What does Bryan have to do with Burning Man, a weeklong celebration of culture, spirituality, art and music in the Nevada desert?

Turns out, quite a lot.

Marian Goodell is a founding board member and CEO of the Burning Man Project, which organizes the yearly temporary community, and tries to bring to Burning Man the lessons she learned growing up in our small community in northwest Ohio.

Growing up and learning in Bryan

Goodell spent much of her childhood in Bryan, attending St. Patrick Catholic School and graduating from Bryan High School in 1980. Though she moved in and out of the city a couple times throughout those 18 years, she still considers it home.

And her pride in her hometown runs strong.

“I’m very proud of being from here,” Goodell said, taking some time out of a recent road trip from California to Michigan to speak to The Bryan Times, later adding: “I’m one of those people that if I’m around a Dum-Dums lollipop, I will grab it and unwrap it ... and be like, ‘Look! Bryan, Ohio!’ I’m definitely the person, if I see an Etch-A-Sketch I turn it around and I’m like, ‘Ohio Art, 43506!’ I know that zip code better than I know my own zip code in San Francisco.”

Being back in Bryan can be emotional.

“Bryan, Ohio, it gets me choked up. I have trouble talking about it in interviews ... It’s part of who I am,” she continued, slapping the back of her hand against her palm for emphasis. “It’s part of what Burning Man is.”

Being back in town, sitting on the courthouse square on a warm summer afternoon, she found it “emblematic” of what she thinks of as home.

It’s the essence of the small community, where people look out for each other and support the locally owned, downtown businesses.

“When I was a kid, there weren’t any malls,” Goodell said. “Gorny-Winzeler’s was the place to go to get things for Christmas. So, my whole memory of myself was being in a town that was very safe. My mom left the keys in the car.”

Bryan represents a safe, connective community that would gather in the summer for band shows or the Jubilee.

In many ways, it was like the American Dream.

“I for sure was raised in that way, when people talk about being raised in America and being raised in a really heartfelt way, I’m an example of that,” she said. “We had to drive an hour to get to a mall. So we played tag at night. We played kick the can.”

She learned to look out for others in Bryan, in part through a babysitter course she took at Ohio Gas Company, and had her first job as a K-Mart cashier in Bryan.

“All those to me represent the part about America, for me still, is this town, this courthouse, this gorgeous brick courthouse, this square,” Goodell said. “Even if my vision of it is kind of idyllic ... It’s still a town that was created for that purpose. It’s in the DNA of the people here, people look out for each other.”

She learned a lot about community by going to the library to earn points through the Summertime Book Club, through going to the pool and so much more.

All those lessons in civics and community are what she has tried to bring to Burning Man since she first help found the Burning Man Project in 1997.

“A small community, it’s set up to be a place where people can work together and that’s what I think we need in this world,” Goodell said. “We need to be connected.”

Despite having not lived in Bryan since high school, she still loves the community and comes back when she can. Even if it’s just to pass through on her way to visit family in Newaygo, Michigan — even if it wasn’t the most convenient way to make the trip.

“To get to Newaygo, I could cut through Chicago, along Lake Michigan and I would be in Newaygo right about now,” Goodell said. “It means so much to come back here.”

She often enjoys coming to Bryan to meet with friends and “get grounded,” she said.

“It makes me feel good here,” she said. “This is my home. Even though I have no family left here, my heart (is here). I went to high school here. I was a Bryan Golden Bear. I was a bat girl for the baseball team, I have my ‘B.’ I did my time as a citizen and a child in this really sweet town and I smelled the butterscotch of lollipops at high school. I went to the Jubilee and caught fireflies in Bryan. More than anything, I wanted to drive through this town.”

Bryan and Burning Man

Burning Man is a lesson in civics, Goodell added, and people are expected to participate as citizens at the temporary community, called Black Rock City.

A well-known aspect of this might be the fact there are no trash cans at Burning Man, creating a culture referred to as “leave no trace” in which people who attend Burning Man, called Burners, clean up their own trash and, occasionally, other people’s.

“You’re expected to look out for your neighbors,” Goodell said. “If you want to stay for the whole time, you’re there for eight days. The temperature can be as high as 100 degrees during the day and, like, 50 (degrees) at night and people aren’t prepared ... One of the purposes is to be in an environment that forces them to be friendly to their neighbors, forces them to collaborate on holding down a shade structure in the wind.”

