Connecting Black Communities To Nature

Jul 19, 2017

There is a common misconception that black people do not hike, camp or spend much time in the outdoors. This perception is perpetuated by images featured in nature magazines and fitness Instagram accounts that still predominantly feature white individuals and families. 

A national network of individuals is trying to combat this stereotype and shift the visual representation of who can and does connect with nature. Outdoor Afro is a nonprofit with leaders in 30 states who connect thousands of African-Americans with outdoor experiences. Host Frank Stasio talks with the Rue Mapp, CEO and founder of Outdoor Afro, about how her own personal experience inspired this organization. He also talks with Beky Branagan, regional leader for Outdoor Afro in North Carolina.

Branagan will talk about her work at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences this Thursday, July 20 at 7 p.m.

Interview Highlights:

Rue Mapp on the origin story of Outdoor Afro:
Outdoor Afro is really a love story. It started with my family, actually. My parents came from the South –  both from Texas and Louisiana. And they brought with them, as they migrated to California, their love for the outdoors and nature. And we had a ranch to celebrate that love about 100 miles north of Oakland, California … But not only was it about connecting with land and with nature, it was also about connecting with each other. So from a very young age we invited people from the community always to join us in that space … So hardwired in me from a very young age was not only a connection to nature, but a connection that people share with nature. And the transformative effects of nature.

And it wasn’t until many years later after doing so many different things in the outdoors … that I realized that I wasn't seeing enough people who look like me, especially when I got into more remote areas. And I wanted to do something about it. And in a magical moment with a mentor who asked me this question… “If time and money were not an issue, what would you do.?” And I opened my mouth and my life fell out.

Beky Branagan on why she got involved with Outdoor Afro:
I grew up in the Adirondack area of upstate New York, and our family camped and our grandparents camped….I had come to North Carolina after working in environmental ed … I was on social media, and I heard that call, and I was like, “Oh, let me let me.” … The first training that we had was in person. When I flew out to California and met these other black people like me who just had this passion, I was like I found my spot. These are my people. They’re doing the things that I loved to do. I knew that these people were out there in the world. I wasn’t alone. And actually here in North Carolina, I realized … that so many of the participants already love the outdoors. It’s not like I’m coming in and teaching them stuff and showing them the way ... The inhibition was not abut the activity itself. When you go to the park you don’t want to be the only black person at the park … So many people would love to not be the only person. They want to do it together and with friends and with family.

Mapp on barriers for African-American communities engaging with the outdoors:
There’s lots of fears and perceptions out there – lots of fears about wildlife. Fears about, actually, other people. We have to also have a sober look at the realities of what the back woods and nature has meant to African-Americans in this country. We have a living, generational memory of bad things happening in the woods. You know, you can turn to the lyrics of the Billie Holiday “Strange Fruit” that … We have this big opportunity to atone for but also transform. And also to remember that we have always turned to nature for our healing. And we’ve always had people in our communities … I think about, for instance, a Harriet Tubman. She absolutely was a wilderness leader. And she used the platform of nature to carry people into freedom … She did not have a GPS. She knew how to read the land, and she knew the critters and how to get people to safety.

The biggest reason that we have found that people are not getting out is time. When you think about busy, working families, and all of the many responsibilities we have layered into our lives these days, you know, it’s very difficult … Especially if you want to try a new activity to know exactly where to start … So, Outdoor Afro, we have gone out of our way … To flatten those barriers. We give advice and guidance on equipment. Letting people know often that they have things in their closets that they can use … The standing over the sweeping vista in the yoga pose is not a relevant visual in the network. You’ll find that what we see with these Outdoor Afro events … It’s so much about the connection with other people that helps people to feel confident.