In 2009, Rue Mapp was thinking about business school, weighing the pros and cons, and wondering if it was the right choice. The former Morgan Stanley analyst turned to her mentor for advice. But rather than give her an answer, her mentor asked a question: If you could be doing anything right now, what would it be?
Just like that, Mapp knew an MBA wasn't in her near future. Instead, she decided to combine everything she loved — from nature to community to technology — into an organization that would reconnect African-Americans to the outdoors.
A mere two weeks after her mentor asked that one simple question, Mapp launched Outdoor Afro using Facebook and a blog. She started writing about her love of nature, and her experience of being the only black person at many hiking and camping activities. That story resonated with a lot of other African-Americans, who would write her to say that they, too, were tired of being the "only one."
Mapp set out to change that. Outdoor Afro uses social media and volunteers to organize outdoor recreational activities — like camping, hiking, birding, biking and skiing — for African-Americans all over the country. Six years after its launch, there are 30 trained leaders in cities across the United States and 7,000 active members. The group's tagline says it all: "Where black people and nature meet."
Training new volunteers and leaders, Mapp insists, is a core element of the program. "I think in order for us to really see a more diverse and representative population of people in nature that looks like America, it's necessary to have leadership that looks like America," she says.
As part of the latest round of training, Outdoor Afro recently held three days of intensive workshops at the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia, covering everything from how to dress for different outings, to pointing out flora and fauna, to getting the word out on social media. Almost all of the people there were volunteers being taught how to lead nature excursions back home in their own communities.
Some were veterans of the organization, like Zoe Polk. She's the leadership director for Outdoor Afro and a civil rights attorney in San Francisco. She started leading trips four years ago and remembers her first one as a total flop.
"I chose a snowshoeing trip to Lassen [Volcanic] National Park, about four hours from San Francisco," Polk said. "There was a lot of interest, but no one came but me. It was a real learning experience about people getting to know me and getting to know what people want to know before they go out." Keeping that in mind, Polk worked on developing a relationship with the Outdoor Afro community in the Bay Area, and her second excursion — an ecology hike in the Oakland Hills, followed by a barbecue — was a success.
Other volunteers at the West Virginia event were brand new, like Tamara Johnson. She's a wildlife biologist and will be an Outdoor Afro leader in the Atlanta area. Johnson heard about the training through a Facebook post and decided to apply. For her, it has been an emotional experience, an opportunity to be around other passionate outdoor enthusiasts and a chance to help more African-Americans feel at home in spaces that have largely been seen as for whites.
"I'm trying to think of how to say this without being hokey," Johnson said. She points to how decades of activism and organization led to the historic gains of the civil rights movement, but few people appreciated the potential of those efforts in the midst of the struggle. Johnson hopes to have the same revolutionary impact, but on a different stage. "It wasn't the civil rights movement until we looked at it in the past. Ten, 15 years from now, we can say it all started here."
For many African-Americans, especially those of an older generation, being outside brings up concerns about safety. Autumn Saxton-Ross leads Outdoor Afro events around Washington, D.C. Growing up, her grandmother used to take her to Watermelon Hill in Kansas City's Swope Park. Until desegregation, it was the only place in the park that black people were allowed to visit. With that history in mind, Saxton-Ross' grandmother wouldn't take her to other parts of the park, even in the 1980s, long after segregation had ended, for fear that something bad might happen.
That uneasiness contributed to the view of outdoor recreation as "white," a feeling that was often passed down to younger generations. But the "black people don't do nature" stereotype is just not accurate, says Saxton-Ross. Even if they don't realize it, African-Americans have had a connection to the outdoors for most of their lives, be it fishing holes or a backyard barbecue pit. For many Outdoor Afro volunteers, their favorite outdoor place growing up was their grandparents' backyard. "It's important for us to remember that nature is really anything outdoors," says Saxton-Ross. "It's not just these big spaces like Yosemite."
Outdoor Afro leaders are encouraged to reinforce that connection by sharing stories of black history in nature on every excursion. Mapp refers to protesters who marched in Selma as "hikers." Harriet Tubman, abolitionist and hero of the Underground Railroad, is remembered as a naturalist who understood waterways, astronomy, herbal medicine and geography. That understanding helped her move enslaved Africans from the South to freedom in the North. George Washington Carver is honored as a scientist who employed sustainable agricultural practices more than a century ago.
For Rue Mapp, getting people outside and enjoying fresh air is the first and most important step in reconnecting people of color to those bigger outdoor spaces, and in helping them realize that those places are, in fact, for everyone.
(Independent producer and editor Laura Krantz contributed to this story.)
