Rue Mapp Wants Outdoor Enthusiasts to Look More Like the Rest of America
By helping African Americans connect with one another on the trail, the founder of the nonprofit Outdoor Afro is building a broader community in nature and changing the face of her field.
If you scroll through #OutdoorAfro on social media, you’ll find beaming faces of people perching in front of sequoias, hiking, camping, and rafting—just as you would find on any other outdoor community’s photo feed. What’s different about these images is that the faces are mainly black and brown. That reality is the fruit of Rue Mapp’s decade-old dream of connecting African Americans like herself to outdoor experiences.
The founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro took her love for exploring nature and combined it with her family’s philosophy of hospitality, conservation, and activism to create a social network with a current reach of about 35,000 people. And what began simply as a blog in 2009 has now grown into a nonprofit—with offices in Oakland, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.—that organizes adventures in the wild ranging from informal walks in local parks to a training-intensive ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro. All the while, Mapp works to change the visual narrative of who gets outdoors—and more important, of who’s leading the way.
Mapp, 47, is a multi-hyphenate. She’s a member of the California State Park and Recreation Commission and of the Outdoor Industry Association, she sits on the governing council of the Wilderness Society, and she’s a mom of three. She’s also a former Morgan Stanley analyst and worked for the Golden Gate Audubon Society. Growing up in Oakland, California, Mapp spent much of her free time two hours north at her family’s ranch in Lake County, hiking, exploring creeks, swimming, and barbecuing. Often she had friends in tow, and the experience imprinted the idea that nature was best appreciated in good company. “It wasn’t a solitary thing,” she recalls. “It was a shared experience with community.” Her father, a cowboy from Texas, offered her friends a standing invitation to come visit the ranch, she says. Later, she would channel that same spirit into Outdoor Afro to make it “a conduit to connect people to that which is free and available to them.”
One day, a conversation with a mentor turned to talk of what Mapp would be doing if money were no object. Surprising herself, she blurted out that she’d create a website to reconnect more African Americans to the outdoors. “I felt like my purpose was hiding in plain sight,” she says. “The story of my life wasn’t one I could see out in the dominant narrative.” The self-described early adopter of technology grabbed a blogger template and started telling her story about loving the outdoors and often being the only African American on the trail. Kindred spirits—of which there turned out to be many—contacted her, and they banded together for outings.
Mapp’s next step was to ask people on Facebook if they would lead meetups, as she’d been doing, for African Americans who were interested in an active lifestyle. Twelve people said they’d try it. Now that group includes 80 people in 30 states who lead groups in hiking, camping, biking, and more in a field where one of the challenges is access.
Outdoor Afro highlights stewardship and conservation. Participants borrow gear and equipment when they can, lean heavily on public transportation, and are taught leave-no-trace principles of packing in and packing out and bringing only what’s needed. “We’re weaving environmental education into everything we do,” Mapp says, adding that “relationships with the outdoors happen over time.” The group avoids giving people a “list of do’s and don’ts”—which she deems a huge turnoff in the traditional environmental movement—and instead eases its members into a conservation ethic by helping them to see that “you are not separate from nature,” she says. “Bettering it is your bettering.” Mapp describes Outdoor Afro as a network that is changing “what it means to be black and connected to the outdoors and what it means to care for the planet.”
Though forgotten by some, through our nation’s history there have been African Americans who were connected to nature, like the all-black cavalry regiments known as Buffalo Soldiers who were among the first national park rangers after the Civil War. But there were limits to where African Americans were allowed to go, like public swimming areas—which is one of the reasons for the vast disparity between the numbers of black people and white people who can swim.
The National Park Service reported that in 2017, only 7 percent of visitors to our national parks were black. But for all the single-figure participation stats bandied about, it’s important to point out, says Mapp, that we are here, and engagement can have a different look within this community. “It doesn’t have to look like dangling off the side of a cliff,” she has said. Spending time in parks and gardens counts. For a subset of the population that hasn’t always felt welcomed or safe in public spaces in the past because of racism and segregation, going outside in groups can help allay those fears; moreover, smaller-scale, close-to-home activities can be an alternative or a gateway to a more adventurous recreational lifestyle. “It’s about ideas of what outdoor engagement looks like, even if you just sit at the local marina and look at the ducks,” Mapp says.
In addition to facilitating social connections for its members, Outdoor Afro is “helping to get people’s nature know-how and swagger back to share that with others in their sphere of influence,” Mapp says. Sometimes the destination is as important as the journey, as on an Outdoor Afro hike to a place where runaway slaves could find refuge, the Rocky Fork area in Godfrey, Illinois. Or as it was for Rosemary Saal, a 26-year-old who works for the National Outdoor Leadership Council in Tucson, on a trip to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. “This was my first time visiting the continent of Africa,” says the veteran mountaineer, a climber since the age of 12 who served as one of two technical leads for the ascent. “To be able to do so with Outdoor Afro leaders? That was a unique and profound experience. The climb didn’t end when we came off the mountain; it didn’t end with us,” she adds, noting that she will be able to share lessons learned with participants on future excursions.
Chaya Harris, 34, a former teacher and current principal fellow in the Boston public school system, has been a leader with the group for three years. She stumbled upon the website’s images of black people and nature and scrambled to sign up because, she says, “I’d never seen the two together. I’m usually a procrastinator, but I knew I had to do this right away.”
Harris—a lifelong camper herself—had already been feeling disheartened by her mostly African American fifth-graders’ reactions to an outdoor classroom garden. Accustomed to spending most of their time inside, they balked at dirt and were deeply afraid of flies and bees. In 2016, she led a group on a photo-oriented walk through the Arnold Arboretum to catch its two-week season of lilacs blooming. Since then, she’s met many of Outdoor Afro’s 800 Boston members on various trips throughout the region. One man told her how valuable it’s been for his daughter to be part of black excellence in the outdoors, especially with a black female role model. Another participant expressed wonder that she had acquired the skills to climb Mount Washington, something she never otherwise would have. “I think about that often,” Harris says, “about how my work and passion are impacting the community in ways I don’t even know.”
Mapp relies on Outdoor Afro’s group leaders to spread her enthusiasm. Candidates aren’t necessarily channeled from the typical feeders of environmental or experiential education or the recreational field. The current crop includes military veterans, preschool teachers, and health-care professionals. She notes that the diversity of experience in this pool helps the leaders to be more “open-minded in not having to unlearn anything.” She takes pride in their work, not least because of the idea that representation definitely matters. So, too, does the ability of kids to experience nature with leaders who look like them—something that white outdoor enthusiasts are rarely forced to consider. “It’s not about taking kids somewhere, taking a photo, and we’ve done our work. It’s about transforming the way we live,” Mapp says. By creating African American leaders who will form strong bonds with others in turn, she’s doing just that.
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