A Labor Day Lesson From Burning Man

The weeklong desert festival offers deep insights on sustaining a cooperative movement.

 
 

For most Americans, Labor Day weekend signals the end of summer. In union towns and sometimes elsewhere, it’s also a chance to celebrate the role of organized labor and the average worker — more than a few of whom founded credit unions as well. 

In the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, Labor Day is a time to burn The Man.

If you know about Burning Man, it’s probably as a week of Bacchanalia — music, art, and a laissez-faire attitude toward social convention — a product of the ’80s northern California counter culture. 

 

 

You’re not wrong. Over the years, and not without some irony, Burning Man has become a celebration of excess, but it started as a protest against the commoditization of modern society. Today, the burning of the large sculpture of a man that ends each year’s event is more a performance art expression of anti-materialism than a political statement, but the event represents so much more.

Aaron Taylor Kuffner, Gameltron. Photo by Libby Weiler.

10 Principles

Thanks to the first-ever exhibition of Burning Man art at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery down the street from Callahan’s offices, I’ve learned more than I ever expected to know about this remarkable event. 

Burning Man started in 1986 as a “fire ceremony” in which a few friends burned a wooden sculpture of a man on a San Francisco beach. This year, organizers predict nearly 70,000 festival-goers will show up in the Nevada desert to create a city out of nothing in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. 

And when they are done, they leave nothing behind.

This isn’t by accident. Today’s festival is an amazing product of careful planning and organization by a dedicated team, but during the week itself, “Black Rock City” is self-governed largely by thousands of volunteers. This massive collaboration is all based on 10 principles, many of which would seem familiar to any credit union professional:

  • Radical Inclusion
  • Gifting
  • Decommodification
  • Radical Self-Reliance
  • Radical Self-Expression
  • Communal Effort
  • Civic Responsibility
  • Leaving No Trace
  • Participation
  • Immediacy

You can read the “official” meanings of all of these here, but most of them are fairly obvious: Everyone is welcome, empowered, and responsible; everyone works together for the good of one another and the community; everyone is responsible to one another as individuals, to the community, and to the environment; and everyone has a role to play and an obligation to get involved.

This all boils down to the unofficial slogan of the festival (which the curator has also used as a title for the Smithsonian exhibit): No Spectators.

Credit unions could do worse than adopting this as an unofficial slogan. It captures the core of the seven cooperative principles — that everyone is welcome, has an active role to play, and shares in responsibility to one another.

By design, credit unions are voluntary, participatory, cooperative, and community-oriented. At their best, they have no spectators.

No Sparkle Ponies

In the lexicon of Burning Man, people who show up beautifully costumed but without the food and water they need to survive for a week in the desert are called “Sparkle Ponies.” Although Burners would be kinder in their description, Sparkle Ponies are concert-going parasites who rely on the kindness and resources of others for food, water, and warmth. 

Outside Black Rock City, credit unions would recognize this species as bankers. 

Bankers are busy telling the credit union story the banker way. What they miss — purposefully but also often out of utter ignorance — is that cooperative ownership and the principles that stand behind it are really what makes credit unions different, not rates or products or services. 

By design, credit unions are voluntary, participatory, cooperative, and community-oriented. At their best, they have no spectators.  If credit unions want to protect their tax advantage and differentiate themselves from banks on a sustainable basis, then they might want to look more closely at this fundamental difference — the common bond they all share.

It’s Time For Tough Questions

Asking tough questions helps the credit union movement flourish. Make Callahan’s Tough Questions commentary on CreditUnions.com a regular stop for insight on thinking differently about the movement and framing strategies for success.

Read More Commentary

Internally, every credit union can become more than just an ersatz bank for its member-owners. Every credit union can reclaim the movement’s original promise and be a self-governing community committed to the sustainable well-being of its membership. 

Externally, credit unions can stop competing against one another, stop looking at CUSOs as a vehicle to make money off of other credit unions, and stop supporting vendors that are stuck in an old paradigm and not investing for an open, collaborative future.

If credit unions commit to living by their principles, then they will have the wherewithal to not just survive but thrive, today and into the future. 

A time to choose is coming: Embrace the ethic of No Spectators or end up as a Sparkle Pony.

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Sept. 3, 2018


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  • Don't be a sparkle pony!
    Sterling Griffin