Rue Mapp Has Natural Swagger
The dynamic Oaklander and nature lover shares her love of the outdoors through her vibrant nonprofit Outdoor Afro.
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Mapp says Outdoor Afro is open to everyone but is "unapologetically focused on African Americans."
“I thought about that question a lot. What do I like doing? I like being outdoors. I like technology. I like entrepreneurship,” she said. “Two weeks later, Outdoor Afro started. Sometimes, you open your mouth and your life falls out.”
Outdoor Afro was initially a social media campaign to connect African Americans who wanted to go on hikes and camping trips. But it was instantly successful, and quickly grew into a website and blog, with thousands of participants and dozens of chapters nationwide. It serves as an online clearinghouse for informal outdoor adventures for African Americans: hiking, camping, birding, skiing, fishing, kayaking, and other activities throughout the country. Participation is free, and support comes from companies like REI and Emeryville-based Clif Bar. It’s also a full-time job for Mapp, who is the CEO.
Mapp is convinced that the best way for people of color to fall in love with nature is to sample some of the same types of experiences that she had as a youth in Lake County. Once people get outdoors, try new things, and have a few positive experiences camping or hiking in a group, they’ll hopefully venture out on their own, maybe bringing their families and friends along, she said. The hope is that over time, outdoor excursions become an enjoyable, long-term habit—like they have for her.
It’s easy to see why so many people want to go hiking with Mapp. Energetic and friendly, she talks a lot about the simple joy of being in the woods. When she’s out hiking, she chats with other hikers, plays with her pitbull Lulu, takes note of the flora and fauna, and is in no rush. The fun, she said, is just being outside, not necessarily conquering the next mountain.
That said, she has had some adventures. She has hiked all over the world, including the Arctic, and returns often to her favorite spots: Yosemite, Tahoe, and Joaquin Miller Park. “The redwoods are my refuge,” she said. “It’s where I unplug, relax, clear my head. I need it just as much as the members of Outdoor Afro.”
When she’s not hiking, Mapp, a Maxwell Park resident, is busy with her three teenagers and still somehow finds time for salsa dancing, yoga, and partaking of “Oakland’s amazing restaurant scene.”
It’s her dynamic personality that’s propelled Outdoor Afro to the national stage. Hundreds of organizations seek to connect people of color with nature, but Mapp’s relentless optimism and focus, and the simplicity of her message, are what set her and Outdoor Afro apart.
“We’re not yelling at City Hall; we’re not protesting anything; we’re just about getting outdoors,” she said. “And even though we’re open to everyone, we are unapologetically focused on African Americans.”
Patricia Harris-Bowman, 52, an IT technician from Union City, first heard about Outdoor Afro from friends. She’s participated in similar groups, but Mapp’s message immediately resonated. One of Harris-Bowman’s more memorable Outdoor Afro trips was to Yosemite, to retrace the steps of the Buffalo Soldiers. The Buffalo Soldiers—many of whom were sons of slaves—were among the first rangers and stewards of the newly protected Yosemite and Sequoia wilderness areas.
“We had people on that trip who’d never been camping, or who didn’t know the story of the Buffalo Soldiers,” she said. “It was just a very powerful trip for everyone.”
Harris-Bowman attributed the success of Outdoor Afro to Mapp’s personality. “She loves people. She’s very warm, very approachable. She’s a sweetheart,” she said. “Even her kids are great—even though they’re teenagers, they’re just as happy and upbeat as she is.”
Mapp does have her moments of frustration and doubt. Starting the nonprofit was a terrifying leap of faith, an endeavor that very easily could have foundered, she said.
“I’m raising three kids in Oakland, California. I’ve had many moments when I’d wake up at 4 a.m. and think, ‘I have to support myself and my kids on something that’s completely made up,’” Mapp said. “The fear is real. Quite frankly, it’s been miraculous that it’s worked out. I couldn’t have done it without faith and support from many people.”
Running the organization is also not without its challenges. She travels a lot and works long hours with only one full-time staff person to help out, and continually battles “the relentless infantilization of black people” in the larger conservation movement, she said.
“There’s still this missionary mindset, like we are a population in need of rescuing,” she said. “Anytime people talk about African Americans in the outdoors, people think of field trips for poor kids in cities. That’s important, but guess what? Mom and Dad and grandma need to get outdoors, too. And we don’t just live in cities; we live in the suburbs, too. And there’s so much economic diversity that you don’t often hear about. African-American people bring a lot to the table, and our perspective is often overlooked.”
Mapp may sometimes feel like she’s “swimming upstream,” as she put it, but her vision is shared by countless groups in Oakland and beyond, although they may approach the issue a little differently. Oakland’s Parks and Recreation Department, for example, offers hundreds of free- or low-cost programs aimed at making the outdoors accessible to everyone.
Faith Du Bois, a retired teacher who serves on the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, said that efforts to increase access to the outdoors—by Outdoor Afro, Oakland Parks and Rec, and other groups—benefits not just those served, but also the entire community.
“Spending time outdoors, in nature, helps you grow fully as a person,” she said, noting that she spent glorious summers in Fresno as a kid riding her bike, swimming at the rec center, and exploring the parks “until it was time to come home for dinner.”
Stan Dodson, who helps lead free hikes for Oakland’s Brothers on the Rise in Joaquin Miller Park, said that to save our parks, and by extension the planet, it’s critical that broad swaths of the community feel comfortable in natural open spaces, he said. “Although the redwood forest is only three miles from their home, a lot of these kids have no idea this exists in Oakland. These kids, our future stewards, are always blown away. … Outdoor Afro does a great job getting people to the park, too.”
Zoe Polk didn’t need to be convinced. A San Francisco civil rights lawyer, Polk grew up in Virginia and spent much of her youth fishing on Chesapeake Bay, hanging out at the beach, and hiking in the woods. She missed those experiences when she moved to New York, and hoped to start exploring the outdoors again when she moved to California eight years ago. She saw something on social media about Outdoor Afro and was immediately hooked.
“The ability to be outdoors with other black people was just a very positive experience,” she said. “It was very comforting, like finding a community. It made the Bay Area feel like home for me.”
Polk also liked the leadership aspect, the opportunity to organize outings and convince other African Americans to come along. It was more than a social club—it was a cause, she said.
“You hear so much about how unhealthy African Americans are, how unsafe they feel. This just really resonated with me,” she said. “How can we help make people healthier? There doesn’t need to be all these barriers. It’s actually pretty easy for African Americans to build their own outdoor experiences and traditions.”
Polk is now the national program director for Outdoor Afro, leading hikes and other excursions in Bay Area parks.
An important element of Outdoor Afro is education. Mapp stresses environmental and conservation issues, as well as the basics of wilderness etiquette—how to share the trail, the importance of picking up litter, and generally having as little impact as possible on the land.
But another aspect of education is wilderness know-how, the sometimes intimidating skills that can make or break a camping trip. She teaches people how to pitch a tent, how to build a fire, how to recognize poison oak, what to do if you see a rattlesnake, and, of course, the crucial importance of wearing the right shoes.
She also emphasizes the spiritual side of things.
“The forest can absorb a lot,” she said. “We talk about laying down our burdens by the riverside. Nature is really a symbol of resiliency, of strength. There’s so much we can learn by being outdoors. It’s what can heal us.”
Published online on Sept. 12, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.