Ask anyone in the outdoor industry about Rue Mapp and they all say the same thing: “She is a force.” And just look at what she has achieved: The California native launched a blog in 2009 with the purpose of getting more African Americans to embrace the outdoors that she so loves. Guided by her passion, Outdoor Afro has grown into a movement with over 60 leaders and 23,000 members in 28 states , with the tagline “Where Black People and Nature Meet.” In an industry that is constantly claiming it needs to become more diverse (but does not seem to be able to figure out why people of color don’t necessarily want to act just like outdoorsy white people), Outdoor Afro has proven that the best way to achieve that goal is to let diverse people lead the charge in their own way.
The success of Outdoor Afro has landed Mapp praise everywhere from Sierra magazine to a 2015 Outdoor Retailer Inspiration Award, and she is still charging forward. Outdoor Afro’s leadership training programs aim to help more black people work to make a difference in outdoor recreation and conservation in the U.S. and across the globe. “In the beginning it was about how many black people we could get out on the trail, but that has become less important,” Mapp says. “We want to do more than just shift the visual representation of who gets outdoors; we want to shift people into places of authority and influence. We want to help people take their experience at our trainings and go out and work on boards or fulfill their own passion to get people outdoors.”
The 2017 leadership training, the fifth annual iteration of the event, gathered 65 people from a wide range of backgrounds—college lecturers, preschool teachers, real estate professionals, human rights workers, REI employees—for three days at the National Conservation Training Center near Harpers Ferry, Virginia. This outdoor gathering was full of hikes, workshops, webinars, and even a game show, all with a purposeful black vibe. “We ended our closing ceremony with a Soul Train line,” says Mapp, who stressed that the idea was to bring black faces to a very white place like the Conservation Center to show that they could be a powerful and unique part of the conversation.
“The curriculum aims to build confidence, to get participants’ nature swagger back,” says Mapp. “We want them not to just depend on Outdoor Afro, but more so to get ignited. We want them to lead these activities on their own, to lead as role models in their communities.”