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Connecting with Black History Through Community and Nature

By October 29, 2021

In 2009, Rue Mapp started a blog to share her experience participating in outdoor recreation activities as a Black woman in America. That blog grew into Outdoor Afro, a nationwide leadership network helping Black people engage with the outdoors, learn about the Black history of public spaces, and support conservation efforts. spoke with Rue about the inspiration behind Outdoor Afro, how technology has shaped its growth, and what’s next for the organization.

People posing in front of a waterfall
Outdoor Afro is a nationwide leadership network helping Black people engage with the outdoors, learn about the Black history of public spaces, and support conservation efforts.

What inspired you to start Outdoor Afro and grow it from a blog into a leadership network?

Rue Mapp (RM): I didn’t start with the intention of growing a national network. I started out sharing my experiences with the outdoors through my love of writing. The first post I wrote in 2009 was about a perspective-shifting trip I had taken with a local bike group of people who mostly looked like me.

I was inspired to share the possibility of groups of people who can recreate around a common background and outdoor enthusiasm. People started commenting, suggesting meetups, and asking for recommendations. I connected with people across the country who shared their outdoor dreams of connection. Our participants were hungry for leadership experiences, so we formalized a network to train people to become welcoming outdoor leaders in their own community. Welcoming and hospitality are values that sit at the heart of Outdoor Afro.

Children exploring rocks
Founder Rue Mapp was inspired to share the possibility of groups of people who can recreate around a common background and outdoor enthusiasm.

What role does unearthing and celebrating Black history play in Outdoor Afro’s mission and work?

RM: It’s a huge part of what we do. Beyond the hike or the challenge of a paddleboard, we connect Black people with the part of them that’s deep in our ancestry that we may have forgotten. We educate participants on the historical significance of public lands, unearthing long-omitted perspectives. It enriches our experiences, giving participants a deeper connection and a sense of belonging.

How have you scaled the organization to encompass more than 100 leaders in 56 cities across the U.S.?

RM: We started with a dozen leaders who responded to the call to join our first Outdoor Afro Leadership Team in 2012. I wanted to reconnect people to nature and share with others all I was learning about how to do it. Nature experiences can vary greatly around the country, from towering redwoods in the west, to the Rockies of Colorado, to the Florida Everglades. I knew that local relevance mattered. There is just no singular Black experience in America.

I also discovered that more people than I imagined wanted to be connected to nature and one another. Social media enabled us to broaden our reach substantially. When we are looking for opportunities in a region that is not currently served with one of our networks, we have volunteers and connections to create that organic growth.

What role has technology played in that growth, while allowing your leadership network to stay meaningfully connected?

RM: Technology has been instrumental in our growth. Something as simple as a hashtag can ignite growth as participants seek out similar communities and experiences. Comments provide critical feedback, help solve barriers to engagement and let us know what we are doing right. The ability to share our experiences across digital mediums has been key to our growth and visibility and also an important way to reach people who may be on the sidelines to see images and stories that they can connect with, and perhaps say, “Hey, I could see myself outside too!”

Salesforce enabled us to unify disparate systems into one, which was critical to streamline our operations. We want to keep participant and donor engagement high; having this information centralized ensures we can be more effective stewards of the relationships that are key to our growth and success.

People posing on top of Mount Kilimanjaro
The Outdoor Afro network consists of over 50,000 participants in 33 states.

How is Outdoor Afro “changing the face of conservation” and what does that look like?

RM: We are changing expectations about who cares about policies that protect public lands. Sometimes, when people imagine a conservationist, they don’t readily imagine someone who looks like me or my dad, who cared deeply about wild places.

Through our network of over 50,000 participants in 33 states, we have conducted our own version of civics class, and by educating our leaders, who weave conservation ethics into their events, we’ve been able to spotlight that Black people care about the protection of our environment. We also contribute our perspective to inform policies that impact the connection of Black people to nature and the stewardship of our natural resources.

When you look back on what you have achieved so far with this organization, what brings you the most joy?

RM: The authenticity of the growth. When I founded Outdoor Afro, I didn’t set out spreadsheets, market research, or quarterly goals. I wanted to connect people with nature. I didn’t have to force growth; it was led by curiosity and the raising of hands across regions, then the country. It was miraculous. I could say it was obvious there was a need to be fulfilled, but the organization has grown from my own vision to that of others who have found their own personal and professional summits. Today, I feel I am an evangelist of creating connection, community, and transformation through nature.

What are your big dreams, hopes, and goals for the future of Outdoor Afro?

RM: I dream that Outdoor Afro continues to grow and be of service to our community for the next 100 years. I hope we can continue to deepen our community engagement while facilitating high-quality experiences. Salesforce will help eliminate redundancy and automate some essential operations, freeing up our team to lean further into building authentic relationships and focus on what’s most important: folks joyously getting outside and connecting with the healing power of nature. You don’t have to have fancy gear or equipment. Just go and experience nature!

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