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Rue Mapp started Outdoor Afro as a kitchen table blog ten years go to shift the visual representation of who we imagine gets outside. The site has evolved into a nonprofit with Outdoor Afro leaders and participants all over the country. Mapp is the recipient of the 2019 Heinz Award for the Environment.

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple sat down with Mapp, along with Kim Refosco, an Outdoor Afro leader in Pittsburgh.

LISTEN to their conversation

Kara Holsopple: Tell me a little bit about how you grew up and how the outdoors influenced you.

Rue Mapp: Well, I grew up in a family that came from the south and like many African-American families, migrated north and east and west. My family was a part of that great migration. They brought with them their love for nature and the outdoors.

They set up a ranch, which I completely took for granted. But it was really my laboratory for just connecting with the local environment, like what was going on with our local creek that was adjacent to the land was something I always looked forward to, jumping out of the car when we would get there to check out. There was just this sense of order and community and hospitality that I feel continued to be a really big part of the work today.

KH: I’m interested in the word hospitality, tell me a little bit more about what you mean by that.

RM: My dad had this saying that you have a standing invitation. We had sometimes so many people in our house at the ranch that there would be people sleeping on the kitchen floor. There was always a hot meal and a sense of welcoming.

That’s what I want to keep alive in this organization and really be a model for how we can be and how we can belong in the outdoors. Because the reality is that in this country, we’ve not always been welcomed. You know, there were those signs that said we could not go into this or that park or swim in this or that public pool. So [Outdoor Afro] really doubles down on the black joy and the ability to get out and be free.

KH: So what’s changed over the last 10 years? You have a lot of chapters, how many people are involved?

RM: We’re currently headquartered in Oakland [California] with offices in Seattle and in Washington, D.C. We have trained nearly 90 African-American men and women from around the country who come from a variety of professional backgrounds. The thing that they all have in common is this fire in their belly to connect people to nature.

“Nature is really the ultimate open source platform for everyone to not only come together and community, but to help enrich our lives and solve some of our most pressing problems.”

It’s this homegrown community, this network really became the core, because when you’re talking about participation, you know, it tends to be a more transactional viewpoint. You know, we’re going to take X number of kids, for instance, to some remote place and we’re gonna feel good about ourselves because we’ve done this one time event.

Whereas Outdoor Afro is really changing the conversation and the narrative about leadership and empowerment and helping to restore outdoor leadership back to the home.  So we’re not depending on programs that are formed outside of our communities to engage our communities and our families.

KH: Kim, you’re one of those leaders. Just tell me a little bit about what your experience has been like here in the Pittsburgh area with this group.

Kim Refosco: Pittsburgh is one of the newer networks to Outdoor Afro. And I was always looking for a group to belong to that likes to do some of the things that I like to do. And I would get online and I would see this group Outdoor Afro. And I’m like, okay, I can’t wait till there’s an event near me. And I would continuously look and there was not an event near me.

It occurred to me that I could be that person. I can help out and be the Pittsburgh leader and make these events near me. I got very inspired by Rue’s story and going to the first leadership training. And I’m just learning what they were about and feeling that hospitality that Rue spoke of that I was excited to get back to Pittsburgh and get started on it.

KH: When you say you were looking for a group, you were looking specifically for an African-American group or just someplace where you felt comfortable?

KR: Originally, I started taking some classes in fly fishing and nobody fly fishing looks like me as a woman or as a black woman. And so for me, just finding that someone that I felt comfortable with to do that. I wasn’t necessarily looking just for a black organization. But then when I found out that this is the black organization of black people who also like to do what I do, it just connected.

KH: What are the stereotypes about African-Americans and the outdoors that maybe keep people inside?

RM: One of the things I like to do is to push back on those stereotypes because they just are stereotypes. When we go around our circle and invite people into our events, I often hear about favorite places such as their grandmother’s garden. But the reality is, is that there has been disruption because of the reasons I mentioned before of exclusion and lack of access. And then, quite frankly, there’s leisure time that people don’t always have equitable access to.

What Outdoor Afro is, is a barrier flattened. We like to come in and have done all the research, we tell you what to expect. And we make it easy for you. So for me, it’s not about what we don’t do, but about the how and how we can build on the how and really keep the conversation of African-Americans in the outdoors in an asset based location.

You know, you use terms that we should maybe hit the pause button on sometimes, such as low income communities of color. That’s a broad swath that feels so disempowering when we’re talking about our communities. We’re talking about all the ways that we’re already contributing. We talk about the people in our histories. I always talk about Harriet Tubman as our wilderness leader who led people to freedom in the cover of night, who read the stars, who understood wildlife, who knew the markings of nature in order to help people get free. There are role models in our family, in our history that we can talk about in different ways and tell a new narrative.

KH: What about you, Kim? What’s been the benefit of being part of Outdoor Afro?

KR: The people that I’m meeting – it’s amazing to meet someone who says ‘I’ve never done this before, but I want to try.’ And a lot of things I’ve never done before. I’m like, well, we’re learning it together. We’re figuring it out together. To see people’s willingness to maybe get out of their comfort zone a little bit and try something that they haven’t done before and then give me that feedback after of how they felt accomplished about it has been really exciting.

KH: Do you feel like southwestern Pennsylvania is a place that’s welcoming for black people in the outdoors?

KR: There are times when I may be in the woods or when I’m in the water and I’m alone and I’m thinking, you know, maybe I don’t feel that comfortable. But doing things as a group and getting our networks together really makes me feel comfortable and safe. And I haven’t run into any confrontation. I say hello to everyone we pass on the trails. People smile and say hello back. So I don’t think that being African-American has been limiting in that way. I just make sure that that people know that I belong there also and just say hello.

KH: The word joy, when I look at the photographs on your website of people hiking and swimming and camping, it’s just overwhelming. And I know that visual representation is a huge part of why you’re doing this. You speak a little bit to that.

RM: One of the things that I always try and make sure people know is that Outdoor Afro is a love story. And while we’re focused, obviously, we’re not exclusive.  It’s really important to be specific. We have found that that specificity is universal.

For instance, when we talk about black children learning how to swim because of the years of segregation and Jim Crow that kept us out of pools, we’ve got this public health crisis where black children are drowning at five times the rate of white children ages 5 to 19. And that if a child doesn’t learn how to swim, they’re not going to put a [fishing] pole in a lazy lake. They’re not going to ease into a kayak and they’re not going to care about plastic in the ocean.

So I feel like this this work has really felt very practical and accessible to more people than African-Americans. It’s really the story of America that we are unpacking and using. Nature is really the ultimate open source platform for everyone to not only come together and community, but to help enrich our lives and solve some of our most pressing problems.