Rue Mapp can still remember the moment she fell in love with the great outdoors.
“I grew up in an outdoor loving family,” recalls Mapp over the phone. “We had a ranch in Northern California.”
Mapp’s early days were spent walking those California country roads and hopping over to nearby farms filled with grazing cows and pigs. As her love for nature expanded, Rue began to explore more and more remote areas, traveling deeper and further into the incredible landscapes America has to offer.
Then, she noticed that not many people of color were doing the same, and she decided to do something about it.
Rue started Outdoor Afro — a nonprofit network built to connect the African-American community to nature and inspire outdoor leadership.
Initially a barebones blog, Outdoor Afro is now an organization of over 24,000 people in 30 states. They organize hikes, camping trips, cookouts, bike tours, and even outdoor dance parties. “There was a group in D.C. that did outdoor DJing,” says Mapp. “So there’s a lot of creativity and expansion of what outdoors looks like.”
“It wasn’t really about whether or not black people and people of color were getting outside,” says Mapp. “It really came down to how we were.”
Black communities use their local parks as much as anyone else, says Mapp. It’s when you travel out to remote trails or into major national parks that you see a noticeable drop in diversity. She thinks this has everything to do with accessibility.
“Unless you’re in the know, you won’t know that you have to call into Yosemite a year in advance to get the prime spot, right? So there’s something about the proximity and the accessibility that helps people know how to get to those places, how to use those places.”
Outdoor Afro started working directly with public parks to help ease that gap in communication and accessibility for more communities.
“We’re able to be a kind of entry point for people to see and experience places both near and far and really lower the barriers,” says Mapp.
While she’s always loved her work, it was recent political events that truly solidified Mapp’s mission.
After the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Outdoor Afro set up “healing hikes.”
“We hiked into the redwood basin and went along the stream trail,” recalls Mapp. “I just realized we were doing what African-Americans have always known we could do and that is to take our burdens and lay them down by the riverside.”
The 2016 election also helped Outdoor Afro focus on their mission.
“It helped us double down on joy,” recalls Mapp. “Black joy specifically… We absolutely need to find joy again and hold that joy for one another because we’re in this together.”
As Outdoor Afro continues to grow, so does its scope.
They now have 65 outdoor leaders who embark on vigorous excursions, like hiking Mt. Whitney, summiting Kilimanjaro, and taking a couple hundred mile bike ride along the Buffalo Soldiers trail. “It’s not all kumbaya,” says Mapp.
Outdoor Afro is not only built on the power of nature, but the power of community. It’s mission is to help people realize they’re not alone and there’s a big, beautiful world out there.
Nature, she says, doesn’t hold all of these “-isms” over your head.
“When you go out in nature, it’s really the ultimate equalizer,” says Mapp. “It doesn’t discriminate, it frees us of the judgment that we put on each other. The trees don’t know what color you are … the birds don’t know how much money you have in your account. The fish don’t know your gender.”
It’s a small thing, but maybe one small step into nature can be a giant leap toward healing our divides.