Freedom of the hills: Outdoor Afro’s Rue Mapp is creating equity in the outdoors

Freedom of the hills: Outdoor Afro’s Rue Mapp is creating equity in the outdoors

I met Rue Mapp, the founder of Outdoor Afro, on a wet January day in 2016 in Oakland’s Joaquin Miller Park. For 45 minutes, we hiked her favorite trail, a loop that winds through the redwood forest along Palo Seco Creek, a tributary to Sausal Creek, whose watershed stretches across Maxwell Park, where Mapp and I both lived at the time.

I discovered Mapp as many people do, on Twitter. She described Outdoor Afro as an organization born in social media: a group that connects African-Americans to nature with an aim to increase the representation of black people in outdoor activities. Social media is the lifeblood of Outdoor Afro: In 2009, it helped Mapp gain a following for her organization, and since then, it has helped Outdoor Afro build a nationwide network of black communities who like to get outside. 

Mapp was one of the first people I interviewed for my blog (the predecessor to this website) because I was interested in her journey as an entrepreneur who crafted her job around her passion, without sacrificing work-life balance in the process. And I love her organization’s mission—not only to get more people outside (which research shows makes us happier and healthier) but also to promote equity in the outdoors. The idea of equity is central to our Life I Want project because Christine and I believe that creating the life you want can only be done in an equitable society—not at the expense of others.

As someone who is equally passionate about the outdoors, I was delighted when Mapp suggested we do this interview on a hike. Lulu, her joyful pitbull, led the way, poking her nose into puddles freshly formed from the recent rain.

The idea takes root

The seed of Outdoor Afro formed when Mapp was a girl. Her family had a ranch in Lower Lake, California, north of wine country and just south of Clear Lake, where she spent a lot of time playing outside. In addition to exploring nature, she spent time as a child experimenting with coding.

As an adult, Mapp followed the path of an entrepreneur. “I’m known in my family as the one who makes fast, good decisions,” she said. In 2003, while eight-months pregnant with her third child, she and her then-husband started a game store. “I put everything into that—the business plan, the location, the logo, the relationship with vendors, the associations, the data, the research on what was going to be happening 10 years from that moment (which has all happened), and everything that was intended for the store to be came true,” she said.

That experience gave Mapp confidence: “What could I do if it were me who had the passion or vision?”

After Mapp got divorced in 2009, she returned to college to finish her undergraduate education. “I had three kids and needed to have choices, and I was going to have fewer choices without completing my education,” Mapp recalled. It was the height of the recession, but Mapp was able to rent out her Oakland house and move to the University of California, Berkeley’s University Village, student housing in Albany, a town bordering Berkeley.

At Cal, Mapp studied art history and had the chance to explore the artistic representation of the American forest. “What I really appreciated was being able to see how important visual representation was to tell a story that anyone can relate to—whether or not you can read,” she said. This idea became significant when she later used social media as a platform to show black people getting outside.

Toward the end of her studies, an adviser asked Mapp about her plans for the future, inviting her to explore all possibilities. “If time and money were not an issue, what would you really want to do?” her adviser asked. “I’d start a website to reconnect African-Americans to the outdoors,” Mapp replied, surprising herself. “It was that moment of words just spilling out of my mouth, and two weeks later, I just grabbed a blog template and started writing.”

‘Outdoor Afro was given to me!’

Mapp published her first Outdoor Afro post in April of 2009. This was early days in social media, when someone like Mapp, who didn’t have the money and resources of a PR firm, could reach a wide audience. As someone who has always been comfortable with new technology, and as a woman who likes to build connections, Mapp dove into the world of social media, joining Tweet-ups and blogging conferences. Outdoor Afro took root in the fertile grounds of social media. “It enabled us to be born into social media in a way that’s different from traditional organizations that had to re-engineer themselves for it,” Mapp said.

In its early days, Mapp was running Outdoor Afro as a side business. To earn an income, she also had full-time job as a program officer at a small foundation focused on getting low-income teens outside. She described the job as her graduate school. “I read lots and lots of proposals,” she said.

At a certain point, she felt she had the knowledge and skills she needed to run Outdoor Afro full time. “I ended up feeling this urgency and knew my time was up at the foundation,” she said. “Someone else could get trained to do this job, but Outdoor Afro was given to me—for some reason! And I needed to give myself fully to that.”

Mapp remarked that quitting her foundation job, along with its steady paycheck, required a certain tolerance for risk. “Here I am, leaving this nice job, with great benefits, and no savings, no anything,” she said. “But I had a couple friends who got it. One said, ‘Just step out, and the net will appear.’ And it did.”

I asked Mapp what the net was. “Income was a huge one. Professional recognition. In the beginning, people kind of stood back and wanted to wait and see. People were not on board right away. They were like, ‘OK, let’s see what she does with this.’”

An invite to the White House

Just one year after she launched Outdoor Afro, Obama called. Or rather, he emailed.

“You have to understand that, back then, we weren’t quite as technologically expectant, so when you think of an invitation to the White House, you’re not thinking it’s going to come in an email,” Mapp said. “So I got the Council on Environmental Quality email, with this subject line that says something like, ‘The White House Invites You,’ and I’m thinking, yeah, to weigh in on health care or make a donation.”

“Like an autocall,” I said.

