The Mercury News


Oakland group’s goal is to connect more African Americans with nature

- My Paul Rogers >> progers@bayareanew­

Growing up in the Bay Area, Rue Mapp loved the outdoors. She hiked. She fished. She swam. But as she got older and ventured to the Sierras and farther afield, she noticed “fewer people who looked like me.” After a stint as an analyst with Morgan Stanley, the Oakland native was considerin­g going back to college to pursue an MBA. But when a trusted friend, venture capitalist Freada Kapor Klein, asked what she would do if time and money were no issue, she said she wanted to start a website to reconnect African Americans with the outdoors.

So in 2009, Mapp took a leap of faith and founded Outdoor Afro. With the motto “where Black people and nature meet,” the blog and Facebook page has grown into an influentia­l nonprofit group that now connects thousands of people a year by organizing activities like camping, hiking, biking, birding, fishing, gardening and skiing. The organizati­on, based in Oakland, has 45,000 participan­ts and 80 leaders in 30 states.

Through her work, Mapp realized that Black people have been involved in the outdoors all along. But they are rarely depicted in outdoor magazines or other media. They have few leadership positions in the environmen­tal movement, and until now, few options to connect with each other in nature.

Last year Mapp won the environmen­t category of the prestigiou­s Heinz Awards. She was named a National Geographic Fellow. She serves on the board of the Wilderness Society, the Outdoor Industry Associatio­n and the California Parks and Recreation Commission. In February, she hiked with Oprah Winfrey through the redwoods at Joaquin Miller Park in Oakland. When times are particular­ly tough, she says, we all need nature more than ever.

This conversati­on has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

QWhy is it important that we connect everybody, and in the case of your organizati­on, more Black Americans, to nature?

AIt’s something that our planet needs. We need all hands on deck. We also need it for our healing and our atonement. I find that when you go into nature with people, the trees don’t know you’re Black. The birds are going to sing and fly no matter how much money you have in your account. The flowers are going to bloom no matter your gender or political affiliatio­n. We need to turn to nature now more than ever so that we can be free of everything that ails us.

Nature gives us hope. It’s a metaphor for how we can have a way forward, even when the moment feels impossible. I don’t know what better medicine we could ask for.

QThere seems to be a stereotype out there that Black people don’t hike or camp. What do you say when you hear that kind of thing?

AI’ve had people say “I don’t camp and I don’t hike.” I’ll say “Do you like cookouts?” and they’ll say “Well, yeah.” “Do you ever walk around Lake Merritt? What about fishing? Even tailgating?” We really have to rethink the outdoors and not limit it to a set of specific activities that are often in remote areas.

I love birds and wildlife. I love identifyin­g them. But if I were to say we’re going birding today, I don’t know if anybody would show up unless you already were a birder. But if I say let’s go to Lake Merritt for a stroll and a potluck, people are going to show up. And guess what? I’m going to still bring out my binoculars, my spotting scope and my bird ID book. I’m going to talk about the history of Lake Merritt as the oldest wildlife sanctuary in the country. I’m going to talk about the Pacific Flyway. I’m going to get to the same outcome. But I didn’t call it a birding event. I made it about where people are and what they are about. At the end of the day, people want to connect with other people, and other families.

QWhat do you think are the main limits on Black people accessing the outdoors?

AWhen people say that to me, I respond that they are looking in the wrong places.

Decipherin­g the gear is one piece of it. Transporta­tion is huge. If you don’t have a reliable car that’s a barrier. Also, there are fears of wildlife and fears of other people — and of not being welcome. The number one thing that keeps people out is time. So we created a platform that lowered all of those barriers, and which focuses on nature close to home. You don’t have to get in a car and drive three or four hours. If you want to go to Yosemite, you have to really know how to work that. You can’t just decide on a Friday morning you want to go camping in Yosemite that weekend. Those sites have been booked a long time in advance and if you are a busy working family, you may not have time to drive four hours or more away from the Bay Area to someplace you’ve never been, to do things you’ve never done before, with people you don’t know.

We have to provide easier pathways to make it happen. You know who does a good job of this? The cruise industry. And Disneyland. When I hear that people don’t go camping because of money, I’m like “No way!” People go on cruises and pay top dollar for these experience­s. People know what they are getting. They know they will be welcome. There is hospitalit­y built into it. It’s memory-making as a family. Some of our public lands and parks really leave it for people to fend for themselves and figure it out on their own. If you don’t have a family history or mentors to do these things, it’s going to be a really steep pathway to entry. That’s why Outdoor Afro exists. We want to flatten those barriers and give people the confidence so they can go back and do it again and again.

QYour organizati­on has a special focus on swimming programs.

AThe drowning rate of Black children is five times that for white children ages 5 to 19. The reason why is because we’ve inherited the consequenc­es of Jim Crow. People couldn’t go to public pools or public beaches. If they did there were special colored reserved areas. So we have generation­s that didn’t learn how to swim or have a relationsh­ip with water. If a child doesn’t learn how to swim, they aren’t going to grow up to put a pole in a lake or shimmy into a kayak, or care about plastic in the ocean. People need to know how to swim. And the Earth needs us to be in relationsh­ip with it. If people do not have a relationsh­ip with our precious wild all around, they are not going to be first in line to vote for its protection.

 ?? BETHANIE HINES — OUTDOOR AFRO ?? Rue Mapp is founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, an Oakland-based nonprofit group connecting African Americans with nature through hiking, fishing, kayaking and other outings.
BETHANIE HINES — OUTDOOR AFRO Rue Mapp is founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, an Oakland-based nonprofit group connecting African Americans with nature through hiking, fishing, kayaking and other outings.
 ?? OUTDOOR AFRO ?? Rue Mapp, far left, the CEO and founder of Outdoor Afro, leads a bike trip in Vallejo in July 2019.
OUTDOOR AFRO Rue Mapp, far left, the CEO and founder of Outdoor Afro, leads a bike trip in Vallejo in July 2019.

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