Rue Mapp, founder of Outdoor Afro, was named a Hero in Backpacker Magazine, honored as part of the Root 100 of the top black achievers and influencers for 2012, and received the Josephine and Frank Duveneck Award for her humanitarian efforts. There is no less awe and appreciation of her work in her wide circle of colleagues and the movement. In our interview, we found that Outdoor Afro’s deep roots go back to her childhood experiences and strong family connections. The idea for starting Outdoor Afro suddenly emerged in response to a question posed by a college mentor:
MR: What led to the creation of Outdoor Afro?
RM: The creation of Outdoor Afro wasn’t the beginning – the beginning was the recognition of who I was and what I cared about. It was the change I wanted to see in the world and it was a weaving together of values that were introduced to me, a part of my life that I almost took for granted.
I grew up with a foster family – they were much older than the parents of my peers – so as I grew up they were retiring and had more leisure time. This had everything to do with getting the material at such a young age that was so unique for people living in Oakland. We were up at the ranch a lot – the ranch was in Lake County, about a hundred miles north of here.
My foster parents were from the South, the first generation in California, and were still very connected to the ways that they had grown up with – gardening, farming, and hunting. We canned and my dad built a smoke house. We had pigs and the uncles would all come together and they would do the slaughtering and curing and we would have green ham and smoked ham. And I would work on the sausage machine, twisting lamb casings every several inches, with coils falling into a bucket that would later be hung up and smoked.
My parents weren’t poor people, they just really believed in doing-it-yourself. My dad was a carpenter and he built my first bed. And my mom was a seamstress and I learned how to sew. By the time I was ten I was making all my school clothes.
Because my parents were much older and not as physically able as the parents of my peers, I was left to my own devices for hours at a time so I would use that time to bike and go explore stuff, make little skits and plays. I was always able to entertain myself in nature.
And then as I grew older, I found I had this love for technology. I had early exposure to computers in the 80’s and I asked for the home version of the computer we were using at school, a Commodore VIC-20. I had a lot of comfort with technology, and then later used it to find people. I never will forget when I found the Women Mountain Bike & Tea Society called Wombats – women getting together as women to mountain bike. Finding them, finding the Oakland Yellowjackets and then finding Outward Bound – I found so many ways to connect to the outdoors.
MR: What was the final spark that started Outdoor Afro in 2009?
RM: I ended up going to school at a traditional age after high school, but stopped and started a family and didn’t finish. When my husband and I divorced in 2004, I knew I was going to have pretty limited future career prospects. So I went to school at night and just basically started over while working full time. I made all A’s for two years while my children were babies – 1, 3, and 7 at that time.
And I got into UC Berkeley and it blew open my thinking about what is possible in the world – because it is that kind of a place. I was so inspired as an art history major by the studies, especially around the artistic representation of the American forest. I really got clear about the power of images to tell stories in a way that levels the playing field.
As I was graduating, I was thinking about the next steps. I had a mentor, Frieda Kapor, at the time who asked what would I do if I had all the time and money. I blurted out that I would probably start a web site to connect African Americans to the outdoors. In that moment it was this revelation – everything that I had been doing, everything that I had cared about and loved, just flooded over me. And within a week I launched the site – I just did it!
The blog was just a Google template and I threw up a picture of me from an Outward Bound course and wrote that first blog. It was about sharing my story – at first, about my history, how I ended up here, and then it quickly became this national conversation. It resonated with so many people. People got it, people enjoyed it, and people saw themselves inside of it. Since then, it has been this organic building of community – a way of reconnecting that can help people be happier, be empowered and find love again in things that can really help sustain them.
MR: Is this awakening to the connections that are already there?
I deliberately use the word reconnect. What I focus on doing, in a more deliberate way, is helping to shift the visual reinterpretation of who gets outdoors – reminding us of our history, who we are as people living in close contact with the land, and inviting us to build on those connections. Let’s think about George Washington Carver or Harriet Tubman – there’s a lot of ways we can think about our historical figures that help remind us of who we are in nature. In addition there are those people in our own families, like my parents, who I felt were environmentalists and conservationists.
