My Best Work So Far: The LAFF
This is the project I’ll be proud of ‘til I die.
! UPDATE [9 AUGUST] - The response to this has been huge and wonderful! I’m blown away. Thank you.
The LAFF is now available for you to distribute. Read on to find out more about this project, and to request a copy.
You know when you’re trying to talk to your boss about work and he interrupts to tell you how hot you look today?
Remember that time a coworker took a tool out of your hand and said he’d do it for you, sweetheart?
How about that time when you got touched inappropriately by your supervisor, but it was at a party and you weren’t sure if you should say anything?
To most of you out there, this probably sounds like cautionary tales of 20th-century sexism. To women who work for festivals and parties, this is daily life.
I’ve been working festivals for a decade (and before that, raves). It has been a life-changing experience full of joy and fulfillment. It’s a positive, inclusive, open culture where lots of behaviors are much more easily accepted...but not all those behaviors are good ones. And because the work involves a lot of construction, no matter how many women show up to the site, the tone is often set by the men on crew.
Nothing’s wrong with men setting the tone, per se. The problem comes when women forget they can speak up at all.
I’m going to spare you the details, the drama, the real-life stories of what happens to women on work crews in the festival world.
Just trust me when I say that there are hundreds of women working this circuit, traveling from site to site, living in campgrounds and trailers, all packed in like sardines in temporary camps. Everybody all together like that, even with a positive work crew, it gets very intimate very fast.
Things happen, and most of the time they’re harmless, and cumulatively they are not harmless. And then you leave without resolving anything that happened, with a few dollars in your pocket, headed to the next show.
In 2013, something happened at a festival, late in the after-hours, with just the crew present. Something that I heard at first as just a rumor, but which later became a turning point for the ladies of the crew.
And collectively, we realized we couldn’t keep our mouths shut any more. Things had gone too far, and we had to take some responsibility for how we were being treated. It was time to make some rules, and stick to them.
So we—a group of women and I, a group with a lot of experience—decided to write a book. Pamphlet? Booklet. Guide. Lifeline.
We called it the LAFF: Ladies’ Addendum to Festival Formalities. A name not to be taken seriously. The contents are too serious to take seriously.
The LAFF is a guide to everything that might befall or confront a lady (and in this case, a ‘lady’ is anybody identifying as something other than a man) during their season working the festival circuit.
- Difficult conversations
- Mental health challenges
- Adventuring in the backcountry
- Falling in love
- Gender & identity
- Climbing the job ladder
- Self care
...and so on.
Writing this all down was an incredible experience. We worked on a shared document, taking notes from anybody who wanted to proffer an opinion, compiling it all into something that made sense. We quietly asked people with specialized knowledge to contribute. We learned the laws and how they applied, and how they didn’t.
Finally free to be frank, we spewed a huge number of ideas onto the page, edited, formatted and wound up with a 35-page pamphlet that was ready to distribute to the entire ladies’ crew at the Burning Man festival.
What we were not prepared for was the strength of the response.
So I drive out there with boxes of copies, nervous, hiding them so nobody knows it was me. Why am I afraid? That’s a good question! I am petrified.
There’s an all-staff meeting for new people, and I ask a friend with more bravery than I have to announce the manual. I stand at the exit, holding a box of books.
People file toward me, hands outstretched. Every woman wants one. The guys want them, too. The first box is gone immediately. I grab another box and another, and then they’re all gone, even the copy I was supposed to save for perpetuity.
The next day, the comments start. I’m still deadly nervous, worried I’m going to lose my job for this. (I never consider the fact that I’m now unimpeachable, actually, but that’s another article for another day.)
One of the first comments I get is a direct quote from the book, and it doesn’t come from a woman—it’s a man. Speaking those words right back to me, right to my face. I can’t tell if he’s mocking me but I figure he is. He seems confused by my reaction, and clarifies:
“That book is awesome. Thank you so much. Great job.”
It’s just one of the many comments we get, throughout the season. People are begging for more copies. They’re hoarding them, sharing them. I see them reading at lunch break. People stop and ask me several times a day if I have more to hand out. At the next festival, I realize, we are going to need twice as many.
And then I notice that the way we’re speaking to each other is starting to change. People are being less misogynistic to each other, including online where we usually talk huge rashers of shit. Maybe wishful thinking? Or maybe it’s real.
I realize I’ve learned some stuff, too. I’m not throwing around as many epithets as I used to. Not assuming everybody feels the way I do in a given situation. Considering other people’s experience before opening my big mouth (mostly).
All around me, people are accepting others’ experiences, opening up, being more patient. Being more empathetic. Not acting like they’re all alone on an island, the toughest woman in the world, and everybody else is just a pussy.
We just sent the third edition of the LAFF to print. I’ve handed over the reins to a new generation of editors. Sometimes you have to say goodbye to your babies, and I think this baby is going to do just fine in the world.
I harbor no illusions that this little book actually changed much, but what I think it did was to capture a moment.
We were lost. We were confused. We really didn’t know what was right and wrong any more, what rights we had, how to protect them. How to protect each other.
We didn’t know, but we did know. And so we wrote it down, so we could carry it with us.
I believe lives were saved as a result of this work we did together, as a community. Literally, lives saved. I also believe the work culture was changed permanently, and though some old timers might lament the loss of some freedoms, I will never forget how afraid I was to put this book out into the world. I never want to be afraid to speak up, ever again, and I don’t wish that on anyone else. Ever again.
Out there, when you’re working hard and playing hard and it all seems like a dream, you sort of forget your individuality. You become one of the crew, and that’s wonderful, until it isn’t.
We needed a guide to being ourselves, to standing up for ourselves, for respecting ourselves. We made it, for ourselves, all by ourselves.
I’m so proud of this book and what it represents. I’m so lucky to have been a part of the group that worked on it. I hope every festival crew gets a copy (and yes, you can talk to me about that).
At the end of my life, if I’m lucky enough to get a chance to look back over my accomplishments, this will be near the top of the list. These people, this moment in time, what we did together.
You don’t really know what your life’s work is, until you start doing it.
Now tell me about yours. Inspire me. Edify me.
What will you look back on fondly for decades to come?
Love Your Work.
PS - I will send you a copy of the LAFF. I want every festival work crew to have it. Contact me about it.