By Shoshi Parks
Rue Mapp has loved the outdoors all her life. Tracking tadpoles in the creek adjacent to her family’s Clearlake ranch, watching the stars at night—nature was a skillful teacher. But as her adventures grew in scope, so did Mapp’s realization that, in the wilderness, there weren’t many who looked like her.
On Outdoor Afro, Mapp wrote about her experiences as a Black woman in nature. Her words quickly found an audience. Many of her readers also often felt that they were the only Black person enjoying their love of the outdoors. Black people were engaging with nature, it was just that the ways in which they interacted with the outdoors weren’t always valued or even recognized. “It wasn’t that I was the only one. Really I was a part of a group of many who felt like the only ones. It wasn’t a participation problem, it was a visual representation problem,” she explains.
Outdoor Afro’s East Bay–based founder/CEO Rue Mapp, pictured near the Yampa River.(Courtesy of Outdoor Afro)
More than a decade later, Mapp and Outdoor Afro have become leaders in not just building a community of Black outdoor enthusiasts, but in expanding the definition of the outdoors to include the experiences and knowledge of Black individuals. Over the years, the nonprofit organization has grown from its headquarters in Oakland to open a second office in Washington D.C. Around 40,000 people in 30 states participate in their activities each year and they have a social media network 50,000 strong.
Mapp’s outdoor organizing has also landed her at the Obama White House and on The Root 100, a list of the most influential African Americans in the country, twice. Last year she won the environment category of the prestigious Heinz Award
and was named a National Geographic Fellow.
That national recognition is helping Outdoor Afro to slowly move the needle of awareness about how Black people engage with the outdoors. Despite hundreds of years of systematic exclusion from public spaces like beaches, parks and pools, Black people are in nature—have been in nature—all along, says Mapp. They’ve just been doing it in their own way.
“We have nature all around us, our nature teachers are people who live with us [and] we don’t have to go somewhere over there, or go enroll in a specialized program [to be in it],” she says.
While it’s common for mainstream narratives to suggest that socio-economic factors are a primary factor in preventing Black members of the community from accessing the outdoors, that’s a fantasy, says Mapp, and it’s one that hasn’t just damaged the environmental movement, it’s denied the agency and capacity of the Black community.
“We are not out here to replicate what white people are doing in the outdoors,” says Mapp. Instead, Outdoor Afro is working towards “ordinariness.” They are working towards the moment when it will be no big deal for Black people to be enjoying and leading in nature, towards the moment when kids biking around the neighborhood, a family reunion at the park, even tailgating (which Mapp thinks about as a form of day camping) are represented in the mainstream as valid, valuable ways of engaging with nature.
Outdoor Afro founder Rue Mapp (in red) works to bring Black people together in nature where “the trees do not know you’re Black.”(Courtesy of Outdoor Afro)
Even as Outdoor Afro is working to expand the definition both of the outdoors and who belongs there, the group is is also creating new room for building Black community in wilderness spaces. The organization has trained more than 80 leaders in 30 states to guide outdoor experiences that bring Black individuals together through hiking, camping, fishing, and birding. At one Bay Area event last year, even Oprah joined in, hiking through Oakland’s iconic redwoods.
These outdoor adventures are, in part, a form of restorative justice, especially the healing hikes that Mapp began leading in the Bay Area following the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. “We turned to those redwoods and did what African Americans knew we could always do, and that was to lay down our burdens down by the riverside,” she explains. “The trees do not know that you are Black, the birds don’t know how much money is in your account, and the flowers are going to bloom no matter what your gender.”
Since then, Outdoor Afro leaders have organized healing hikes around the country. “You can leave your -isms in your workplace or school or in the streets and get into nature where we are all, as humans, equally empowered and equally vulnerable to its forces,” she explains.
Mapp and Outdoor Afro are also working to build equity in the water. Black youth ages five to 19 drown in swimming pools at more than five times the rate of white kids, a legacy of generations of segregation. The organization’s swim program is combatting the statistic by teaching African American youth and their caregivers to swim. “That kind of loving focus on our community and what our community needs is something that I think a lot of people can connect with.”
Ultimately, the goal of Outdoor Afro is not to insert Black people into the conversation around nature and the environment, but to expand existing definitions and carve out new spaces for sharing the experiences and knowledge of the African American community.
“The environment is everywhere in everything,” says Mapp. “I think it’s time to bring in more voices of a certain hue but also expertise within those hues who have a lot to say, and a lot at stake. Seeing ourselves outside leading, empowered in nature, is a form of resistance.”
Rue Mapp (right) leads a group of youth during a rafting trip on the American River.(Bethanie Hines)