Why an outdoor group’s work is ‘more relevant than ever’

The founder of Outdoor Afro talks about racial violence and why we all need a dose of nature.

 

In 2011, Rue Mapp turned a blog about her experiences as a black woman in nature into an online platform that connects African-Americans to adventures like hiking, biking, camping and whitewater rafting. Today, Outdoor Afro has trained more than 60 leaders from 30 states, and helped 15,000 participants “find their tribe.” By sharing photos and stories from the trips, Mapp, who is 44 and lives in Oakland, California, has tried to reshape how outdoor recreation is portrayed in the public sphere, making it easier for African-Americans to envision themselves outdoors.

Lately, as African-American communities have grieved for the families of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, who were killed by police officers in Minnesota and Louisiana this month, Outdoor Afro’s purpose has expanded. “It’s not just about having community and getting outdoors,” Mapp says. “I’m finding it more and more to be a balm for some of the societal ills that African American communities face.” High Country News spoke with Mapp about those ills, and how connecting with the natural world can ease them. 

High Country News: Can you describe how you came up with the idea of “healing hikes”? 

Rue Mapp: Right now our country is so fractured around race and identity. I live in Oakland, and after what happened with Ferguson and Freddie Gray, Oakland was just bubbling over with tension. People were taking to the streets. The city was bracing for protests. There were ’copters overhead. I was leaving my office, thinking, ‘What does Outdoor Afro’s response need to be? What’s my personal response?’ And the answer came to me: It was nature. Nature is what I do.

So I got on the phone and contacted Outdoor Afro leaders around the country and called to action these healing hikes as an alternative to violent protest, or to protests that could produce violent outcomes. The point is to hold space that’s safe in response to black bodies being killed; to find a way to come to grips with that, while also creating an opportunity for a new reality in the outdoors for black people.

So far, we’ve hosted about 50 healing hikes, with anywhere from 10 to 30 people attending each one. In the past few weeks we’ve probably held a dozen around the country. We also activated them after the Orlando shootings, and after other injustices. And we introduced the concept into other communities. The Sierra Club, for example, has led healing hikes in Colorado.

HCN: What exactly is a healing hike? 

Mapp: For the first hike I coordinated two years ago, we had about 30 people who met in the Oakland hills. We started with some yoga and mindfulness and worked our way down into a redwood bowl, down, down, down, and then we stopped and began to share. I remember we’d positioned ourselves along a stream. In my consciousness — or even at a cellular level — I knew that we were doing what African-Americans had always known to do. We were laying our burdens down by the riverside. I don’t believe that in any other space could we have shared with the amount of compassion, focus and clarity as in that redwood forest. We removed ourselves from a place where there were choppers overhead and police in riot gear, and in the quiet of nature we could really absorb what we had to share.

Even though I already knew nature was a generous teacher, it was that moment that I realized nature was also a healer. We need it now more than ever before. As we came out of the forest, we talked about the new commitments we’d make in our families, in our workplaces and in our larger community to enact change. It was really powerful. I wish I could say we wrapped it up in a bow and moved on, but the reality is those wounds have continued to be… activated. And therefore we’ve had to continue to activate healing hikes. Especially in these last few weeks, in the midst of so much pain, in the midst of uncertainty so thick there’s no one not affected by it, having this work to dive into is so important. We’ve got Outdoor Afro leaders who are taking healing hikes to a new level of creativity and adapting them to their local communities. They’re making time for people to create art, to journal, to give ourselves a break from our screens and have a platform to speak. 

Outdoor Afro participants hike the Historic Railroad Hiking Trail at Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada.
Andi Rucker

HCN: You said that going to nature to heal is something that African-Americans have always known to do. I’ve also heard that the historical relationship between the wilderness and African-Americans, particularly in the South, has been based on fear or danger. Can you unpack that a little bit? 

Mapp: We can hold both of those realities. It’s not binary. It depends a lot on where you’re coming from, what your historical reference point is, where you are generationally. I grew up in a family that loved and appreciated getting out into nature, but the way they chose to do that was as a family or community experience, not solo backpacking in the High Sierra. They felt more comfortable and more safe doing it as part of a community. 

The issue when it comes to fear isn’t about the wilderness itself — it’s about who’s in the wilderness. Last year, in California, an African-American family that had been camping for decades were literally ran out of their camp by a man with a shovel in the middle of the night. It’s horrible. Those types of experiences continue to drive people away, and they trace back to the experiences people had with the Klu Klux Klan.

But it’s easy to talk about worst case scenarios. What we’re trying to do is shine a big bright light on how people are also transformed by the outdoors. We’re getting images out there that tell a different story.

If you’re interested in getting involved in Outdoor Afro, leadership team applications are now open on a rolling basis, or you can find activities near you at outdoorafro.com

Krista Langlois is a correspondent at High Country News.