This Oakland-Based Org Is Continuing to Shift Nature’s Narrative Around Black Joy
Founder Rue Mapp shares how she started her organization and where she finds solace in nature.
It’s been nothing short of inspirational to follow the journey of Rue Mapp, the founder of Outdoor Afro, a national not-for-profit organization whose mission is to celebrate and inspire Black connections and leadership in nature. We first featured Mapp in our 2014 camping issue, and though she’s exponentially expanded and evolved her work, the mission is still the same: creating Black joy and healing through being strong, beautiful, and free in nature. Outdoor Afro now has over 60,000 participants in its network, and has trained over 100 volunteer leaders worldwide.
In Mapp’s new book, Nature Swagger: Stories and Visions of Black Joy in the Outdoors, she celebrates the fact that Black communities have always had a relationship with land, water, and wildlife. We checked in with her to hear firsthand how California inspired her career and learn about some of her favorite places to find solace in nature.
For those who might not be familiar, tell us a little about how Outdoor Afro started.
It all started with a lifetime connection to the outdoors through my parents, who migrated from the South and had a family ranch up in Lake County that we visited weekly throughout my childhood. It was a place that nurtured not only my ability to explore nature, but to learn about hunting, farming, fishing, and land stewardship.
What was important about that experience is that we shared it often with others; I had this front-row immersion in what it meant to welcome people in nature. My dad’s hospitality is still one that’s remarked on to this day. So I’ve been able to take that experience that I had and build on that. I want to help more black people find their way to reconnect with the outdoors because I know what those experiences gave me.
Starting out, I knew that there was this big deficit of the stories that were being told. I had grown up with something that was very joyful and loving and connected to a long history with black connection to nature.
What started as a blog eventually became a national not-for-profit org, and we’re able to take that hospitality that I learned and disseminate that through volunteer leaders who we train, welcoming people and centering hospitality. For me it’s the full-circle moment to be able to do what my father taught me and to share that feeling all over the country.
I imagine growing up in California and the West might have impacted the work you do now. Can you talk a bit about that?
My pride in being a Californian deepens every year. It has such a very distinct history—its people and geology are so different from the rest of the United States. I feel like in California the imprint of nature is inescapable. I have this tactile awareness of being in a bayside community which is different than being in the desert or in the rolling woodlands further north. We are growing on moving ground. These tectonic plates underneath our feet create this incredible forest that starts at our coast with the redwoods and works its way to the alpine Sierra.
Together to me, it’s a physical representation of change. And people come here to change, too. They came here to strike it rich in the Gold Rush, or make it in Hollywood, or leave the things they feel are unchangeable behind. And that is what underpins a lot of the black migration out of places like Texas and Louisiana, where my parents came from. They left to escape the Jim Crow level of racism, and have a wider range of economic opportunity that just was completely stagnant and not possible where they came from.
What’s so special, specifically, about Oakland, where your Outdoor Afro is based?
I always reflect on redwoods. At one point the Oakland hills were covered in giant redwoods, and those redwoods were all clear-cut in service of the great demand for housing after the Gold Rush began. If you look at some of the old pictures of what was happening as the result of the relentless milling located in that area, it was a clear-cut hillside.
Because of conservation, and the ways that people chose to develop around that area, a lot of that landscape has come back. And they’re tall and strong. For me to visit those redwoods in Joaquin Miller Park or at Reinhardt Redwood Regional, you can still have this incredible experience of regeneration. It’s a meditation on how—especially in more recent times with lots of people feeling displaced when things are clear-cut from your life—there can be hope.
Why do you feel the continued work you’re doing is essential for the community, especially in this particular time in space?
I grew up in the height of the Black Power movement. Justice and thinking about equity has not been a trend, or even about a single moment. It’s been an awareness and a lens that I’ve viewed the world through my entire life.
Back in 2014 and 2015, as there were these early moments of police-involved violence it raised all of our awareness that we still had a way to go. At that time I pulled together friends and partners to tell the story of those redwoods about healing. And I’ve continued to share and train what it means to hold space for people in nature to just heal and connect.
So when 2020 happened, we had our tools in place. The demand for our work absolutely spiked. We already knew how to show up. And healing hikes were incredibly relevant still, not only for people needing to heal from what was happening in the social storytelling and experience, but also people were missing big moments with each other and it was a lot of grief and disconnection. The healing hikes took on a new dimension, and I started to get clear, that on top of all of this, that nature never closes. We as a community are here for you. Nature is here for you.
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