Leonie Sherman
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Expanding access to adventure

By Leonie Sherman

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery, escaped to Philadelphia, and then promptly turned around to rescue her family. She made 13 missions that delivered 70 enslaved people to freedom, traveling by night and using a network of houses known as the Underground Railroad. At Combahee Ferry she became the first woman to lead an armed raid in the Civil War and helped liberate more than 700 enslaved people. She’s remembered as an icon of courage and freedom, but rarely as a wilderness leader. The Oakland-based organization Outdoor Afro aims to fix that by changing the way we view black history and inspiring a new generation of black outdoor leaders.

Ten years ago, Outdoor Afro founder and CEO Rue Mapp noticed there weren’t a lot of people in the outdoors who looked like her. To find out if others shared her passion and ancestry, she started a blog. In the first few years she wrote over 500 posts about how to connect black kids to nature through leadership development. She started taking folks on hikes and organizing events. Her work was quickly recognized by leaders in the industry and she was invited to take part in a think tank that informed Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Initiative.

“I wasn’t like anyone else in that room,” Mapp explains. “I wasn’t affiliated with a national organization or brand. I was there to represent something I’d created that resonated with folks.”  In 2012, three years after writing her first blog post, Mapp trained a group of leaders by conference call. The next year she led the training in person. In April 2019, Outdoor Afro completed their sixth annual leadership conference. “We trained 85 folks from all over the country,” says Communications Director Yanira Castro, with obvious pride. “They’ll lead about 900 events this year. A lot of those events are hikes, ranging from an hour to a couple of days. We will probably reach 40,000 people this year.”

Outdoor Afro aims to get black kids outside and change the way they think about nature.  “Our events are centered in a black narrative and black history of the land we are standing on,” explains Castro. “Sometimes there’s an event taking place on the birthday of an African American leader or icon. A lot of times our leaders share indigenous history about who was here before the land became what it is now. If you dig deep enough there is always something to talk about that centers black and indigenous history.” Leaders often spend more time researching that background than leading the actual outdoor event.

Though they focus on black people, their programs are open to everyone. “You don’t have to have an afro to participate in an Outdoor Afro event,” says Castro with a laugh. Over the years they’ve reached across the country into the lives of thousands of ordinary people. “Through our outdoor leadership programs we’ve touched the lives of the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, all these people who share a fire in their belly to connect people to nature,” says Mapp.

Ultimately, Outdoor Afro’s goal is to change lives. Before she started Outdoor Afro, Mapp worked at Morgan Stanley, was a community activist, an outdoor lover and a mother of three. “Outdoor Afro allowed me to combine all these parts of myself and it does the same thing for our leaders, our volunteers, and our participants. Our organization allows people to realize their full potential,” says Mapp. Those changes ripple out to affect family, friends, and the entire community. “Before, they may have sat in front of a television after eating dinner. Now they go on a hike or go camping together,” explains Mapp. “People find new careers and new passions. We continue to grow as an organization but our focus remains on encouraging people to live transformative lives.”

Outdoor Afro

Rue Mapp rock climbing at Cragmont Park in Berkeley. Photo courtesy of Outdoor Afro

That involves transforming the way people relate to the outdoors. “We do have some specific histories to unpack, some fears and perceptions to undo.” says Mapp. “There’re a lot of assumptions involved in even going on your first camping trip – do you have a good enough car to get there, do you know how to stay warm and dry?” And there are even deeper assumptions about the tranquility of nature. “The forest was not a peaceful place for us,” explains Mapp. “African Americans were lynched in this country. We hung from trees. A lot of us have a generational fear of the woods.”

That fear, caused by institutionalized racism, extends beyond the land. “African Americans have had a really challenging relationship with water over the past half century,” explains Mapp. “You can trace the fact that a disproportionate number of African Americans don’t know how to swim back to Jim Crow laws, not having access to pools, or waterfronts or beaches. That may be your grandmother or grandfather who couldn’t swim because they were denied access.” African American kids aged 5-19 drown at a rate five times higher than their white counterparts.

So Outdoor Afro is rolling out a two year program to teach young African Americans to swim, funded by grants from Keen, Clif Bar and The North Face. Individuals can go to outdoorafro.com and fill out an application to win a swimmership of up to $250. Leaders will organize swimming classes for locals to learn as a group. And Outdoor Afro will partner with national organizations like the Red Cross. “We can’t teach every black child in America to swim, but if we can get 500 folks learning to swim this year it will be a great start,” explains Mapp. Ultimately the swimming initiative will become part of what Outdoor Afro will always do.

They understand that learning to swim is not just a lifesaving activity; it’s a nature embracing activity. People who can’t swim aren’t going to kayak, surf, go fishing, visit beaches or try stand up paddling. They won’t have the opportunity to develop relationships with wild rivers or coasts. “If we want folks to have a conservation relationship with water, we need to nurture their ability to swim,” explains Mapp.

Outdoor Afro

Outdoor Afro participant at a beginners swim event. Photo courtesy of Outdoor Afro

Learning a new skill or engaging with an unfamiliar experience can be scary. Outdoor Afro aims to soften that fear by providing a supportive network of peers. “When people have an opportunity to engage with the outdoors as a group, with a trained leader, they can unpack their experiences at a personal level,” says Mapp. “We can explain things all day long, but nothing replaces direct experience. Ultimately they have to go out there and do it. We create a framework where people can connect with nature in a safe way, with all of their intellectual curiosity intact.”

“The outdoors is for everyone and it’s going to take all hands on deck to expand the opportunities for everyone to enjoy and protect the precious wild places we love,” Mapp continues. “We at Outdoor Afro work to lower barriers and find common ground in the platform of nature which cares nothing about how much money you have or what gender you are. Nature is really the ultimate open source platform for all of us to live our best lives.” 

Outdoor Afro

Outdoor Afro Northern California participants enjoying the American River. Photo courtesy of Outdoor Afro

Outdoor Afro

Outdoor Afro NorCal participant loving the outdoors on the American River. Photo courtesy of Outdoor Afro

Outdoor Afro

Outdoor Afro volunteer leader, Chaya Harris, at Yosemite National Park. Photo courtesy of Outdoor Afro