview, Goodell explored Burning Man’s connection to San Francisco and how the nonprofit dealt with Covid.  

Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell smiles while speaking with San Francisco Standard staff during an interview and portrait session at the S.F. Standard’s office in San Francisco on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

In the second half of our discussion below, Goodell talks about the skills that best prepared her to be CEO of Burning Man, the most annoying stereotype about the gathering, what the theme “Waking Dreams” means to her, and the ways in which Burning Man is evolving in terms of its culture, diversity and sustainability.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

The Standard: For people who’ve never been there, the scale of Black Rock City is difficult to imagine. Can you give a brief description of Burning Man?

Marian Goodell: Yes, we’re talking about 80,000 people coming to Black Rock City. The population of Burning Man only reaches that point for less than 24 hours, usually on Thursday. We have a ten-mile fence around the city. It’s in the shape of a pentagon. That means it’s about 3,000 acres. We have zero trash cans. Everybody brings their own trash and takes it away. And we have eight days of people engaging and interacting together on the Black Rock Desert, 400 art projects, of which about 40 [are partially funded by Burning Man Project grants]. We have 600 art cars, which are basically interactive floats. And it all reaches a peak of 80,000 people—and then it’s done on Labor Day. 

What stereotypes about Burning Man are most and least accurate? 

The most accurate stereotype about Burning Man is not so much a stereotype as a characterization and that is that it can be transformative, Burning Man can change your life. I think the experience of going to Burning Man, where you are forced to work with other people can change the way that you feel about other people and gives you hope in humanity. 

The stereotypical thing about Burning Man that’s not true is probably that it’s all drugs and nudity. It is just so hot [in the Black Rock Desert]. I can’t believe that anybody really would believe that, though it is certainly a place where people dress in whatever way they feel self-expressive. And, it’s a psychedelic experience. It’s very colorful but it’s not all about the drugs. Some people may use hallucinogens at Burning Man, but I don’t find the majority of people that I see that are playful and dressing up to look like, say, a watermelon, are necessarily on drugs. They’re just playful. 

Black Rock City 2015 | Scott London/Courtesy Burning Man | Source: Scott London/Courtesy Burning Man

Could you describe the 2022 theme for Burning Man, “Waking Dreams”?

Waking Dreams is really about us coming back to what the reality is of how we want to be with one another. It is a little bit, “Are we awake? Are we sleeping?” It is like how we’re creative: some of it is in our dreams. And so coming back to this imaginary, magical city in the Black Rock Desert is a form of a waking dream. And we’re making it happen together. 

How did you become the CEO of Burning Man? 

I became the CEO of Burning Man by taking part in a sort of a CEO training program. I’ve been part of the gathering since I went in 1995, and I became part of the organization in late 1996, and I did date the founder [Larry Harvey] for a period of time. And I think that’s part of how he came to trust me. There were six of us that really helped build Burning Man together. And when we became a nonprofit, it was really time for us to help focus the leadership. And they asked me to do [be CEO].

What part of your background best prepared you to lead Burning Man?

I have a background that I think really perfectly prepared me to be CEO of Burning Man. I have a bachelor’s degree in creative writing and I worked in advertising, and banking, at a law firm. Then I moved to California and I went to the Academy of Art College after I did sales for a period of time. And then I briefly worked for a firm that built e-commerce websites. So when Burning Man came along, they needed a little bit of help in all those areas. So I took on some of the technology and I took on public relations. 

My favorite part of the job was communications. I think Burning Man is a storytelling mechanism. The way people hear about Burning Man is through people telling stories to each other so the media has been super important for us. So my favorite part of what really prepared me for Burning Man was being a storyteller. Then when I got a master’s in photography, I saw my first photos about Burning Man, and that made me want to go. And that was in 1993.

What did you learn about the Burning Man community during the pandemic?

It was really fascinating to watch a moment of crisis and Burning Man people moving into motion very quickly and looking for ways in which they could engage from a disaster relief standpoint. The N95 masks we normally wear at Burning Man for dust abatement were collected very quickly. The [Burner] community itself responded very quickly to help with something that was unrelated to what they do, but showed how they can activate to solve problems.

Covid also [highlighted the Burner community’s] sense of resilience. One woman said that she learned resilience from the Israeli army and from Burning Man. Where people were in their homes and feeling really isolated, the Burning Man community found ways to help, not just itself, but those outside of it. There is a group in Sacramento that realized that they really needed to entertain one another while [everyone] was still socially distancing. They set up an art tour at different homes in their yards, and then you could drive by the homes sort of like a progressive dinner, but it was sort of a progressive parade. They called it a reverse parade… The pandemic was actually a perfect place for Burning Man to show some of our better colors.

