Celebrating Black joy in nature with Outdoor Afro’s Rue Mapp

An interview with Rue Mapp, CEO and founder of Outdoor Afro and author of
Nature Swagger: Stories and Visions of Black Joy in the Outdoors

In her preface to Nature Swagger: Stories and Visions of Black Joy in the Outdoors, Outdoor Afro founder Rue Mapp describes summertime at Big Oak, her family ranch in Lake County, CA. Watching pollywogs in Copsey Creek, canning plums and pears, and growing the food that her Southern-born father prepared for many visiting relatives, Rue felt her love for the outdoors blossom in this lively, nurturing setting. Back home in Oakland, she camped with Girl Scouts and pursued two very indoor and ultimately formative activities: keeping a journal and programming BASIC on a Commodore computer. After raising her kids and earning her degree at U.C. Berkeley, Rue combined her passions into a blog called Outdoor Afro, laying the foundation for what would later become a national not-for-profit organization that celebrates and inspires Black connections and leadership in nature.

Community, nature, technology, and writing could finally be woven into a single expression. It was a moment of true homecoming for me, to be fully expressed and healed as an individual, while providing a chance to help my community do the same. (Mapp, 19)

Since launching in 2009, this organization has put founder, CEO, and Vallejo resident Rue Mapp on the national stage, earning coverage from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, NPR, and more. The organization, active in sixty American cities, selects and trains 100-plus volunteer leaders nationwide each year, and uses Meetup and Facebook to host events that connect thousands to the outdoors. In 2018, Outdoor Afro organized the first American All-Black expedition team to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Nature Swagger makes visible—and joyful—a too often under-told story of the ongoing connection between Black people and the land. Its chorus of many voices—ranging in age from ten to ninety-eight—cover a wide area of American geography, but a common theme throughout is the sense of homecoming, a feeling of return and belonging that comes from the land. Sometimes the land that felt like home was there since childhood; sometimes, home is what one finds on the quest of adulthood.

Rue Mapp’s book is divided into four themed sections. In each, she provides an introductory essay to first-person accounts from Black ranchers, park rangers, beekeepers, large carnivore ecologists, documentarians, surfers, and others expressing their love of and connection to the outdoors. All accounts contain beautiful photographs of the subjects outside in the lands they love.

Sam Adams, Solano Land Trust: I love the wide gallery of personalities, professions, and interests the book shares. There are mountaineers, ecologists, and duck hunters but there are also teachers and students, mixologists, teenage poets, medical technicians, CEOs, and librarians. Could you talk about your process and the motivation behind gathering these voices into a single book?

Rue Mapp: After starting Outdoor Afro, I discovered a new world of outdoor and nature enthusiasts who looked like me. Many of these people would become my newest wave of lifelong friends and trusted professional accomplices. There are other authors who are members of my family or high school friends who were able to recount from their perspective some of those early nature connections we shared as youth, and how those experiences shaped them in profound ways as well. I knew I wanted to create a platform for this tapestry of voices to be heard, and as the content rolled in, I was able to see how the contributors inspired the thematic chapters. I never aimed for a specific number of contributors, but instead tried to find a range of representation that was distinct and lesser known in the Black American canon of nature.

One lovely aspect of the book is learning how people need the outdoors for different reasons at different times. A man movingly describes spending more time in nature as he was preparing to come out to his family. A woman leaving an abusive relationship attributes her emotional healing to time camping in the field and researching animals in Tanzania. One of our goals at Solano Land Trust is to let people know open land is a resource for mental and emotional well-being. How do you and Outdoor Afro Outdoor Leaders communicate the land’s role in emotional and mental well-being?

Outdoor Afro, meaning the community who participates and supports it, has greatly instructed me over the years on where to focus our work, and how to grow and align with Black community needs. As you may recall in 2014, there was a mounting civic unrest in response to police-involved violence that inspired me to bring our community together in nature to discover an alternate way forward through our pain, unrest, and social trauma that so many of us were experiencing. Ever since, “Healing Hikes” have remained as part of the Outdoor Afro way to reclaim our joy and remind us of how our ancestors knew to take our burdens and lay them “down by the riverside.”

