San Mateo gets lesson on community building from Burning Man 

click to enlarge From left, moderator Stuart Mangrum, Burning Man co-founder Michael Mikel and entrepreneur Ilana Lipsett discuss community-building strategies. - BRENDAN P. BARTHOLOMEW/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Brendan P. Bartholomew/Special to the S.f. Examiner
  • From left, moderator Stuart Mangrum, Burning Man co-founder Michael Mikel and entrepreneur Ilana Lipsett discuss community-building strategies.

The Burning Man event symbolically came to San Mateo recently, but there were no naked people, art cars or burned wooden effigies involved.

Burning Man was instead front and center on the subject of community-building during a discussion in conjunction with San Mateo's Innovation Week festivities, featuring Burning Man co-founder Michael Mikel. Joining him onstage were three activators, Burning Man participants who talked about how their experiences at the yearly Nevada desert counterculture event have influenced their efforts as community leaders.

San Mateo spokeswoman and economic development specialist Rebecca Zito said the city is in the process of "activating" its downtown area, and the panelists' insights could be applied to beautification projects such as the North B Street Improvement Initiative. Community-building skills associated with Burning Man are relevant to the B Street project, she said, because there is a lot of outreach and communication involved with residents, merchants and property owners, who all have different concerns.

Panelist Ilana Lipsett talked about her Freespace project, which uses the Burning Man principle of "radical inclusiveness" to bring San Francisco residents together to collaborate on art, technology and civic projects.

She noted that people who are increasingly painted by the media as natural enemies, such as technology workers and artists, have been able to get past those labels and work together at Freespace.

One example Lipsett cited was that of a disabled, formerly homeless man who cautiously entered Freespace's Market Street location, wondering whether he would be welcome there. The man had an idea for a digital billboard that could provide homeless San Franciscans with information on services and resources, while simultaneously offering music and visual entertainment to draw users in and beautify the public space. According to Lipsett, the resident tech employees and artists got involved and worked to turn the concept into a reality.

Panelist Karen Cusolito, the founder of American Steel Studios, which rents workspaces to artists in West Oakland, said operating the space has forced her to get involved in local politics because, she said, "The city planned to turn West Oakland into an office park."

And for Cusolito, that effort to prevent office buildings from displacing art studios has been successful, she noted.

"As an artist, it just doesn't feel possible that you can influence public policy, but we did," Cusolito said.

Another panelist, Mike North, host of the former Discovery Channel TV show "Prototype This!" talked about how the creative freedom and unconditional acceptance he got from Burning Man supported his involvement with tech innovation projects designed to help disadvantaged people.

He recounted his experience developing a brace that children born with clubfeet could wear to correct the condition. North said the brace was designed to be very affordable so it could be used in developing countries where corrective surgery is not available. Recalling how he was deeply moved when he met one of the children using his brace invention, North said, "I thought, wow, this kid is going to walk."

In speaking with The San Francisco Examiner about the gap some might perceive between Burning Man's freewheeling spirit and the city of San Mateo's staid image, Mikel said, "People say Burning Man has become mainstream, but it's actually that the mainstream has become Burning Man!"

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