A Hero Who Wants All to Experience to Nature

Especially minorities who are often left out.

02.21.16 5:01 AM ET

When you picture the great outdoors, whether daydreaming or scrolling through your Instagram feed, odds are good you don’t envision a very diverse population in those wide open spaces.

That’s a nice way of saying, “you almost definitely don’t picture black people out there.”

It’s a deep seated cultural issue, that when we think of the rugged outdoorsperson it’s generally a swarthy white guy. This isn’t because you’re white, or any other color, or racist. Well, maybe a little. But it’s also because of the tired stereotype that culturally, African Americans aren’t an outdoorsy bunch.

The data seems to back up the stereotype – a 2009 survey by the National Parks Service found that of all ethnic groups, African Americans were least likely to have visited one of our national parks in the preceding ten years. That’s a particularly soul-crushing stat when you consider that our nation’s very first park rangers were the Buffalo Soldiers, the all-black military battalions who’d already risked their lives for a country that at times barely qualified them as humans. Yet these men were the ones who literally carved out the roads and trails in then-fledgling Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, then set about protecting both visitors and the land and wildlife as well. It was a mission made especially challenging in the face of that era’s entrenched racism.

Numbers aside, for us to assume that there is a fundamental disconnect between the outdoors and African Americans is wrongheaded and dangerous idea.

And Rue Mapp is calling bullshit on it.

“We actually do have a relationship with nature,” she explained, her voice somehow sweet and fierce at the same time. “We do have a desire to connect. We’re doing a lot of activities in the outdoors, both alone and in groups. I like to get us out of the deficit viewpoint and really look at how people are engaging and celebrate it. It’s not the ‘why don’t we,’ it’s the ‘how do we do it.”

Just who is this Rue Mapp, you ask? She’s an activist, writer, community organizer, member of the Outdoor Industry Association’s board of directors, a California State Park Commissioner. She’s the winner, alongside President Bill Clinton, of the 2014 National Wildlife Federation Communication award, been anointed one of the most influential African Americans in the country by The Root 100, and, in 2015, was one of Family Circle magazine’s 20 Most Influential Moms. She’s also worked with First Lady Michelle Obama on her “Let’s Move” program, and is a program officer for the Stewardship Council’s Foundation for Youth Development. The list goes on. But, primarily, she’s the founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, where she oversees a specially trained volunteer leadership team who’s focus is inspiring and celebrating African American’s connections to, and leadership in, nature.

Basically, Rue Mapp is a badass.

She’s managed not only to bring thousands of people to amazing outdoor experiences, in the process she’s changing the way we approach conservation. You see, Mapp knows, and knew back when this all began, that the whole “non-outdoorsy” stereotype was nonsense. She knew it because of the connection she felt with nature, and because of the community she found when she was out there. She realized that what was needed was that someone had to be a beacon, provide a central point for meeting other like-minded nature lovers.

Drawing from her experience as a community organizer, Mapp started a blog, called Outdoor Afro, and took to social media.

The rest, like your perspective on that ignorant preconception about blacks and the outdoors, is history.

“In 2009, when the economy tanked, I sat with a mentor and she asked me the question I think everybody should ask others or be asked,” Mapp tells me via phone from her offices in Oakland, California. “That is, ‘what is it you want to do? If time and money were not an issue, what would you be doing?’”

Mapp realized she knew what she wanted. She wanted to make sure everyone in her community had the same opportunities she did to develop their passion for nature. She’d recently experienced a breakthrough moment on an Outward Bound trip mountaineering along the Pacific Crest Trail, which she described as “an important lesson about what it meant to really trust your feet on the mountain.”

“I've been trusting my feet ever since,” she admitted. “And I wanted more people to have those opportunities to learn whatever the lesson they needed to learn. I knew nature had that potential, the platform to be a teacher.”

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Bridging her love of the outdoors with a long-standing love of technology, especially the ways it can be used to bring people together, Mapp started to make progress.

“I just started this conversation about the things that I liked,” Mapp claimed. “Given that the algorithms were fairly flat back in 2009 on Facebook, I was able to reach people pretty rapidly right from my kitchen table.”

And what she was saying spoke to them in a way others hadn’t, or weren’t trying to.

“People responded back to me, and they said, ‘I love nature too.’" She paused for a moment, and you could sense her suddenly grow intense.  “And I noticed that we had a visual representation problem. African Americans specifically were not seeing themselves as part of the outdoor narratives. I realized all the people like me who felt they were the only ones, once together, we were quite numerous and influential.”

Mapp began using her blog to showcase people’s photographs and stories of adventure in the outdoors, and other bloggers did the same, attempting as a group to change the cultural perspective around the lack of brown and black faces in the outdoors. Then they used their social media channels to spread the word as far and wide as they could.

“We got the attention of some folks pretty high up in government and in the conservation world,” Mapp said, still sounding just the tiniest bit awed. “I was invited to go the White House in 2010, to be a part of President Obama's historic signing of the America's Great Outdoors initiative. That was a game changer. That's when I became visible and on people's radars, and began to build some really important collaborations that have served me today.”

She knew this newfound visibility could be used to rally funding and other types of support from outdoor industry partners, and with these resources she could do much more to magnify the movement that was starting.

“People naturally wanted to find out ways to get together,” she explained. But she wanted to make sure she did it right. “I was able to learn a lot from the interpretive community, and experiment with getting people outdoors. Really honing in on what was missing for people when they wanted to experience outdoor activity. What do they need to get on board, and how could they be sustainable and do it again and again without me?”

After a year of research and in-the-field learning, Mapp launched the Outdoor Afro leadership team.

