A NEED ARISES
The 2002 Burn was approaching, and David Best was nearing completion of his third and most elaborate sacred structure, The Temple of Joy. But he wasn’t feeling joyful about what might happen to his latest creation. He was concerned about the potential for damage, inadvertent fires, and injury to Burners who attempted to climb the Temple walls. So, he contacted friend and fellow artist Termeh Yeghiazarian to brainstorm some possible solutions. What they came up with was the idea of volunteers, Guardian Angels, who would unobtrusively monitor activities in the Temple from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily, gently redirecting unsafe behavior and actions that disrupted the contemplative atmosphere that made the Temple so popular with Burners. It was the birth of the Temple Guardians.
Termeh and David agreed that a staff of four Angels and one lead (who carried the group’s only two-way radio and hence was called “The Voice”) would provide adequate coverage without intruding on the serenity of the Temple. An additional “Angel in Waiting” stood by in case someone had to drop out during the shift or if something was needed by the team. The earliest Guardian Angels were excited about playing this helper role in the Temple, and wanted to look the part during their shifts by wearing wings. But this idea flew in the face of David and Termeh’s agreement to remain unobtrusive, nearly invisible. David told Termeh, “It’s our goal to influence the space invisibly while seeming to disappear when not needed.” Winged Angels hardly fit into that parameter. Nor did wearing wings or some other type of uniform make the Temple seem “mostly unattended,” another of David’s goals for the Temple Guardians.
THE HANDKERCHIEF & BELL
Eventually, Termeh and David agreed to a subtler solution: a simple kerchief especially designed to identify Angels. But Termeh had another concern: in the dark, would people be able to locate an Angel visually? And would Guardians be able to find each other? Termeh’s solution was a bracelet with a tiny bell, which she made by hand and gave to every Guardian Angel. Despite the fact that the bells were almost impossible to hear in the din of the Playa, both the bracelet and the kerchief remain Guardian traditions to this day.
THE CHANGING OF THE GUARD
By the 2003 Burn, Termeh began to feel overwhelmed trying to handle staffing needs for the Temple Guardians using only pencil and paper. She asked one of her volunteers, Tall Tom, for help. Tom applied his expertise in spreadsheets to computerize staffing and assignments, vastly improving administrative efficiency. He would take over as manager in 2005 when Termeh moved on to other work. During this time, the Guardians expanded times that they served, requiring a much larger staff and volunteers.
Meanwhile, the word Angels had disappeared from the organization’s nomenclature and volunteers were simply called Guardians.
Leadership of the Temple Guardians changed again in 2006, when Tall Tom was unable to attend the Burn and fellow Guardian Kilika took over the organization. Tom returned for the following two Burns. In 2009, leadership was split between two Burners, Skirblah and Liz. In 2010, Carousel began leading the Temple burn perimeter activity for Guardians, and in 2011, when Liz was expecting a baby and couldn’t attend, Carousel became Skirblah’s partner. Then, in 2013, Carousel took over as sole manager of the Guardians, it’s 5th and longest-serving manager. Carousel brought more change to the Guardians than anyone since Termeh. In particular, he strengthened and professionalized training, work assignments and the organizational structure.
THE GUARDIANS’ ROLES EXPAND
From the start, there was a recognition for the need to train the Voices (mostly in how to use the radio), but training was optional for the other volunteers until 2011, when Carousel developed a new training regimen and made it a requirement for all Guardians. The original training outline was just one page in length. Today the training guide consists of nearly 50 pages, including specialized versions of training for new Guardians, experienced Guardians, Voices, Offering Carriers, and Guardians who will be working on the burn perimeter the night of the Temple Burn. It’s now a requirement for new as well as experienced Guardians to attend training before signing in for a shift.
THE ORGANIZATION EVOLVES
There were numerous other changes around this same time as the size and importance of the Guardians began to accelerate. The organization became part of the Art Department that year, reporting directly to Bettie June, the department’s associate director. As a result of this organizational change and the recognition of their role in maintaining a safe and secure environment in and around the Temple, Guardians garnered additional support as well as added responsibilities.
One aspect of the Guardian’s increased importance to the ethos of Black Rock City was their heightened role in the Sunday night Temple burn. Carousel had earlier become aware of the lack of structure in the Guardian’s burn perimeter activity, and set a goal to change that situation. His new plan, introduced in 2011, laid out specific roles for Guardians during burn night and introduced training and communications guidelines that clarified the crucial burn night activities. Fortunately, 2011 was also the year that the Guardians acquired additional radios. They were also assigned a dedicated radio frequency instead of sharing the emergency frequency with others, which was not only critical to burn perimeter activities but to day-to-day Temple operations as well.
A RETURN TO THE BASICS: HOLDING THE SPACE
In seeking additional ways to give Guardians clearer direction and greater structure, Carousel followed in Termeh’s footsteps by again seeking out the wisdom of David Best, Burning Man’s most prolific Temple builder. Carousel relayed to Bettie June that Best identified the Guardians’ role “primarily to look for people who might harm themselves or others, to watch for fire safety issues, and to mostly be an unseen force that appears when needed and mainly leaves people with a sense that they are alone when they need to be and that there is someone who is there when they need that as well.”
From this conversation, Carousel and his leadership team developed the concept of “holding the space of the Temple” as the mission of the Temple Guardians, adding it to Liz’s “small pushes from great distances” as the strategy to influence behavior while remaining largely invisible.
TRAINING & SUPPORT IMPROVEMENTS
Between 2011 and 2017, training numbers increased from about 40 percent of Guardians taking shifts to 100 percent. In 2016 Carousel asked Cherub – a fellow Ranger and a Guardian since 2011– to become Operations Manager of the Temple Guardians. That year also saw the establishment of Temple Guardians staff camp, designed to provide support to Temple Guardian operations and a permanent home for TG training. Meanwhile, the Guardians had changed reporting relationships and were now part of Marcia’s community services organization rather than the Art Department.
THE TORCH PASSES TO CHERUB
Cherub took over as manager of the Temple Guardians in 2018. Carousel remains responsible for training and managing the Temple Burn including the temple closing and the burn perimeter. Cherub brought on Boz as the Communications Lead, who aligned the principles of Temple Guardians with Burning Man’s 10 Principles. He also strengthened the communications team established the previous year and introduced an internal publication, the Guardian’s Post, that is emailed to all Guardians and interested Burners.
THE TEMPLE GUARDIANS TODAY
Currently, more than 400 individuals volunteer as Guardians throughout the event. A dozen Guardians and two Voices patrol the Temple during each four-hour shift, 24 hours a day every day that the Temple is open. Even before the gates open Guardians will stand watches along the Temple perimeter while the Temple crew completes the build, and will do so again after the Temple has been closed on Sunday morning so the building can be prepared for that night’s penultimate event of Burning Man, the Temple burn. Yet another group of especially trained Guardians will carry offerings from Burners to the Temple, often in memory of people they have lost. The offerings will be carefully placed in a safe, but visible spot and burned with the rest of the memorials on Sunday night.
Like the original Angels, each Temple Guardian still wears a bandana designed exclusively for this Burn and to honor the Temple. And each will bear on their wrists an inconspicuous bracelet with a tiny bell attached, just as Guardians have done since 2002.