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
There's a long-held stereotype - outdoor activities and exploring nature is a white people thing. Today, we introduce you to a group called Outdoor Afro. It's tagline - where black people and nature meet. The group organizes outdoor recreation activities for African-Americans like camping, hiking, biking and birding. NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji from our Code Switch team takes us into the woods.
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Thirty Outdoor Afros circle up before a hike, introduce themselves and share their favorite childhood spaces in nature.
ALLISON: Allison from New York City. My favorite place was my grandmother's grapevine.
WANDY STEWART: Wandy Stewart (ph) from East St. Louis, Ill., 6 Plum Street, my grandma's house in Alabama.
MATTHEW REESE: Matthew Reese from Seattle, Wash., and one of my favorite childhood places was...
MERAJI: Hikes start with a check in. This one is used to remind folks they've had a connection to the outdoors for most of their lives. The black people don't do nature stereotype is just not accurate says Autumn Saxton-Ross. She leads Outdoor Afro events around Washington, D.C.
AUTUMN SAXTON-ROSS: As we were going around and talking about, you know, what is your favorite space, almost half said something about their grandmother and the backyard. So it's just very important for us to remember that nature really is anything outdoors. It's not these big spaces of Yosemite but it is a yard.
MERAJI: Saxton-Ross also chose her grandmother's backyard and a special spot in Kansas City's Swope Park.
SAXTON-ROSS: Called Watermelon Hill. And so that was the only place in this park that black people could go to. And so my grandmother - that was the only place that she would ever take me in the park.
MERAJI: Saxton-Ross says even though it was the '80s and a law ended segregation in Swope Park in 1954, it's the only place her grandma felt safe. That kept them from exploring more of the park together, let alone hiking trails in the nearby woods. Part of Outdoor Afro's mission is to expose more African-Americans to places and spaces outside their comfort zone. Thirty volunteers are being trained to help with that, and this hike is part of that training.
ZOE POLK: The path that we're walking - how did it change in this last section? Green and lush? Anything else?
MERAJI: Zoe Polk stops the group to discuss their surroundings and hydrate before an incline. Polk's the leadership director for Outdoor Afro and a civil rights attorney in San Francisco. She's organized three days of intensive workshops at the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia, covering everything from how to dress, to pointing out flora and fauna, to getting the word out on social media.
POLK: We want to show folks back at home, who for whatever reason didn't get out to join us today, how much fun we had and maybe they'll come out on the next Outdoor Afro hike. So I really encourage everyone to take as many photos as you can, tweet about it, Instagram about it, anything you want to do with the social media is encouraged.
RUE MAPP: Outdoor Afro was born in social media.
MERAJI: Rue Mapp is the founder and CEO and launched Outdoor Afro in Oakland, Calif., in 2009. She was seriously considering going back to school to get her MBA but knew it would be tough as a single mom with three kids. A mentor encouraged her to imagine her dream job. Her answer...
MAPP: If time and money weren't an issue, I probably would start a website to reconnect African-Americans to the outdoors.
MERAJI: Two weeks later, Outdoor Afro was born on Facebook and a blog.
MAPP: And I just started telling my story using the blog and using Facebook, and it resonated with people. People from all over the country said, hey, that story sounds really familiar. I'm sick of being the only one myself.
MERAJI: Mapp's family had land in northern California where they fished and gardened and went on walks together. She said being in nature as a child was about being in community with other black people, but when she went out on hikes and camping as an adult, she was often the only black person. She says she's aware of programs that introduce hiking and camping to people of color, but you rarely find African-Americans leading those initiatives. That's why she included leadership training in what Outdoor Afro does.
MAPP: In order for us to really see a more diverse and representative population of people in nature that looks like America, it's necessary to have leadership that looks like America.
TAMARA JOHNSON: I'm Tamara Johnson and I am a wildlife biologist. And I will be an Outdoor Afro leader in the Atlanta area.
MERAJI: Johnson saw a Facebook post and decided to apply for the Outdoor Afro leadership training. She says it's been an emotional experience, being around like-minded people who are just as passionate about nature as she is.
JOHNSON: I'm trying to think of how to say this without being hokey. We are unified, and we're going to change things. You know, I wonder if this is kind of how they kind - and this might sound dramatic - but, you know, before the Civil Rights Movement, it wasn't the Civil Rights Movement until we looked at it in the past. Ten, 15 years from now, we can say it all started here.
POLK: I just want to say thank you to all of you guys for coming.
MERAJI: At this hike's end, leadership director Zoe Polk reminds trainees, all Outdoor Afro events should finish the way they started - by facing each other in a circle. She suggests they all share their experience in one word.
POLK: So I'll start. New.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Decompression.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Relaxing.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Ideas.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Inspiring.
MERAJI: Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Friendship.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Therapeutic.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: Educational.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: One world.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: Rejuvenating.
POLK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.