“I just put a call out on social media asking if people wanted to join me in helping more people get outdoors and basically be mini-mes – use social media, blog about it, and really be a brand ambassador,” she said proudly. “About a baker's dozen said yes, they would do that. People I hadn't even met before. I on-boarded them all via a series of conference calls.”

Half those original leaders are still with Outdoor Afro, and dozens more have joined, forming a diverse team.

“I've got like human rights attorneys and artists, teachers, real estate agents, I mean people who are doing all kinds of shit,” she said. “But, they all have this fire in their belly to connect people to the outdoors. They're able to stream in their professional experiences, along with some super local street cred, to get people turned on about the outdoors.”

Outdoor Afro operates in 30 states so far, including Alaska, and the response has not only been enthusiastic, it often seems there are no limits in sight to the non-profit’s expansion.

Well, except for that same cultural divide that has many of us thinking, “black people aren’t outdoorsy.” Or at least that divide’s looming big brother. The inherent racism still woven into the fabric of our society.

“There's a huge issue among, especially young African American males, that they don't feel safe outside,” she said gravely.

And she doesn’t mean “outside” as in “thirty miles down the Appalachian Trail.”

No, what she means, as she said with as sigh, is “Outside anywhere, much less away from places where they’re not familiar.”

Undaunted, Mapp has approached these roadblocks with the same calculated aplomb she does everything, applying sheer force of will behind the gathered resources of Outdoor Afro and its allies to effect change and immerse people, literally, in a more positive environment.

“After Ferguson, people took to the streets here in Oakland,” her voice drops a bit, sadness tinging it momentarily. “There was rioting going on, and everybody was in their feelings about it. It didn't matter where you were on the spectrum of agreement or disagreement. People were all feeling really complex things, and needed to have a forum to work it out. I was walking to my car and my office is in downtown Oakland, and I'm hearing the glass shattering, the cops overhead in their choppers, and I'm stuck because I've aged out of that form of protest, because I need to fucking go to work the next day. I got kids who need dinner tonight.”

But Mapp knew that she couldn’t just sit idly by, either. That’s not her style.

“I was like, ‘there's something I need to be doing right now.’ And the answer came to me so effortlessly after I posed that question, and that is... ‘You do nature Rue. That's what you do.’”

“So I went and called together some of our partners, and I said, ‘we need a healing night. We need people to come together, and work some stuff out where there's not going to be any riot gear.’ And that's exactly what happened.”

Accompanied by thirty people from around Oakland, Mapp headed into the forest at nearby Roberts Recreational Area.

“We went down into that redwood bowl and did what African Americans do,” she explained. “And have always known how to do. That is, to lay down our burdens down by the river side.”

And once she got everyone to that neutral location, something happened.

“People were sharing, and not everybody agreed, and there were different races and organizations represented, and there was just...” She paused thoughtfully before continuing. “Relief. That we have a place where we could connect with each other, hear each other, and hear different opinions. Fancy that! We emerged out of that redwood bowl with some commitments that we would make to our families and our communities to promote more healing.”

There have since been multiple healing hikes, as the mood of her community reels with the emotional flare-ups and stresses of turbulent headlines. As Mapp and her organization grow to fill the needs of African Americans not just in a nature-centric sense but in a spiritual one as well, she has found other ways to tie an outdoor acumen with cultural growth and healing.

“We put together a whole ‘swimming while black’ program to list out positive narratives around African American pools,” she said. “Because there has been a history of racial exclusion of African Americans from not just our parks and public lands, but our public pools.”

Stating that African Americans drown at a rate three times higher than any other ethnic group, Mapp began negotiating with the YMCA to do something about it.

“If you don't fucking know how to swim, you’re gonna learn if you are an Outdoor Afro leader,” she said bluntly. “We want to disrupt that cycle of not having a skill that can save your life.”

At it’s core, much of what she is doing, and on a less macro scale what is going on in our country, is about exclusion, and learning how to move past it. That’s the main reason you don’t see African Americans as often at national parks, and that’s the reason racism bubbles up through the social strata.

“We didn't have the access, and we weren't able to go,” Mapp explained. “When you don't have that family history of going to Yosemite, of taking that annual trip to Yellowstone, we can't just say, ‘okay now everybody go!’ That's why I thank people when they come to an Outdoor Afro event. I say, ‘thank you for waking up, getting in your car, going someplace you've never been, to do something you've never done, with people you don't know.’ That's a huge gray area people have to jump through, and I thank people for trusting us with those experiences.”

As Outdoor Afro grows, and hopefully our national identity and moral core do alongside it, Mapp greets her steady stream of successes with more and more goals. Her events to parks and forests and mountains have been booking out, with waiting lists. And now that she has 10 thousand people in her network, her plan for 2016 is to go out and get 100 thousand more connected to nature by year’s end, leveraging her partnerships with other organizations, the centennial celebrations for the national park system, and what she humbly and mysteriously describes as “media amplification in the coming months” but I later discover means “her own TV show.”

To clarify, I said “leveraging,” and that’s not exactly right. Rue Mapp never leverages anyone, not really. She introduces people, dissolves boundaries, creates community. And communities, by nature and design, tend to work together.

“Outdoor Afro has been able to get people to that place where they can feel confident,” she said as we concluded our call. “That they won't be ashamed, they won't be judged for doing it wrong, and that they'll be supported.”

These are things that can be easier to accomplish in the wild, removed from the intense distractions and social structure of an urban environment. Nature is, and always has been, a great equalizer.

Plus, as Mapp wryly noted, “The trees and birds don't know you're black.”

Not that it should make any difference.

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