This book reckons honestly with the varied experience Black people have in the outdoors. One author wonders why they are consistently the only Black person at a local park. Another author takes a trip to Kenya, sees that every park ranger on the job is Black, and wonders why he would have ever thought this sight odd in the first place. I imagine Outdoor Afro attracts people who are already on board with outdoor activity, but for those stepping out of their comfort zone, how do Outdoor leaders get people past their caution and their inexperience and help participants develop the feeling that the outdoors is for them?

Photo from the Outdoor Afro hike held last October at
Patwino Worrtla Kodoi Dihi Open Space Park

It’s always been about getting out in affinity groups for me. When I was a new Bay Area mom, I joined a local mom’s group to learn all I could about this new experience from others who could understand and provide me with relevant local support and resources. The same is true for Outdoor Afro and how we thoughtfully empower local volunteers to help people get comfortable in nature experiences close to home, and so they do not have to feel like, “the only one.” From the many nature experiences I had with various groups over the years, I know how it feels to be in a group of strangers on top of leaders and participants who were unable to recognize my background, lived experience, and the cultural perspectives that came with me. Once you get people in a comfort zone, people are able to get more from their nature experiences, and discover relevant connections with others in them. So I recommend finding your people – seniors, a church group, scouts, and more. There are so many groups now to get people started within nature that build confidence and community for anyone.

Can you describe the process of joining an activity with Outdoor Afro? What about the process for people who would like to train to become Outdoor Leaders?

Visit our website at outdoorafro.org, and you can find your local network. Anyone who supports our mission is welcome to join us. We do outreach for volunteer leader applications in the winter of each year for the following year’s class. We are always looking for people of any professional background who are both connected to their community and have a fire in their belly to connect Black people to nature.

Let’s talk Solano County. What are some activities you like to do outdoors here? What do you see about this area’s potential to be an outdoor destination? What are some approaches which a community like ours might try to connect more people to nature?

After growing up in Oakland for most of my life, I am thankful to have lived in Vallejo for nearly the past five years. I’m still on a path to discover all there is to enjoy in Solano County. The mild climate with easy access to waterways makes it possible for me to get outside year-round. I have enjoyed fishing and boating the waterfronts of Benicia, Suisun, and RVing in Rio Vista. In Vallejo, I enjoy joining a local, casual bike and kayak group that meets on Sundays at Lake Chabot or Carquinez Strait. My favorite walks are along the Vallejo riverfront, where people always say, “hello,” and exploring the intersections of WWII naval history and nature at Mare Island Preserve. I enjoy wonderful bike rides along paths that have taken me through Green Valley, Fairfield, Vacaville, and across the stunning Carquinez Bridge. I’ve also duck hunted and fished in the Suisun Marsh at Grizzly Island Wilderness Area. I still feel I’ve only scratched the surface for all there is to do in nature in Solano County!

There’s so much joy in this book, so much proof of the good getting outdoors does for individuals and communities. What do you think people miss out on if a connection to and comfort in nature never has a chance to form?

On top of missing out on the majesty of moments found in nature – both big and small – you also miss out on the chance to connect with yourself. Our lives can be filled with so many distractions and demands that leave us feeling anxious, and sometimes turning to even more distractions and vices to drown out the noise. I find that time in nature is a wonderful and healthy reset button option to quiet the mind, and discover a connection to something vaster and perhaps more beautiful than you could imagine without spending time with it.

Below are a few links to support “Nature Swagger” and Outdoor Afro’s mission to celebrate and inspire Black connections and leadership in nature:

Purchase “Nature Swagger” on Amazon 
Donate to Outdoor Afro 
Support our Co-Branded Merch 
Learn more about Rue Mapp

Photos by Bethanie Hines
PWKD property photo by Jen Leonard