America’s Great Outdoors was interesting. What made it special for me is that I was new to this work. I got an invitation, out of the blue – someone saw my work and felt that it was necessary to have it represented in that space. That really blew me away! I was in a room with the leadership of the biggest conservation organizations in the country. This was a game changer – I realized there is a national conversation that we have a chance to be part of. There is interest and we have a President that cares about this.
Then I got involved with the White House Let’s Move think tank. The third time was the follow-up to the America’s Great Outdoors – the task was to be part of the input around what was valuable to the American people about getting outdoors from different perspectives. They interviewed me – I was featured. President Obama spoke and then came down and I had a chance to shake his hand.
MR: At the recent North America Association of Environmental Educators (NAAEE) conference in Oakland, I was so impressed with how you welcomed everyone, including a reception in your own home – in reflection, I think that’s an essential part of who you are.
RM: I credit my mom for giving me the value of hospitality. Part of the experiences we had at the ranch was having people over. People still talk to this day about how welcomed they felt when they came. My dad had what he called a standard invitation – “you only have to be invited once, and it applies in perpetuity”. And because we are talking about nature, it’s interesting that you brought up welcoming, because the opening page on our meet-up sites say, “You are welcome in the outdoors!” That’s your standard invitation!
Nature doesn’t necessarily represent freedom that some communities take for granted. Not everyone feels welcome and there are generational memories about harm happening in the woods that’s a part of our consciousness. I think it is so important that we lead with welcoming in our work – welcoming, hospitality and safety – our groups have been successful with getting people outdoors because people are out in numbers. If you go out on a hike and there are twenty people with you, it feels so empowering.
I find that people in the Outdoor Afro community value companionship in nature as much as nature itself. It’s not just about going out to commune – that can be enough, but people want to share it with others. And that gets to the issues around culturally relevant engagement – what is of value.
People like seeing others who look like them in nature on Outdoor Afro. I put up a picture of guys fishing and people went nuts – people were saying, “That’s what I need in my life!”
MR: Can you tell me a story about how people have been touched by this work?
RM: This work is about love and affirmation. People have been moved and there’s one story that I always remember. This story inspired the work I do now in partnerships and the need for partnerships in order to be successful. I did a birding trip with Golden Gate Audubon a couple of years ago. I led the trip in partnership with a woman named Judith who was a veteran docent. We spent the afternoon at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Regional Shoreline with people of all ages – from a woman who was in her seventies all the way down to a toddler. We just spent time observing birds, had a picnic and read some poetry. I’ll never forget the ending – Mother Jones, who is in her seventies, was in tears. She said that she lived just right over there, over the way, and never knew that this piece of God was right next to her all this time.
And then Judith, the docent with Golden Gate Audubon, was also moved to tears. She had never birded with people who did not look like her, and she realized what was missing for her! There was this recognition on both sides of what is possible that wasn’t previously experienced. Judith was very moved by being able to share nature with new people – and with people who she could connect to in a very different way.
When you think about diversity it’s not diversity for just for its own sake, or to benefit one group – it benefits everybody. We all want to be so connected – and Judith had a chance to feel connected, in a way, by using nature as a platform to do that. That was a big “aha moment” about the power of this work – to really connect people in ways that they just don’t have the opportunity to be connected and that they really need.
MR: In terms of the Collaborative, what value and potential do you see in the Collaborative?
RM: I think the Collaborative addresses something that is really important. The Collaborative represents a good opportunity to work together, leveraging all of our strengths to shift the thinking in a specific area around connecting people and children to the outdoors. I think that is so important.
I also think the Collaborative represents the opportunity for us to work smarter, not harder. And to have a community of peers that can celebrate our success but also support each other through challenges. I think the Collaborative can represent a new way – it’s not about isolation but coming together with similar minded partners who have their own relevant way of doing things, but can get value from one another.