Meet Rue Mapp, changemaker, outdoorswoman, CEO, and founder of Outdoor Afro, a national network that not only links thousands of African Americans to outdoor adventures and awakens leadership, but also, influences policy makers to take real steps toward conservation and protection of public lands. What started out as a modest blog in 2009 at Mapp’s home, has turned into a powerful system of nearly 90 volunteer trailblazers in 30 states.
Outdoor Afro has created big waves, earning notice from Oprah during the non-profit’s 10-year anniversary. Oprah hiked under tall redwood trees in the Bay Area with members of the Outdoor Afro community, learning about the mission and ethos of the organization as part of her wellness tour.
In an interview with Outdoor Afro’s community organizer, Rue Mapp, I delved deeper into the organization’s culture, impact, and future ambitions. Keep reading to learn more about how stereotypes have been shattered, why representation matters, and how one woman took a risk and built a community that would inspire thousands to nurture their love of nature.
How did Outdoor Afro come about, what was the impetus?
Outdoor Afro started off as a blog, a passion back in 2009 when I just decided that I wanted to experience seeing more people who looked like me in the outdoors and talk about why I love the outdoors. I was just sick of being the only one on backpacking trips and camping trips when I joined with various clubs over the years. I wanted more people to experience the benefits of the outdoors, and the joy of the outdoors.
I didn’t see people who look like me, so I started this blog and something really miraculous happened. People from all over the country, and this is really at the dawn of social media as well, raised their digital-hands and said, “Me too, I love nature too.” So, it evolved from this blog to a community, and now we are a national not-for-profit network that has 90 volunteer leaders, people who we’ve trained, in 30 states who are leading and curating these fabulous outdoor experiences every single weekend around the country. And the participation network is now about 40,000 people.
“I realized that we had a visual representation problem. And when you put all the people who thought they were the only ones together, we were actually quite numerous.” —Rue Mapp
What has your experience in the outdoors been like, prior to OA and after OA? What do you want people to know about representation?
I grew up in Oakland, California and spent much of my free time two hours north at my family’s ranch in Lake County hiking, exploring creeks, swimming, and barbecuing. I often brought friends with me, and those experiences imprinted the idea that nature was best appreciated in good company and with superb hospitality. It wasn’t a solitary thing. It was a shared experience with the community. My father, a cowboy from Texas, offered my friends a standing invitation to come visit the ranch. I channeled that same spirit into Outdoor Afro to make it a conduit to connect people to that which is free and available to them.
The way I experience the outdoors after Outdoor Afro is still the same — in the spirit of hospitality that my parents instilled in me. In the spirit of community. But now I can see the expansive reaches of that work—coast to coast and even internationally. What I want people to know is that representation isn’t’ about inclusion. It is not about being part of someone else’s agenda, it is about being about to create your own, to represent yourself wholly and authentically.
How does OA connect Black people with nature?
Outdoor Afro has 90 volunteer leaders across the country that host monthly events to connect their local community to nature events. Our leaders create relationships between communities and the outdoors by telling known, little known, and unknown stories about Black connections to public parks, watersheds and wilderness. We recognize that stewardship is a part of a Black legacy.
Tell me a story about how OA helped a specific Black person, or family, in the outdoors.
One Outdoor Afro volunteer leader was working a six-figure corporate job, but she fully immersed herself into Outdoor Afro. I saw that she had skills that would benefit Outdoor Afro, so I asked her to do some part-time work. Well, that part-time work inspired her to quit her corporate job and start her own company. Three years later she has a number of clients, of which Outdoor Afro is still one, and a team of three people and is still growing. It thrills me to have multiple stories like this, where people feel they can do work they are passionate about in a field that fuels them and allows them to support themselves financially. I am here for all of that!
What has the overall response been? Let’s talk about impact.
Social impact means that your work is about the whole community; about engagement and reshaping the narrative. There’s a different story that needs to be told and Outdoor Afro is telling it. We’ve already seen the result of that telling, creating a lasting change and shift. When we first started in 2009, there was no expected representation – no one was asking for it. And it wasn’t being created in a mainstream way that was visible through mainstream outlets.
We’ve been very deliberate using social media to shift that visual representation of who we imagined gets outside. We’ve worked closely with partners, in marketing, within the outdoor industry who have amplified our messages. And over time there have been new norms. There’s just been a level set that happened over time where the expectation was for people who are depicted in the outdoors, look more like America. Especially in our case, we represent black people as strong, beautiful and free of all ages.
“Outdoor Afro’s work is changing the current representation of who gets out and who leads in the outdoors.” —Rue Mapp
How can people get involved? Tell me about the leadership team.
There are so many ways to get involved with Outdoor Afro. First off, follow us on social. We are @outdoorafro on all channels. Support our work by donating to our cause. Third, you can apply to be an Outdoor Afro volunteer leader! We recruit leaders on an annual basis. People apply, are interviewed, and roughly 30% of people are invited to be Outdoor Afro leaders. Our 90 carefully vetted volunteer leaders across 30 states serve some 45,000 community members. Through this work, we are striving to reach a point of what I call “ordinariness” for the Black community in the outdoors — a moment when we look up and see people that look like me out in nature and enjoying protecting it, and it’s no big deal.
What else is important for people to know about spending time in nature?
We are nature. You don’t have to get into your car and drive someplace to be connected to nature. That connection to nature starts with the awareness of your heartbeat and the awareness of the water that makes up most of your body. And how governed we are in the same way tides are by the moon. Being aware of who you are as nature and the representation of nature that is in the houseplant you can take some time to get to know a little better right now or the birds that are still doing their mating thing this time of year right outside your window. There’s so much juiciness about nature that I really want people to know is absolutely at hand and not remote from who you already are.
Tell me about the upcoming sixth annual Glamp In Broadcast. What is it, what should people expect, and what are the details of this free event that will highlight leaders in the outdoor space and offer connection, inspiration, and entertainment?
The Glamp In Broadcast is going to be a fun evening where you can experience joy, which we all need! This will be the sixth annual Glamp In gala, but this year as most events, our fundraising event will bring people together from around the world free of charge and watched from the comfort of their homes. Hence the addition of “Broadcast” in the name of the event.
We’ve been blessed to have five years of sold out events in support of Outdoor Afro’s Programs, and have had some really influential speakers and guests attend over the years, including Ranger Betty Reid Soskin (oldest National Park Ranger serving the U.S. at 98 years old), Carolyn Finney (storyteller, author and a cultural geographer), Sally Jewell (Former Secretary of the Interior of the U.S.) and Barbara Lee (Current California Congresswoman).
This special evening will feature keynote speaker Boots Riley (rapper, producer, film director and activist), interviewed by Davey D (hip hop journalist) and hosted by Shelton Johnson (author of Gloryland), along with other inspiring leaders and diverse outdoor and cultural champions.
“Glamp In” Broadcast will take place this Saturday, September 12 at 8p.m. EST. Registration, sponsorship opportunities and event details are available at OutdoorAfro.com.