Into the wild

African American environmentalist Rue Mapp gets people of color outside

  • Rue Mapp on an Outdoor Afro outing at Oakland's Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline.

    Delane Sims
  • Clapper rail

    Rangerrich1961, Creative Commons at Flickr.com
 

Rue Mapp's Afro flutters gently in the wind, framing her face as she sets up a table at Oakland's Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline on an early May Saturday. The area's not what you'd call a wilderness, but this narrow strip of parkland near the Oakland International Airport, running between Interstate 880 and the San Leandro Bay, preserves unique habitat and draws birdwatchers from around the Bay Area. Mapp sings out to one as he climbs out of his van, binoculars in hand. "Good morning! How are you doing? Did you see any clapper rails this morning?"

Mapp and the birder, who'd just come from another site in the park, chat about the endangered California bird, which frequents this marsh. Then she describes her mission for the day: "I'm bringing out a group of African American folks who've not really been exposed to birding."

Mapp, 38, an Oakland native who grew up hunting, fishing and camping, is the founder of Outdoor Afro, a growing online community dedicated to getting African Americans outdoors. Mapp is a sort of evangelist for the cause. As would-be birdwatchers trickle into the parking lot, Mapp, in jeans and fleece vest, introduces them to one another and explains today's outing, a walk around the park in search of species.

There aren't a lot of black birdwatchers, campers, hikers and cyclists. Researchers cite a number of reasons, including the historical association of the outdoors with hard labor and the horrors of slavery.  It was in the woods that lynchings took place, for example, and not that long ago. In the mid-20th century, environmental racism -- lack of access to green space, for instance -- discouraged  African Americans from enjoying parks and outdoor amenities. Mapp has always lamented this lack of participation. "I craved the ability to go out with people who looked just like me," the avid outdoorswoman says.

A year ago, Mapp decided to create a national online community to help black people plan outdoor outings. Mapp's blog, which she updates frequently, profiles African Americans in the outdoors; recent posts featured a cyclist and a surfer. Her Facebook page hosts a buoyant group of nearly 1,500 fans, who discuss topics ranging from backcountry hair care to backyard bird identification. Outdoor Afro members join her in regularly posting photos, events, videos and articles there and on her Ning network, with a boosterism that rivals a political campaign.

At the start of the outing, Senora Jones, 78, of Oakland's Grand Lake Retirement community, declines binoculars, but is soon perched out on the Arrowhead Marsh trail, eagerly peering at marshland birds through an Audubon-donated spotting scope. "This is my first experience (birdwatching)," says Jones. "I've lived here for most of my life and I've never been to this park -- and it's absolutely beautiful."

Delane Sims, one of today's birdwatchers-in-training, recently attended a bike ride Mapp organized through Outdoor Afro. This morning, she's intent on photographing rare bird species. "Let me tell you: I don't want to move from this spot until I capture the clapper rail."

A black couple walking by glances over curiously, and Mapp explains why her group is holding up binoculars and exclaiming over avocets. It's a short step from curiosity to caring, Mapp believes. Participating in outdoor activities can help African Americans become healthier and more aware of the environment. That, in turn, might inspire activists to fight for environmental justice and other environmental causes in their communities.

Mapp, who works for the Golden Gate Audubon Society and also as a nonprofit development consultant, says Outdoor Afro was a longtime dream of hers. The site is free to its approximately 1,500 online users, but she believes it can become financially self-sustaining once it acquires paying partners who want access to the community she's built. "What I am all for is people cultivating their own relationships with the outdoors," she says. "And they become stewards of it."

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