Connecting Black Americans to the Outdoors
Not a day goes by when Rue Mapp, founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro — a social network for Black Americans interested in camping, hiking, and other activities — doesn’t think back to the day when a mentor asked her what she would be doing if time and money weren’t issues. “I immediately said ‘I would start a website to connect Black Americans to the outdoors'," recalls Mapp.
“After that conversation in 2009, it was like a clearing had occurred in my mind,” she says. “I may not have seen that coming, but it was my truth.”
Two weeks later, Mapp launched Outdoor Afro as a blog — and she’s written 350 blog posts since. “It was all I could talk about and all I wanted to show up for,” she says. “I never thought I could do this for a living, but even that turned out to be a big surprise.”
Getting out in nature is something Mapp loved as a kid. A Girl Scout alum who grew up in Oakland, California, she counts as some of her fondest memories being on her parents’ ranch north of Napa, where she spent hours with her dad, who loved hunting and fishing.
Mapp also remembers camping for the first time with Girl Scouts when she was 9 — which led to a pivotal writing experience for the blogger. “I wrote in my journal about how much fun I had at Girl Scout camp,” she says. “That was the beginning of me writing and journaling about my life and the things I cared about.”
"It’s terrifying. But when you’re in your truth, there’s an urgency that cannot be denied."
Less than a year after she launched Outdoor Afro, her blog caught the attention of the Obama administration. It was 2010, and the administration had just kicked off its America’s Great Outdoors initiative.
“I was invited to the White House, and there I was in this room with professionals who were all committed to the outdoors, conservation, and the outdoor industry,” she recalls. “They warmly embraced me and continue to be an influence.”
In 2015, Mapp was appointed by then-California Governor Jerry Brown as one of nine voting commissioners of the California state parks. In the years since, she has become one of the country’s most influential voices on the importance of racial diversity in the outdoors.
Today, Outdoor Afro is a full digital platform, connecting thousands of people to various outdoor experiences and changing the face of conservation in the process. From the About page of the website: “Outdoor Afro has become the nation’s leading, cutting-edge network that celebrates and inspires Black American connections and leadership in nature. We help people take better care of themselves, our communities, and our planet!”
Mapp runs three offices — in Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Oakland —and works with 90 leaders across 30 states. Her blog, meanwhile, reaches more than 50,000 followers daily. Still, Outdoor Afro is offering immersive experiences in nature, of which she is most proud. “Last year, our groups climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, [hiked] the Appalachian Trail, and biked the route of the Buffalo Soldier in New Mexico,” she says. “Continuing to nurture this is incredibly important to me.”
This past fall, Mapp won the Heinz Award in the Environment category for her role in developing Outdoor Afro, training a national network of Black American conservation leaders, and “inspiring Black Americans to rediscover their historic connections to the outdoors.”
Also in 2019, Outdoor Afro created and offered a learn-to-swim program.
“Black American children are drowning at five times the rate of their white counterparts,” says Mapp. “We decided to do something about it — we’re going to teach every child in our sphere of influence how to swim. After all, kids won’t get into a kayak, put a pole in a lake, or care about plastic in the ocean if they don’t know how to swim.”
On thinking back to 2013, when she decided to work full-time transitioning Outdoor Afro from a blog to a larger business, Mapp recalls feeling both excited and nervous. Ultimately, taking the leap felt like a leap of faith.
“It’s terrifying,” she says. “But when you’re in your truth, there’s an urgency that cannot be denied. I encourage everyone to go for it if there’s something you really feel you must do. Give yourself over to it fully.”
“[Building the Outdoor Afro business] was a very financially uncertain move, but I felt I had a calling, and saying ‘yes’ was exactly what I needed to do. I remember a friend once said something I’ve always remembered: ‘Step out and the net will appear.’ That’s exactly what happened.”