Non­profit seeks ‘Black joy’ by find­ing sanc­tu­ary — and so­lace — in na­ture

Non­profit con­nects African Amer­i­cans to ‘ther­a­peu­tic prop­er­ties’ of na­ture

Chicago Sun-Times - - CHICAGO SUN TIMES - BY JADE YAN,

Chris­tine Meiss­ner’s fa­vorite mo­ment on the an­nual Camp­ing 101 trips she leads around Chicago is see­ing “peo­ple trans­form over two days.”

The trips, hosted by the Chicago and North­west In­di­ana chap­ter of Out­door Afro, teach skills such as pitch­ing a tent and mak­ing a fire, and “pretty much 100% [of] peo­ple who come have never camped at all,” she said. But by the end, many are plan­ning their next ex­cur­sion with their fam­i­lies.

“When I see and hear the trans­for­ma­tion in peo­ple, then I know they have re­ally made the re­con­nec­tion to na­ture,” Meiss­ner, one of three chap­ter lead­ers, said in an email.

Out­door Afro, a na­tional non­profit, aims to con­nect Black peo­ple with na­ture and cul­ti­vate Black lead­er­ship out­doors. Chap­ters around the coun­try or­ga­nize out­door ac­tiv­i­ties, in­clud­ing hik­ing, ca­noe­ing, bird­ing, rock-climb­ing, ice skat­ing, sail­ing and bik­ing. In the win­ter, it’s cold-weather ex­pe­ri­ences, such as snow-shoe­ing and ski­ing, or in­door events like archery or a trip to a nat­u­ral his­tory mu­seum.

Since March, when the coro­n­avirus pan­demic shut down most recre­ational sites across the coun­try, in­clud­ing state and na­tional parks, the group has had to adapt its ac­tiv­i­ties to ad­here to COVID-19 re­stric­tions.

“[We] be­came ‘In­door Afro,’” Meiss­ner said, as the chap­ter shifted to of­fer­ing guided med­i­ta­tions on­line, fo­cus­ing on im­ages of na­ture. Then, as lock­down guide­lines were eased, there was so­cially dis­tanced yoga in the Beaubien Woods.

“[The events] were re­ally pow­er­ful ac­tu­ally,” Meiss­ner said, re­fer­ring to the “ther­a­peu­tic prop­er­ties” of na­ture in the face of na­tional tur­moil.

Al­though Meiss­ner usu­ally sees new par­tic­i­pants at ev­ery event, the group she leads has seen in­ter­est in mem­ber­ship grow even more as the spot­light from anti-racism protests na­tion­wide has height­ened at­ten­tion on Black-led or­ga­ni­za­tions.

De­spite this new at­ten­tion, Out­door Afro and its goals are not new, said the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor, Yanira Cas­tro.

‘‘The point [has al­ways been] Black joy, and hav­ing that space. There’s just more peo­ple who are in­ter­ested.”

The na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion be­gan in 2009 as a blog and Face­book page cre­ated by Bay Area out­doors-lover Rue Mapp, who wanted to make the out­doors a wel­com­ing space for Black peo­ple af­ter she saw few other Black peo­ple on her hikes and camp­ing trips.

Now the group has chap­ters in 30 states, with 90 lead­ers na­tion­wide — Chicago is the group’s third-largest net­work, ac­cord­ing to Meiss­ner, and cur­rently has three lead­ers in the area.

Its pre­dom­i­nantly Black mem­ber­ship of all ages re­flects the op­po­site of the stereo­typ­i­cal

por­trait of an out­doorsy type. “If you con­jured up an im­age of what an out­doors per­son looks like, [it’s] usu­ally a white dude in his 20s,” said Cas­tro.

His­tor­i­cally, though, Black peo­ple have had a long re­la­tion­ship with na­ture that has been stymied by racism and violence, said Naomi Davis, founder of the en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion Blacks in Green.

The skills Africans had as crafts­peo­ple and crop grow­ers were “ex­ploited” af­ter they were en­slaved and brought to Amer­ica, said Davis. But some Black com­mu­ni­ties re­sisted this by form­ing Ma­roon com­mu­ni­ties con­sist­ing largely of es­caped slaves, who “lived 100% on, in, of, and by the land,” said Davis.

Later, she said, Black landown­ers also had their land stolen in a va­ri­ety of ways, by the Ku Klux Klan and by county of­fi­cers through le­gal meth­ods. Then came the Great Mi­gra­tion, when African Amer­i­cans moved up North and left their land be­cause of racist Jim Crow laws.

Oboi Reed, pres­i­dent and CEO of Chicago non­profit Equitic­ity, which ad­vo­cates for racial equal­ity in trans­porta­tion, said, “Af­ter slav­ery, there was Jim Crow, there was redlin­ing, re­stric­tive covenants, dis­in­vest­ment, racial pro­fil­ing through po­lice.”

