Helping African-Americans Reconnect With Nature

Helping African-Americans Reconnect With Nature
Rue Mapp’s group Outdoor Afro has got thousands of people out hiking, camping, rafting and climbing
Outdoor Afro grew from Rue Mapp’s dismay at finding herself among relatively few people of color who embraced the great outdoors. ENLARGE
Outdoor Afro grew from Rue Mapp’s dismay at finding herself among relatively few people of color who embraced the great outdoors. American Whitewater Expeditions
By
Hannah Bloch
Dec. 5, 2014 3:29 p.m. ET
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Growing up in Oakland, Calif., Rue Mapp was a Girl Scout who loved spending time on her family’s ranch north of Napa. There she learned to hunt and fish, went on long bike rides, watched tadpoles turn into frogs and spent hours exploring the woods. When visitors arrived, “I was kind of a hostess back then,” she recalls, “sharing nature with my cousins and family friends.”

Today, at 43, she’s doing something similar but on a much more ambitious scale. The organization she founded in 2009, Outdoor Afro, connects thousands of African-Americans with the natural world through activities such as hiking, camping, rafting and climbing.

Outdoor Afro grew from Ms. Mapp’s dismay at finding herself among relatively few people of color who embraced the great outdoors. “I didn’t see enough people who looked like me,” she says. “There was a huge number of people missing out.”

So she put together a network of outdoor leaders and activities around the country. Her vision of a “wilderness of inclusion” has attracted more than 3,000 participants in the past year alone to Outdoor Afro’s hikes, camping trips and other programs. Ms. Mapp’s efforts have earned her four invitations to the White House, recognition from the National Wildlife Federation and a “Hero” designation from Backpacker Magazine. Corporate support has come from outdoor-oriented businesses including REI, Keen and Kleen Kanteen.

All too often, Ms. Mapp says, minorities wishing to enjoy wild places are “treated like a rare species,” and America’s segregated past still results in feelings of exclusion. In African-American history, Ms. Mapp says, “the wilderness has not always been represented as a place of safety.” Outdoor Afro aims to counteract misperceptions and highlights inspiring historical examples of African-Americans’ connections to nature. The group also emphasizes nature’s healing powers, as with a recent “Healing Hike for Ferguson” in an Oakland redwood forest.

Outdoor Afro has organized excursions for African-American tour groups to Yosemite National Park, whose U.S. visitors, like those at all national parks, still skew overwhelmingly white. But Ms. Mapp argues that boosting numbers matter less than fostering a cultural shift. “This really is about changing people’s behavior,” she says, including nurturing a conservation ethic, improving fitness and health, and making the natural world a part of everyday life. “In 20 years,” she says, “I’m hoping we’ll be able to go out and experience nature, and it’s no big deal.”

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