Burning the "Man" happens on Saturday night in Black Rock City | Courtesy Burning Man | Source: Courtesy Burning Man

In early 2019, Burning Man issued a Cultural Course Correction to discourage Black Rock City behavior that was not in line with its 10 Principles.  You only had one burn to see the impact of that initiative. What was the result?

We noticed that some people in [the Black Rock City] society were getting into a habit of convenience… People [were offering] VIP package services and setting up planned camps. People would arrive at Burning Man and their bikes would be decorated and costumes would be hanging in the closet of the RV … The [Cultural Course Correction] document really was a way to ask the community to reflect on [why this doesn’t follow the Burning Man principles…] 

Our community is made up of micro-communities and theme camps. The Cultural Course Correction is really a way to ask [these groups,] what is your role in this [adjustment]? How are you affecting this? And we saw results. We started seeing results in 2019, and we think that we’re going to see some good results this year. We saw fewer of the [convenient “concierge” camps]. And now we find that different individuals want to report on the camps [that aren’t following the principles]… By alerting people, giving [the problem] a vocabulary… people can say, “Wait, I’ve seen that. I don’t want to see that.”

Inclusivity has always been part of the Burning Man ethos. Yet Black Rock City has not been as ethnically or racially diverse as it could be. What has Burning Man Project done to engage a more diverse following?

We started talking about [diversity] probably back in 2016 and 2017… The point is [Burning Man] invites everyone into the culture. We give them the tools to be there. And we thought through where we were strong and where we weren’t strong. And we were able to chart back to 1996 when the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in San Francisco came, and they would run a stage night in the center of Burning Man. That was a big deal at the time, bringing in the LGBTQ community with open arms, the very flamboyant sisters of the city. 

Then, over time, it became more expensive to come to Burning Man. It was set up in ways that made it difficult for artists and performers [to participate]. And so what we’ve done with 2022 is do a lot of outreach into affiliated nonprofits, different groups, and really spent a lot of time in our own community letting artists know we were willing to give them more access to tickets. We really changed our art program.

And we’ve worked to change our board. Our board has always been diverse. It’s just that [today] people are looking for specific markers. But we’ve had a woman who was born in China almost from the beginning. And we have a Persian couple. We have African Americans, at this point, a woman who’s Latinx and lesbian. For our size, we’ve got pretty good diversity and our staff is also [diverse]. [The key to diversity] is to always be evolving, always checking yourself, always asking if you can do more. And that’s part of what we did during the pandemic. We spent time looking at our sustainability, looking at our diversity and always leveling up.

Burning Man art installation, "Step Forward" by Miguel Angel Martin Bordera | Scott London/Courtesy Burning Man

Can you talk more about the environmental efforts Burning Man goes to in order to “leave no trace” on the playa? 

We are really excited about 2022 as it applies to sustainability.  I think sustainability has a couple of different pieces to it. One is how do [attendees] get there? What is their fuel use? Do you use a generator or solar… And how do you reduce it? Part of it is being aware of your carbon footprint, not just where you are, and what are you doing right now, but how can you reduce it so that you can take it down to nothing. 

Leave no trace for us, always start with you coming with your stuff and you leave with your stuff. And that helped change consciousness about packaging, for instance, and wastewater, gray water, black water. It’s fascinating…

We have built a number of artful solar installations. Some of them are beautiful. Some are super practical, and we are prototyping several camps and operations [using alternative energy]. We are working with an alternative fuel that is going to be distributed amongst our operations to test it for the future as an alternative to diesel fuel. 

And now we are slowly taking [Black Rock City] off of fossil fuels. We received a significant $5 million donation at the end of 2021, specifically earmarked to take Black Rock city off of fossil fuels… On-site at Burning Man [this year], there’ll be a charging station for art cars that are battery-operated. We’re pretty excited.

What we like to do, as an organization, is set an example, and tell people where the benefits are in making change, whether it’s in sustainability or diversity or change in the behavior of [concierge] camps. For the larger art cars, it takes a lot of time to rethink design. One of our staff members has a large art car and he has converted it to solar to set an example.

We have a piece of property in Gerlach, Nevada that we make available for theme camps and art cars to come during the year to work on their art.  [At that location] we’re going to have a setup of how we’ve built these solar projects and battery alternative fuel projects. They’ll see them working and they’ll teach each other how to do it.

We looked at actually making alternative fuel [available for art car owners in July] but it was too much, too fast for us. But again, setting an example, showing that we can do it, prototyping it ourselves, and then doing the storytelling through next year.