Outdoor Afro founder expands her message with new book
By Lou Fancher
Walking in cadence outdoors with Rue Mapp in her North Bay neighborhood is an exercise in quiet joy.
Despite having every right to talk up Outdoor Afro, the not-for-profit she founded in 2009, Mapp is apt to be silent. Outdoor Afro champions Black leadership in nature recreation and has grown from a tiny online community into a national network active in 60 U.S. cities — leading to Mapp taking hikes with such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey and Venessa Williams as well as folks she meets every day.
Even so, Mapp’s focus is likely to be on the synchronicity of footsteps or the way four snouts lift in unison — yours, hers, and if you have a dog, your two canine companions — as you sniff a crisp morning breeze or the sweet scent of evening air.
If prompted, Mapp might tell fellow walkers about one of her latest projects, “Nature Swagger: Stories and Visions of Black Joy in the Outdoors,” (192 pages, Chronicle Books), that came out in November. The book is a compendium of photographs and stories told by people finding their joy in nature.
“I wanted to do a multigenerational book that was about not only the pain and peril of Black lives in nature but about the co-creation that is the beautiful tapestry we live in today,” she says. “The contributions of Black people are elevated. There’s rootedness to Black history in outdoor America that feels solid.”
Mapp holds a B.A. in art history from UC Berkeley and grew up on her family’s Northern California ranch. The work of Outdoor Afro has been featured in national publications including Outside, Travel + Leisure, The Smithsonian, Ebony, Newsweek, and more. She is a National Geographic Fellow, a contributor to former first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Initiative, and a recipient of a National Wildlife Federation Conservation Achievement Award for Communications.
Despite being a sought-after keynote speaker and entrepreneur, Mapp says it’s essential to hold onto simple experiences that connect her with nature and other people. “Outdoor Afro is so much about not only connecting to places, but also doing that deep hanging out you can’t replicate in a digital world. Sometimes you don’t have much time and it’s about people getting into a place and establishing the feeling of intimacy really fast. Especially if you have to depend on each other to pitch a tent, make a meal, that’s the essence. Micro doses of nature that aren’t grand, that aren’t whitewater rafting or mountain climbing, are as nourishing and sustaining as anything.”
Mapp says although her parents have died, every time she stands up to represent Outdoor Afro or leads the company’s annual volunteer leadership conference and training program, she has a flashback.
“My parents are there — and their pride, like at a school play,” she says. “I still find myself in their approving gaze and it’s moving. It’s a way of remembering their legacy and sacrifice.”
“‘Nature Swagger’,” Mapp says, “was prompted by a simple premise, that there is Black joy. How do you describe yours?”
“That opens up floodgates,” she continues. “It keeps them in a juicy, generative place of sharing what they know and experience.” Aiming for diversity in age, region, and activities, the portraits drawn in the book explore nature beyond the mountaintop experience: bee-keeping, swimming, fishing, gardening, hunting, healing, horseback riding.
“It helps the reader to see real world examples of how nature is a part of anyone’s life,” she says.
Creating outdoor experiences rooted in solid planning and the hospitality Mapp learned from her father leads to lifelong friendships and lasting joy that “feels like we’re having church,” says Mapp.
“People cry and say Outdoor Afro caused them to take a new direction, change their lives and careers, showed them they could be leaders in other areas, go to grad school, open businesses, “Mapp says. “It never stops short of blowing my whole mind and making my heart feel like it’s going to burst. If I strip out what we’re doing, getting people out in nature, we’re actually in the business of transformation.”
At the end of workshops and events, people share words that demonstrate what they are thinking and feeling.
“It gets funny when a kid in the circle says, ‘tired!’ But the adults land on something joyous. Once they’ve shared, I invite them to root themselves in these words that are like prayers that follow them into their homes, workplaces and interactions. It continues to unfold; the feeling doesn’t end.”
As Outdoor Afro has grown, and with the discipline and focus required to craft “Nature Swagger,” Mapp has affirmed her belief that there is no separation between what nature is and who people are.
“We know our bodies are mostly made of water and are connected to tides that are governed by the lunar cycle,” she says. “Nature doesn’t begin at the trailhead; you carry it with and within you. Knowing that leaves you feeling rich, not bereft, and that’s what my work’s all about.”
Importantly, Mapp says about the Outdoor Afro community, “You don’t have to be Black to participate and to get it. People are elevated, connected in a way you cannot obtain in any other part of society. For White people to come to a place where most people are Black and experience joy, that’s not something that happens everywhere. It’s not about humbling people, it’s allowing them to have a chance to just be.”
And that goes for youngsters, as well.
“I’ve been asked for 10 years that Holy Grail question of ‘How can I…? How can we…?’ Some folks are rushing people to the altar of conservation without regard for action that translates into stewardship. If I see a little kid on a beach during a cleanup day, picking up cigarette butts and other trash, my first question is, ‘Has this kid ever played there? Is their first invitation to come and do work?’ The traditional environmental and conservation mindset has got it awfully wrong. That child might come from a community where nature could be the flowering plants outside an apartment, a bird feeder in their grandmother’s garden. We start from where they are already winning because that’s fertile ground. I want to restore outdoor leadership back to the home. That’s where my blueprint was drawn.”