How Rue Mapp Of Outdoor Afro Is Helping Black Americans Connect & Heal In Nature
Once Black Lives Matter surfaced as a movement in 2014, Rue Mapp knew she had a decision to make.
When the founder of Outdoor Afro, a nonprofit that facilitates outdoor experiences for Black Americans, started considering the role that her company could play in the historic moment, she had a revelation of sorts: "I realized we were standing on the shoulders of the Black tradition and [thought of] the lyrics of the song about laying our burdens down by the riverside," Mapp says on a call with mbg. "That's the moment I really understood that my work was about healing. And we've been doing Healing Hikes ever since."
Hiking to heal.
Healing Hikes offers an opportunity for Black Americans to gather in nature with the intention of healing in community. They are just one offering on Outdoor Afro's long docket of outdoor experiences. Trained guides throughout the country lead groups of various sizes on hikes, kayaking trips, birding expeditions, and just about every other outdoor activity imaginable. Along the way, they provide information about the history and biology of the areas being explored and hold space for all attendees, making sure nobody is left behind.
While not explicitly named as such, all of these outings are innately healing. In a country where Black people were long barred from certain trails and parks—and some are still made to feel unwelcome on them to this day—claiming a spot in the outdoors can be cathartic.
"When I go to a national park, it doesn't look like America," says Mapp. "It looks like a private club." By lowering some of the barriers of entry to meaningful outdoor experiences, Mapp and her network hope to encourage members to seek them out in their daily lives—be it in Yosemite or their own neighborhood.
Mapp, a lover of forests and lakes, sees all pockets of the outdoors as equalizers that don't judge people based on skin color, gender, or physique.
"When you are out in nature, you have a very different experience than when you're in hard landscapes," Mapp says, referring to streets filled with police and riot gear, skies filled with helicopters. "Those are things that are absent from the faces of redwood trees. It gives us a chance to really get in tune with how we're feeling."
Right now, in particular, there's a lot to feel and process. And while COVID-19 has disrupted Outdoor Afro's programming, the group continues to hold virtual and some in-person meetups across the country.
As Mercy Quaye, an Outdoor Afro leader from New Haven, Connecticut, recently shared on Instagram, "Particularly at a time like this where a pandemic is keeping us at home and isolated, and impacting oppressed communities more harshly, it's important to remember that environmental justice is integral to protecting Earth—the only home we've ever known."
The outdoors are for everyone.
Outdoor Afro is one of a handful of companies championing BIPOC experiences outdoors (Latino Outdoors, The Trail Posse, and NativesOutdoors are a few others), and they exist alongside social media campaigns collecting stories and images of diversity outside (most recently, #BlackPeopleWhoHike). These movements hint at a more inclusive outdoor industry in which connection with nature is a basic human right.
Such a future would benefit everyone and everything: Mapp believes that the more people feel safe, comfortable, and welcome in the outdoors, the more inclined they are to live sustainably. "We're not going to bring people along in a meaningful way if we shame them into these actions. We have to take the time to get to know our environment and get to know one another."
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.