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Outdoor Afro founder Rue Mapp: ‘The trees don’t know that you’re Black’

The group connects African American history to the wonders of nature

Though she grew up in the city of Oakland, California, Rue Mapp has always been drawn to the outdoors. She traces her passion to her parents, particularly her father, who built a ranch in Lake County, California, about 2½ hours north of the city, that became a weekend and summer retreat for family and friends. Mapp, who is 48 and the mother of three adult children, has worked as an analyst for Morgan Stanley and as a fundraiser for the Golden Gate Audubon Society. But in 2009 she launched a blog, Outdoor Afro, which soon grew into a nonprofit organization with networks in 30 states and more than 40,000 participants.

While Outdoor Afro has organized an ambitious Kilimanjaro expedition in the past, its primary purpose is to encourage African Americans to “equitably reconnect with the natural world,” according to the group’s mission statement. Its regional leaders organize hiking, rafting and camping trips and help teach children how to swim.

The shutdowns associated with the spread of coronavirus have made the outdoors more alluring. But historically, nature hasn’t been as accessible to African Americans. Segregation and racist housing laws ghettoized Black people, who often faced harassment or worse from white people when they did venture into the forests and mountains, according to James Mills, author of the 2014 book, The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors. Danger remains: Recall the recent, much-viewed episode of a white woman who called the police on an African American birder in New York’s Central Park.

Earlier this month, The Undefeated spoke with Mapp about Outdoor Afro and the group’s work during these times.

Tell us about your parents, A.C. and Ella Mae Levias, who adopted you out of the foster care system and instilled this love of the outdoors.

They were part of this migration of Black people from the South, where people came out of a Jim Crow reality into what they hoped would be greater economic options. My parents were part of that whole wave of migration that had people getting on trains and getting off where it stopped.

Rue Mapp during a hike along the Yampa River in Colorado. The regional leaders at Outdoor Afro organize hiking, rafting and camping trips and help teach children how to swim.

Courtesy Rue Mapp

I loved hearing the story of how they settled on California. It was not just about him and his wife. It was about their whole family. Whole families moved. In their case, there were 12 siblings who moved all together. They worked in the shipyards in the San Francisco Bay area at the very tail end of World War II. And that’s where he was really able to learn and subsequently launched his career as a carpenter.

Eventually, he was able to acquire property and to build with his hands a ranch in Lake County. Soon after that is where I came into their lives out of the foster care system. It changed the whole trajectory of my life. Not only to be with an amazing family, but to be with one that had such a love and deep connection with the outdoors. On that ranch, we had cows and pigs.

And so much that I learned from him was not just about being in nature, but about leading and hospitality. In that setting, we had so many people come through. Folks in the church, people in the neighborhood that never had access to a place so beautiful in nature.

In the wake of the George Floyd shooting, there’s been a national movement targeting police brutality and other instances of racism. How has Outdoor Afro responded to the moment?

We didn’t have to pivot. We didn’t have to change our message. We didn’t have to blackout our profile picture. Why Outdoor Afro exists is because we’ve had this history of violence against Black bodies in the outdoors that we have had to overcome and through it find atonement and the chance to tell a new narrative.

I wanted to root messaging in nature to connect people across difference. What I mean by that is recognizing that we all have a connection to nature and we can talk about nature in the way that nature views us. I’ve been pretty consistent in reminding us that the trees don’t know that you’re Black, the flowers are going to bloom no matter how much money is in your account. The birds are going to sing no matter your gender or political affiliation. In that way, we can have a very different conversation about what that connection to nature can teach us about being with one another.

I had the good fortune of reaching out and getting a response from Steven Rinella, who hosts The MeatEater Podcast. It’s worth a listen. I made this connection with someone who probably would have otherwise never come over to the Outdoor Afro website. And what has happened as a result of that conversation that had such a loving focus on nature — it was vulnerable, it was honest, it was the sort of nuanced conversation that people aren’t having. There are many, many people that reached out to me from that podcast who were different regionally from me, different racially from me, maybe different politically than me.

Do you find highly publicized incidents like the one involving Christian Cooper, the Central Park birder, have made the outdoors less alluring for African Americans?

People have always been concerned and had fears about going into the outdoors. The Coopers and George Floyd — they got recorded. That’s the only difference.

For Rue Mapp, Outdoor Afro is not only about experiencing natural landscapes, but the human relationships to these places.

Courtesy Outdoor Afro

I once asked my dad if he knew of anyone who had gotten lynched. I had just learned about Emmett Till. I was 12 years old and watching PBS’ Eyes on the Prize. He was like, ‘All the time.’

And sadly, most of the time when those things do happen, they happen without a camera present. But also there’s safety in numbers. When you see these pictures that are part of these national, predominantly white environmental organizations — a single person standing over a sweeping vista in the middle of the wilderness — that’s the most terrifying visual I can put in front of a Black person.

Sierra Club president Michael Brune wrote an open letter last month saying the group needed “to reexamine our past and our substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy.” What do you make of the Sierra Club’s acknowledgment of its racist origins?

Mike Brune and I are friends and he has been on our board for more than three years. I met him when we expeditioned together in the Arctic Refuge. His coming out with the position of recognizing the racist foundation on which that organization was built is not a surprise.

But it points to something that’s important to recognize. And that is design matters. We have these flawed designs and we try to fix things later, when it’s endemic. For example, you can have an organization that may have been founded by people who in present times we’d consider very racist. And you might today create a diversity-equity-inclusion initiative. You may try to hire people to be more representative of the world today. But given that foundation, it’s going to be an uphill battle. You essentially have to be a very different organization by design.

And that’s why Outdoor Afro was created. No organization out there was addressing, for me, what needed to be addressed as Outdoor Afro has come to do it. Other organizations may want to achieve these same outcomes, but Outdoor Afro is a very different organization in that it’s founded and visualized by a Black, American woman.

How does that vision express itself on outings into nature?

Whenever we go someplace, we always dig into the history. And we find some of these amazing stories of Black people in these spaces, who’ve done incredible things. In the Boston area, we learned about Ona Judge, an escaped slave, and how her community of support around her allowed her to thrive in a way that was pretty unique for its time.

It’s the same thing in California, where we go to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and you see the ruins of the Sutro bathhouse. We found out that John Harris, a Black man, had been denied access [in 1897]. He worked as a waiter in San Francisco. His white friend was let in. And [Harris] sued, and it became a test case for current civil rights law in California that we enjoy today.

To tell these stories is what it all comes down to us. We get to experience a kind of belonging in these places that’s not just about the natural landscape, but the human relationships to those landscapes.

Paul Wachter has written for The New York Times Magazine, Harper's, and The Atlantic. He lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.