Photo: Outdoor Afro

How Outdoor Afro Promotes Diversity, Inclusion in Great Outdoors

The group estimates it provides outdoor experiences to more than 40,000 people annually, hosting more than 1,000 events per year across the country.

Pick your sport—skiing, hiking, paddling, biking, fishing, camping, or even canyoneering—there’s a group out there leading the way to increase diversity and inclusion in that given outdoor recreation activity for all. Going big, growing opportunities across disciplines is how Outdoor Afro has become the nation’s leading network celebrating and inspiring Black connections and leadership in nature. And the programming from the Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit is paying off. With leaders and advocates spanning the nation, from Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio, to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pa., it has more than 100 leaders in 56 cities—all connecting thousands of people to active experiences outside. Establishing these outdoor roots also helps the environment as the various programs’ participants often go on to take a keener interest in preserving outdoor spaces.

The group estimates it provides outdoor experiences to more than 40,000 people annually, hosting more than 1,000 events per year across the country. Hiking is its most popular activity, followed by camping and kayaking, with its largest networks in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. This year, it’s emphasizing swimming, adding more programming in that niche, joining an expanding array of other activities beyond the hike-fish-padde-climb mainstays. Trained in everything from risk management and environmental policy to storytelling interpretation, each volunteer leader creates and guides monthly trips for participants, while also fostering collaborations to strengthen connections with the outdoors.

Public Lands caught up with executive director Rue Mapp, who founded the organization in 2009, for some more information on the nonprofit and its mission to get more people, no matter their background or skin color, into the Great Outdoors.  

PUBLIC LANDS: What inspired you to found Outdoor Afro?

RUE MAPP: It was really born out of not seeing enough representation out there of people who looked like me and who loved the outdoors. I wanted to create a way for Black people to experience and learn about the outdoors that felt safe. My background is in art history, so I know that representation tells stories across language, geographies, and differences. When I started a blog, I whimsically called it Outdoor Afro. But I had no idea it would become an organization with the reach and impact that it’s had. I was just telling my truth. Growing up in Oakland, California, I spent much of my free time two hours north at my family’s ranch in Lake County, hiking, exploring creeks, swimming, and more. I often brought my friends with me, and the experience solidified that nature is best enjoyed in good company. My father offered my friends a standing invitation to come to visit the ranch, and I channeled that same spirit into Outdoor Afro. 

What was your background beforehand? 

I was working as an analyst for Morgan Stanley and as a fundraiser for the Golden Gate Audubon Society. Earlier, I was a re-entry student juggling parenthood with the pursuit of a degree in art history at UC Berkeley. After graduation, I launched the blog (Outdoor Afro), and it’s grown from there.  

How do your programs help people get outside?

We reconnect Black people with nature through recreational activities including hiking, birding, fishing, kayaking, gardening and more—in a similar style you’d do if you were taking family members out. We harness the value of connecting people and connecting people to nature, all in the same conversation. With different opportunities and easy levels of entry, anyone can connect and join an Outdoor Afro event. We help people get outside by welcoming them, in easy ways, to join a community with others that have similar experiences. We focus on meeting people where they’re at. Through these experiences, we’re also fostering a national community and redefining what it means to get outdoors.  

Photo: Outdoor Afro

And sharing these experiences is a big part of it as well? 

It’s important for people to see themselves in these spaces and in nature—to see themselves rock climbing, hiking and backpacking and camping—and then share these stories so that they’re not alone. We shift the visual representation of who can connect with the outdoors by taking photos and sharing them with our online community, and encourage our participants to do the same. We need to show these communities, as well as the next generation, that we don’t have boundaries.  

Did your outings take a downturn during the pandemic?

Like everyone else, we had to take a moment and understand what the pandemic meant to our work. We did some gatherings on Zoom to stay connected with one another—like meditation, yoga and birdwatching. So not a downturn, just a shift. 

How hard is it to become an Outdoor Afro leader?

It’s a process, as we want to ensure that the quality and standards of our events remain high. Additionally, we have a very high retention rate for returning leaders, so few spots are available each year. We ask people to be familiar with our events, attend an information session, fill out an application and have a video interview. We have an open call for volunteer leaders once a year. One of the amazing things about our volunteer leaders is that they are everyday people: architects, lawyers, preschool teachers, professors, and retirees. They love nature and they love to build community. You don’t need to be a professional outdoors expert to be one; you just have to love nature and love to build community.  

What are some of your more popular activities in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio?

Hiking and simple nature walks are very popular in those regions. Hiking, especially, is an easy-entry activity for anyone to participate in—and good for all ages. One of our most recent popular events in Pennsylvania was a Camping 101 event, and we love to see large participation in these. We want people to come out with us, but more importantly, we want to restore outdoor leadership back to the home. When people learn how to do things and are supported to learn new skills, then they can employ them with and without Outdoor Afro. 

Are you excited with how it's grown?

My biggest joy is seeing the smiles of people when they’re out on Outdoor Afro events, and our leaders showing up as experts and changing the face of outdoor leadership. We’ve trained hundreds of leaders so far—and many have been with us for more than eight years. But no matter how long they’re with us they are always part of the Outdoor Afro family. I am proud that many past leaders have gone on to continue their love of nature and community in various ways. 

Any new plans for the future? 

We’ve just expanded to more than 100 leaders and will hold our annual leadership training in April. We’re focused on expanding most of the existing networks, both through adding leaders and recruiting more participants. We base potential new networks on interest from the previous recruitment season, ongoing inquiries and other communications, and where Black people live. 

I also have a book coming out in fall 2022 about Black joy in nature, published by Chronicle Book. It tells the stories of people I admire about their love and connection to nature, along with beautiful, rich photos. Looking out further ahead, we’re also interested in creating a land-based headquarters where Outdoor Afro can facilitate outdoor recreation skill building and serve as a welcoming retreat for people. 

More Info: outdoorafro.com

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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