That spirit of cooperation is something Goodell brought with her from Bryan.

“I have memories of when someone needed something in the middle of the night, someone’s car broke down, someone was injured, you didn’t wonder who you were going to call, you could have called anybody,” she said.

People can’t go to Burning Man for themselves, she added.

In fact, the festival is set up deliberately to allow people to have a singular purpose together.

“I certainly got some of that from my parents,” Goodell said. “I was raised Catholic, I really believe my Catholicism on looking out for other people is part of who I am.”

Other people get that and more out the festival.

She’s heard from people who say they feel like good people at Burning Man, feel like helping others and being around others.

Goodell attributes that attitude to the lack social class division, like what she saw in Bryan as a child.

Her father worked the floor at Chase Brass, her stepfather worked at ARO and she grew up with kids both high and low in those companies.

“The kids, we all played together; We all mowed each other’s lawns,” she said. “That’s what made me feel Burning Man is a place of optimism and hope and possibility.”

Becoming the CEO of Burning Man

After high school, it was another 15 years before Goodell would get introduced to Burning Man.

After graduating in 1980, she earned a degree in creative writing and later moved to California, working as a sales representative, eventually going back to college to earn a master’s degree in photography in 1993.

“In a photography class I saw this picture of this thing, this art piece in this desert and it didn’t have many people, it had like 300 people, and it has this art piece on the ground and this beautiful sunset,” she said. “I just had to find it.”

It took her two years to discover Burning Man, which she first attended in 1995.

“I got there and it was super cool,” Goodell said. “Nothing was being sold. Everybody was expected to do something. You couldn’t slack off ... It reminded me of when I was a kid. I had to help my mom if she had a party. We washed dishes. I babysat.”

She decided she wanted to meet the founder, Larry Harvey, and find a way to help out.

Goodell met him and they dated for five years, right around the time Burning Man started to become a full-time gig.

The festival doubled in size between her first and second year in attendance, and it began needing more work if it was to continue growing.

“My dad was a really good businessman and I got some of that from him,” she said. “It wasn’t going to make money if we didn’t get smart about how we spent it and what the ticket prices were.”

Burning Man Project

Goodell was one of the founding members of the Burning Man Foundation, helping it to grow and create a bigger influence in the world.

The organization was formed in 1997 and she became the project’s first CEO in 2013.

As the CEO, she oversees the administration of the organization, which became a non-profit in 2012.

“(I’m) helping make sure we hire a really good team, keeping the morale of the staff up,” she said, adding there are around 100 permanent staff members of the Burning Man Project. “In a year when we went from having a ticket to fundraising, that’s a pretty big job.”

Goodell was referencing the fact that the Burning Man event was canceled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

That decision was not easy.

“We had already started selling tickets,” she said. “We had sold about 34,000 tickets, so we had to return the ticket money, but we really wanted to make the argument for people making a donation. So, that took some time. Of the $22 million that we had already taken in, $2.8 million of it was donated back to us.”

Reaction to the cancellation was understandably sad, Goodell said, as it is something of a ritual to many people.

She likened it to the Jubilee on the square.

“If you go every year, you look forward to it and you walk around with your friends and it’s your first date as a teenager. I remember walking around the Bryan Jubilee with a boy, holding hands,” Goodell said. “It’s like that with Burning Man. People are coming from around the world, they have camps, they’re building things, building art.”

It was also hard because now they’re working for the survival of the organization and the festival.

“I don’t want to lay off the staff in order to survive,” she said. “What I want to do is pivot what we’re doing and occupy ourselves doing things related to our mission so that when we are ready to do an event again we have most of the staff intact.”

Instead, they have thrown their efforts into other ventures, such as creating leadership, management training and volunteerism classes to upload online and also a documentary about the organization.

Other staff are finding ways to improve operations.

Goodell said she drove across the country from California to Michigan, in part to get in touch with what means the most to her.

She referred to it as a journey to places that make her smile to help give joy to others through Burning Man.

“To build an event of 80,000 people and right now raise $30 million for the survival of a non-profit takes every bit of my smarts, common sense, love, heart,” she said. “Where I get my sustenance and what gives me inspiration are things that are deep from my heart. So, I told my mom I was going to come and see her, but really it’s for me, so I can spend a month in Newaygo. Driving through Bryan was for me. It reminds me of who I am ... I’m a down-to-earth person from a down-to-earth town.”

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