These cause is­sues of safety that have some­times stopped Black peo­ple from ad­ven­tur­ing out­doors, said Reed — in­clud­ing po­lice harassment, and worry about “for­est of­fi­cers ac­cost­ing you be­cause you don’t look like you be­long.’’

“Why Out­door Afro is so im­por­tant is it helps Black peo­ple to come to grips with their hu­man right to ex­plore na­ture,’’ Reed said.

By tak­ing ex­plo­rations to­gether, Out­door Afro pro­vides a group that peo­ple can join to feel safe, and if they want, to be­come lead­ers or teach their fam­i­lies and friends in what Meiss­ner called a “mul­ti­ply­ing ef­fect.”

“When peo­ple start to see them­selves re­flected out­side, they feel more com­fort­able,” said Meiss­ner. “We’re cre­at­ing a net­work like a fam­ily.”

The chap­ter Meiss­ner leads is set to host a Heal­ing Hike on Aug. 23 at the Fort Sheri­dan For­est Pre­serve. Heal­ing Hikes be­gan when Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man, was shot to death in Ferguson, Mis­souri, in 2016— the hikes gave peo­ple a space for so­lace by “get[ting] to­gether and hav[ing] those deep emo­tions,” said Cas­tro.

Most Out­door Afro ac­tiv­i­ties are free or as low-cost as pos­si­ble to al­low open ac­cess. And the group’s mem­ber­ship is not ex­clu­sive — one of the group’s say­ings, Cas­tro pointed out, is, “You don’t have to have an afro to be an out­door afro.”

How­ever, said Cas­tro, other par­tic­i­pants must have “the un­der­stand­ing that these events are cen­tered around Black folks.”

“WHY OUT­DOOR AFRO IS SO IM­POR­TANT IS IT HELPS BLACK PEO­PLE TO COME TO GRIPS WITH THEIR HU­MAN RIGHT TO EX­PLORE NA­TURE.’’ OBOI REED, pres­i­dent and CEO of Chicago non­profit Equitic­ity, which ad­vo­cates for racial equal­ity in trans­porta­tion

Fed­eral prose­cu­tors say R. Kelly’s for­mer man­ager called in a gun threat to a New York the­ater screen­ing a do­cuseries about the R&B singer’s al­leged abuse in 2018.

Don­nell Rus­sell, 45, is charged with one count of threat­en­ing phys­i­cal harm and one count of con­spir­acy to threaten phys­i­cal harm, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice in New York.

On Dec. 4, 2018, the Neue­House Madi­son Square the­ater in New York planned the pre­miere screen­ing of “Sur­viv­ing R. Kelly,” which de­tails Kelly’s al­leged sex­ual abuse of women and girls, ac­cord­ing to a com­plaint. The pre­miere also was to fea­ture a panel dis­cus­sion that in­cluded some of R. Kelly’s ac­cusers. That day, the feds al­lege, Rus­sell made mul­ti­ple at­tempts to stop the screen­ing, lead­ing up to a call threat­en­ing to shoot up the the­ater.

He al­legedly emailed a cease-and-de­sist let­ter to the the­ater and tried con­tact­ing New York fire and po­lice of­fi­cials to stop the screen­ing, the com­plaint said. Rus­sell even­tu­ally called the the­ater from his land­line, ac­cord­ing to the feds, say­ing there was a per­son at the screen­ing with a gun ready to shoot.

Guests were evac­u­ated, and the event was can­celed, ac­cord­ing to the com­plaint, though there was no shoot­ing.

In Au­gust 2019, in­ves­ti­ga­tors in­ter­viewed Rus­sell, and he told them he con­tacted Neue­House but de­nied mak­ing a threat, the com­plaint said. Charges were filed un­der seal in March, and an­nounced Fri­day, the day Rus­sell was to ap­pear in fed­eral court in New York.

“By al­legedly threat­en­ing a shoot­ing at the the­ater, Rus­sell pre­vented the screen­ing, which was at­tended by a num­ber of R.

Kelly’s al­leged vic­tims,” Act­ing U.S. At­tor­ney Au­drey Strauss said in a state­ment is­sued Fri­day. “Threats of gun violence aimed at in­tim­i­dat­ing and si­lenc­ing vic­tims of sex­ual abuse are un­law­ful as well as un­ac­cept­able. We are com­mit­ted to ag­gres­sively in­ves­ti­gat­ing and pros­e­cut­ing such crimes.”


Chris­tine Meiss­ner, in the orange head­band, leads a group into the French Canyon of Starved Rock State Park in June 2019.

An Out­door Afro group takes cross-coun­try ski­ing lessons at the Cook County For­est Pre­serves’ Camp Sa­gawau in Jan­uary 2019.

SUN-TIMES FILES R. Kelly walks with sup­port­ers out of the Leighton Crim­i­nal Court­house in June 2019.

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