Rue Mapp Has Natural Swagger
The dynamic Oaklander and nature lover shares her love of the outdoors through her vibrant nonprofit Outdoor Afro.
Rue Mapp fell in love with nature during weekend and summer trips to her family’s ranch in Lake County.
Photo by Stephen Texeira
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As Rue Mapp tromped through Joaquin Miller Park in Oakland a few months ago with a group of kids, one pointed to the towering redwoods. “She said, ‘Look, the redwoods grow in clumps. They’re like a family,’ ” Mapp recounted recently while walking among the same redwoods. “She was right! The root systems are intertwined, and together the trees grow strong and tall. That’s what I want people to know about the forest: It’s resilient. It’s strong. It’s connected. It’s like us.”
Since 2009, Mapp has devoted her life to imparting that message, particularly to African Americans, whom she says have been woefully underrepresented in the back-to-nature and environmental movements. The founder and director of Outdoor Afro, a national nonprofit based in Oakland, Mapp has led countless hiking and camping expeditions for African Americans, trained 60 black outdoor leaders in 28 states, and become an outspoken advocate for people of color exploring wild open spaces.
Her message echoes White House efforts to get people of all ethnicities exercising and spending time outdoors. Mapp was invited to participate in America’s Great Outdoors Conference in 2010, as well as the think tank that launched first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative. She also was invited to meet President Obama during his June visit to Yosemite National Park.
“When it was my turn to shake his hand, I said to him, ‘Outdoor Afro loves you!’ ” she said. “He sort of smiled and said, ‘I like that.’ ”
In 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Mapp to the California State Parks and Recreation Commission. She’s also a frequent speaker around the country on the health benefits of spending time outdoors, especially for African Americans.
But what motivates Mapp, 44, is not accolades or career advancement. It’s seeing people of color exploring nature, which she says can be healing, relaxing, a great antidote for any sort of trauma, and a way to connect with family and friends.
Indeed, a slew of recent studies show that spending time outdoors can reduce stress, boost physical and psychological health, improve cognition, and help treat post-traumatic stress disorder. A 2015 Stanford University study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science stated that a 90-minute walk in the woods reduces neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with rumination and depression. By contrast, a 90-minute walk in an urban environment had the opposite effect.
Not enough African Americans take advantage of the parks and open spaces, which, in some cases, are just a quick drive from home, Mapp said. A 2011 survey by the National Park Service found that visitors to national parks are disproportionately white, and President Obama’s recent visit to Yosemite spurred calls to increase diversity among park visitors.
The reasons some African Americans avoid parks are varied. Older generations associate the woods with lynchings, attacks, or generally feeling unwelcome, Mapp said, noting that many parks are in remote rural areas with few, if any, black residents. Meanwhile, younger people might be accustomed to city life and have no family tradition of camping trips or weekend hikes. The National Park Service survey found that a quarter of park visitors who were African American, Asian, or Hispanic described the parks as “unsafe, unpleasant, or providing poor service,” while very few white visitors did.
Mapp wants to see people of color feel as comfortable in the outdoors as they do in their own neighborhoods, and she wants the general public to see black people as a vital part of the conservation movement. While African Americans might be underrepresented at national park campgrounds, they’re frequent visitors to local parks and have been as tied to nature as any other group.
“I really want people to get their nature swagger back,” she said. “Harriet Tubman was the ultimate wilderness leader—she used her knowledge of the land to set people free. … We need to start telling a new narrative about the outdoors. We need to take nature back.”
Mapp, whose real first name is Rulette, is a city girl who was born and raised in Oakland. She lived with her mother, who had migrated from Texas in the 1960s, in a studio apartment at 25th Street and San Pablo Avenue in West Oakland until she was 22 months old, when Mapp was sent to a foster family due to her mother’s mental illness. Her foster parents, AC and Ella Mae Levias, were a financially well-off couple in their 50s who lived in the Oakland hills and owned a ranch in Lake County. AC Levias was a carpentry teacher at Laney College and owned and managed East Oakland apartment complexes, and Ella Mae Levias had a sewing business and volunteered at her church.
“Sadly, my mother, Alice, and my guardian parents have all passed away, yet I feel the work I do is infused with all of them,” Mapp said. “And today, with my office just blocks from where I was born, I walk along the same Uptown streets as my mom—often when she was in despair—and feel a solemn pride as her ‘do-over.’ ”
It was on weekends and summer trips to the family ranch in Lake County that Mapp fell in love with nature. AC and Ella Mae Levias were Southerners, and they taught her to fish, hunt, garden, can fruit, and otherwise enjoy the land.
Endless afternoons watching tadpoles in the creek, or climbing trees, or catching frogs served as a first-rate environmental education, Mapp said. “Riding my bike on those long country roads, through those rolling oak woodlands, gave me such a sense of wonder and freedom,” she said. “As a child, being outdoors is when you really feel free.”
As a teenager, Mapp enrolled in the Oakland Mayor’s Summer Jobs Program, helping restore Lake Merritt, and as a student at Skyline High School, she ran cross-country in Joaquin Miller Park—whose winding trails and redwood groves she now counts among her favorite places. After graduating from Skyline High, Mapp attended San Francisco State University for a few years, and later worked as an analyst for Morgan Stanley and owned a game shop with her husband.
Then, in her 30s, everything changed. She got divorced and decided to go back to school to finish her bachelor’s degree—with three kids in tow. She enrolled at UC Berkeley and graduated with a degree in art history, while living in family student housing. Then in 2009, when she was planning to enter business school, a mentor asked her what she really wanted to do with her life.