Outdoor Afro Fights Stereotypes That Blacks Don’t Camp

Flee the city, hug a tree—this group helps families fall in love with America’s natural beauty.

 Rue Mapp leads an Outdoor Afro white-water rafting trip on the American River. (Photo courtesy of Outdoor Afro)

Jun 13, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Solvej Schou writes regularly for TakePart, and has also contributed to the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, BBC.com, and Entertainment Weekly.

When Oakland, Calif.–based nature enthusiast Rue Mapp first started venturing into the woody far reaches of the wilderness as an adult, she noticed one thing: a glaring lack of other African Americans.

“When I got out into remote areas, I didn’t see people who looked like me,” she says. “But I discovered that African Americans have a wonderfully sound and long-lasting relationship with the outdoors.”

Her passionate desire to share that history, coupled with wanting to combat the false stereotype that black people don’t like the outdoors, spurred her in 2009 to start Outdoor Afro, an online community connecting African Americans to nature through camping trips, hikes, river rafting, and other activities.

Mapp has since received recognition in Washington, D.C., by the Obama administration and was recently honored with the National Wildlife Federation’s 2014 Communications Award. More than 1,800 people have participated in Outdoor Afro events nationwide, from Seattle to North Carolina. It’s about a sense of joy and togetherness, along with time and access, Mapp says.

“One of the problems we solve is lowering the barriers to going into the outdoors for African Americans, such as not having the right gear,” says Mapp. “I set out to flatten the barrier of not having enough time by organizing activities close to home.”

Transportation can also be a struggle, so Mapp provides it to those who need it, especially those who “live in an urban area with limited access. If you don’t have a reliable car to get to a remote location in mountains, it’s a nonstarter.”

She calls workshops with partners such as recreational goods store REI and the local nighttime series Outdoor Afro After Work “investing in lifetime experience.”

“We are in the business of culture shifts. We want to move toward the ordinariness of getting African Americans outdoors, and it’s no big deal,” she says. “It shouldn’t be a banner headline that African Americans aren’t in national parks.”

Mapp herself would escape the urban sprawl of Oakland at a young age through weekend visits to a family ranch a few hours north, in rural Lake County, Calif. Her older foster parents were from the South, and grew up farming and gardening.

Not only did she observe her dad taking pride in bringing family members from the city to experience the ranch, but she saw, firsthand, the larger impact of nature.

“People would really be transformed in that space,” she says. “The air felt cleaner. The kids could swim and play when they couldn’t otherwise. It wasn’t unusual to have 40 people on the ranch, people sleeping on the kitchen floor.”

An intense, cathartic experience climbing a mountain at age 20 as part of the leadership program Outward Bound became another catalyzing moment, Mapp says. After she went back to college years later at the University of California, Berkeley, as a single mother of three and then working at a branch of Morgan Stanley that created risk management software, she decided—urged on by a mentor—to finally funnel her love of nature, computers, and social media into OutdoorAfro.com.

Mapp’s influence has extended to other Outdoor Afro members, such as Teresa Baker, a trip leader who last year founded African American National Parks Day, encouraging people to visit a national park. Earlier this month, in honor of the second annual event, Outdoor Afro and the National Park Service led a group retracing the trail the black Buffalo Soldiers forged in the early 20th century from San Francisco into Yosemite National Park as early stewards of the park.

“I came home from that so energized, so happy,” Mapp says. “What was so moving is we represent the new wave of stewardship of national parks. These Buffalo Soldiers were children of slaves and former slaves. There’s a sense of belonging in nature they couldn’t necessarily have in post–Civil War America.”

Mapp sees the future of inspiring African Americans to explore nature as ongoing, with Outdoor Afro as part of a growing number of groups participating in events such as African American National Parks Day.

“People came back from that experience who never camped before, who trusted us, who have been awakened in some new way,” she says. “If I’m on a trail in 30 years, in nature, hiking with my grandchildren, and see people who look like me there too, then I will have done my job.”