We went to our first Burning Man Global Leadership Conference event last night and of course we were very nervous and uncomfortable, because hey, Global Leadership? We are suspicious and skeptical when it comes to just about every organized movement, and we reached adulthood around the time Jim Jones took his People’s Temple to the jungle, and now here we are talking about Ten Principles and Global Leadership and all the rest of it. So what exactly is going on here? We love Burning Man, love love love, but why would people come to a conference like this? And what grand plan is the Burning Man trying to foist on an unsuspecting public? We had questions, and we muscled up our courage and went seeking answers.
Fortunately, there were cocktails, which helped immensely.
Maybe the first thing you need to know is that it wasn’t always like this. The esteemed and august Global Leadership Conference had humble beginnings. Very humble, as in, some of the founders went to Austin with their hats in their hands, and then they passed the hats around the room.
“We were $200,000 in debt,” Marian Goodell recalled last night on the rooftop of Burning Man headquarters in the ever-so-hip Mission District of San Francisco. “We had never had a human being ask to do something outside of San Francisco.”
The human being who asked to help was George Paap, aka Tiki, who had been staging elaborate tropical parties with flaming volcanoes and fancy umbrella drinks in Austin for some time, and he had found his way to Burning Man in 1997, where he experienced a profound sense of belonging that made him want to do more.
“I had been in a deep depression for two or three years,” he says loudly and jovially now, so jovially that it’s hard to picture him in any subdued state of mind. But he had been struggling, and Burning Man was a solace and an inspiration. So he contacted Harley DuBois with the idea of holding a fund-raiser in Austin.
“Harley sent him a book about Burning Man, and some videos,” Marian said, to help build the interest and explain what Burning Man was about. But not many people came, and only $500 was raised. But that seemingly couldn’t have mattered less. “He sent us an email apologizing,” Marian said, “because only 25 people showed up. But they drove from Dallas and Houston in a rainstorm in November. … And we cried! I’m not kidding, we cried!”
That was 1997. Now, 300 people have gathered in San Francisco, and no one is passing the hat. The conference is heavily subsidized by the Burning Man organization (regional leaders attend for free, and their guests pay $100; they pay their own way to get there, though, and finding a place to stay is up to them). Read more »