“Exactly,” she replied. “And then I started reading it, and I was like, ‘Outdo-…! Rec-…!’ These are my people! This is real!”

But the White House doesn’t give much notice. Mapp had just two weeks to figure out who could look after her three kids and hold down the fort at Outdoor Afro. “Now, keep in mind, I still didn’t have a lot of money,” she said.

“But they did pay for your flight?” I asked.

“Heck no! It’s the White House! They don’t have to pay! Think about it: If you work for an organization, they’ll pay for you. But for an independent contractor like me, it was like, shoot, I have to do some immediate fundraising.” Mapp raised enough for her flight and also found someone to share a hotel room.

The fact that all of this happened so quickly is not lost on Map. “There’s definitely these moments when I wake up like, oh, my gosh, I’m making a living on something I totally made up,” she said. “It’s all a construct of my imagination.”

Job security and work-life balance

In 2014, Mapp incorporated Outdoor Afro as a nonprofit, which meant she could formally raise money and establish a board to support her work. It also meant she had a regular paycheck, an assistant, and a proper office in Oakland’s Uptown. At first, Mapp was wary of turning Outdoor Afro into a 501c3. “I was really worried that being nonprofit was going to mean smaller scale. But in truth, Kaiser Permanente is a nonprofit, the NFL is a nonprofit,” she said. “So I just had to work through my issues or perceptions of scale. I also realized I don’t have to give up my business roots, and the organization will actually benefit from them. So I decided to go with the nonprofit structure and use everything Mother Nature gave me—all the experiences I have had—and build an organization.”

Turning Outdoor Afro into a nonprofit also gave her life more balance. Mapp described a typical day: She wakes up and cooks her kids a hot breakfast, and then gets them off to school. On the day she met me, she stopped by the office to pick up an Outdoor Afro T-shirt for her daughter’s teacher (“because she is killing it in this class, and I think it’s because of him”). Then she takes Lulu to the dog park and returns home to get ready for her day. “I pretty much start my business workday around 10,” she said. “That way, there’s not a lot of pressure to have my personal ducks in a row at the same time as the kids. I can really just focus on them.”

I asked Mapp what she loves about her life now, and she reflected on the opportunity she has had as a black woman in the 21st century. “To be an entrepreneur—to be a leader, a nationally recognized leader—in a field that is dominated by white men,” she said. “I love the fact that we have the privilege, especially as African-American women—if you have a few key elements in place, like education, geography, and networks—you have the greatest chance of designing a life you want.”

Move over, Indiana Jones. Make room for the three-generational family.

At a grove of trees, Mapp stopped to show me a place she likes to share with others when she leads hikes. The air was fresh and the rain had brought out the smell of the forest floor. Above, the winter sun filtered through the redwood canopies. Mapp pointed out how the roots of different redwoods wrap around one another, forming an exposed tangle on the trail. “You can really see the interdependence of them,” she said. Once, on a hike with a Scouts troop, Mapp said a little girl stopped at this spot and described the tangled tree roots as a family. “I had a little tear squirting out of my eye,” Mapp recalled. “Kids just get it.”

Mapp said this is part of her mission: getting more diverse groups outside, together. “I get really jazzed about meeting new people, being in nature, and helping people have a-ha moments, big and small, and just really champion the vulnerable people and the vulnerable places that are all connected,” she said.

To Mapp, Outdoor Afro is about so much more than just connecting African-American communities to nature. It’s about changing the way people perceive what it means to go outside—and changing how outdoor resources are designed to accommodate different folks. Going outside shouldn’t be just about the white guy conquering the wilds on his own. “That’s Indiana Jones,” Mapp said. “We’re very much about the people together in nature—that’s just how people are wired to do it, especially communities of color. You’re going to do stuff with your kids, grandma. You’re all going to go out for a picnic. This is how there is exclusivity by design. If you design a campground, and it’s only two people, and a Latino or African-American family comes with a big slab of ribs and three generations, how does it adapt to the needs that family might have?”

Mapp noted that the typical membership model of environmental organizations is also exclusive: Most groups ask for an annual donation and they promote the wealthy people who decide to give more. At the Sierra Club, where I worked years ago, you can donate a monthly amount to become a Wilderness Guardian. But if you give $85 every month, you’re part of the John Muir Society. “I call the Outdoor Afro areas we have ‘networks’ or ‘hubs,’” Mapp explained. “We don’t want to chapterize because then you become a club, where you’re in or you’re out.”

Mapp’s superpower

It dawned on me that Mapp has grand ambitions of change—changing the conservation movement, changing the way we build parks and campgrounds, changing the way people experience nature, changing the way we view what it means to be outdoors, .

I asked her a question I ask everyone: “What’s your superpower?”

Mapp laughed out loud. “No one’s ever asked me that question!” After a long pause, she said her superpower is her ability to connect and make connections. Then she cut herself off. “Let me add something to that,” she said. “It’s hard to say this without sounding like I have all kinds of self-importance.” She hesitated. “I think connection is further down the rung—might be aiming too low. This word just came to me: I think it’s vision.” She laughed joyfully. “I always went further—way further—than was asked or could see another potential than was expected,” she said. “Vision. A seer. A futurist.”

Then we rounded a bend and finished our hike. “See?” Mapp said. “That’s a perfect loop.”

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