Meet the Activist Who Is Driving the Push to Reclaim Nature for Black People

Nature and wild spaces are appreciated by many, but they can sometimes be rendered inaccessible or dangerous to people of color, as a recent incident in Washington State shows. But it doesn’t have to be that way. As the founder of the national organization Outdoor Afro, Rue Mapp has devoted her life to encouraging Black Americans to connect more closely with the natural world. In this interview, Mapp discusses how she approaches this work given a context in which forests are often not seen by Black people in the U.S. as healing spaces due to the terrors of the Jim Crow era. Meanwhile, she also takes on the importance of balancing accessibility to nature with rent control policies to prevent gentrification of green cities from shutting out people of color.

John de Graaf: Rue, how did you become so connected with the outdoors?

Rue Mapp: I got it from my parents. They were African Americans who came to California in the big waves of migration from the Jim Crow South, when people got on trains and kept going until the train didn’t go any further and wound up in places like Oakland, California. What they brought with them was their relationship to nature and the land. And they had their house in Oakland, but they invested in some property up in Lake County [about a hundred miles north of Oakland]. That place became a ranch where we had cows, we had pigs, we hunted, we fished, we had a bountiful garden. I loved being able to go there as a child and just observe the changes in the seasons.… It was really magical and gave me a chance to just have this quietness and comfort in relating to nature.

But the thing that was also important in those experiences was connecting to other people. My parents often hosted family gatherings and celebrations at our “ranch.” And my dad had this standing invitation, meaning that if you’ve been invited once, you never have to be invited again; the door is always open…. So nature and hospitality were really hand-in-hand for me. Those are the underpinnings of the work that I do today.

Tell me about how Outdoor Afro got started, what it does, how the idea came to you. You must have seen that other kids weren’t getting the experience that you had.

As I grew older, I started to see that the experience I had was actually pretty unique. And even though I had this nature-based experience growing up, I still had a lot of exploration that I got to do as a Girl Scout. I did Outward Bound. And the more I went out into wilderness areas, the less I saw people who looked like me. And I knew that people wouldn’t get to those wilderness areas if they didn’t have the foundation for connecting to nature. I thought a lot about things that were just peculiar to me and my family upbringing, and not necessarily special or needed to be celebrated or amplified in any way. But I knew that they had a deep value and a transformational effect in my life.

I was at this crossroads in my life. I was in my thirties and I was thinking about going to grad school. I had three children who were young. I was divorced. And I was wanting to do something different. I had a mentor and my mentor asked me a question that I think everybody should answer at some point in their lives. She said, “If time and money were not an issue, what would you do?” And I opened my mouth and my life fell out. I said I’d probably start a website to reconnect African Americans to the outdoors. And that wild moment was my revelation. Outdoor Afro began maybe two weeks after that conversation. I blogged about the story of my growing up wild, talking about all the important nature milestones that I had in my life.

And what surprised me was that there were people I respect who responded and said, “I love nature, too. I have those experiences to share as well.” And that’s when I knew that by using digital technology you could talk to anybody; that there was a whole population that had been unheard and uncelebrated in their connection to nature, just like me. So Outdoor Afro set about doing something about that. And we became very much about helping to shift the visual imagination of who gets outside. Outdoor Afro filled that void. And since then, we’ve continued to grow and we’ve continued to evolve to a national not-for-profit organization. It’s now all I do for a living. And I’m proud to say that we have trained people to get youth and their families outside and we now have a presence in 30 states. There’s 80 men and women who are teaching…. These are not people who have gone and gotten this formal education in outdoor recreation or anything like that.

It’s fantastic. And do you also see the problem of “nature-deficit disorder” in youth the way Richard Louv, author of The Last Child in the Woods, does?

I love Richard Louv. I consider him a friend. And the entire network that he built, the Children and Nature Network, were early supporters of Outdoor Afro. It’s been great to be a part of that network of reimagining what childhood can look like when it has nature in it and how we’ve gotten so far away from those connections that we have a childhood that’s unrecognizable to someone who’s even my age, when we grew up playing and having all this great unstructured time in the outdoors. But today, we’re in a different world. We do have to look at the reality that how we move in the world is different. We’ve got cameras that surveil us all the time. We’ve got the reality of brutality that happens, that is informed, unfortunately, by race. When white people see Black children out, it’s more likely to arouse suspicion than encouragement. Outdoor Afro is needed because, unfortunately, we do have a legacy that does not permit all bodies and all people to have that unstructured freedom to be outside and to enjoy the wild.

And our whole culture has changed. There used to be a time when, if a kid was playing baseball outside and broke a window, it was all part of what we expected to happen. Or if kids climbed a tree and built a structure, they weren’t looking at a zoning or code violation for doing so. The Children and Nature movement has done a great job of noting how we’ve criminalized what used to be very routine childhood exploration and behavior. Look at places where people move because they want to be safe. And there are no children outside playing in those communities.

I know that for some Black families, the woods are seen as a scary place. Does that keep families away?

Absolutely. There’s another reality that is present for Black people that is also worth mentioning. And that’s the lived experience of lynching and what that terror that took place in the woods meant for people, how it defined people’s relationship to nature, how it defined people’s relationship to safety among trees. We can turn to the plaintive lyrics of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to understand that trees have not always been seen as a place of refuge. We forget how close that reality was for Black Americans. And there’s still a living generational memory of that terror in the woods where grandparents will ask people like me, “Are you going out in the woods? Are you gonna be OK? Who’s with you?”

There’s just not this feeling of freedom to go and be in the wild and stand alone and observe the sweeping vista because of that unfortunate heritage that we still have not acknowledged or atoned for in this country. And so that’s one of the reasons why Outdoor Afro exists. It’s a way of helping us find healing and to find that reconnection.

You just mentioned healing and community. Can you say just a little bit about what nature does for all of us?

Yeah, we have seen more and more studies that measure how we are healthier, how we’re happier, that we actually need to see green. There is amazing research coming out of Children’s Hospital [in Oakland] that is measuring the cortisol levels of people before and after they actually have a nature experience and showing the calming effect of being outdoors and how important that is for children as well as the adults in their lives. So there’s a growing body of research that supports what we already know. And that is that we feel better when we’re outside, that we have a calm about us when we have the chance to engage with the outdoors. We in this country have experienced a lot of challenges in very recent years around police-involved violence. And there are people who have taken to the streets to protest, to express their grief, their anger. And I asked myself, What is it that Outdoor Afro needs to do in these times?

Around the time the Ferguson riots were really at their peak … I invited about 35 folks together to go into the Oakland redwoods and we went into a clearing and we did some yoga exercises. We were in a place where there were no police in riot gear. Not everybody thought the same thing or had the same ideas about the way forward.

But we all needed something different. And as we wound ourselves down … I could feel the stress just leaving. I mean, I just felt like those trees had this absorptive quality on us. And we were walking by the stream, and that’s when I had the epiphany that we were doing what Black people have always known we could do, and that was to lay down our burdens down by the riverside. And that was the moment that I understood nature as a healer. And we need that now more than ever…. That was the moment that I knew how important this work was that I was doing, that there was a bigger opportunity to find healing in this country that has a lot to heal from, especially around race.

Do people, and especially poor people, ever say to you that given how bad things are now, beauty and nature are just sort of a luxury?

I think people know — we know in our bones that we need nature. We may not want to do it the way that the next person does it. For instance, if someone says to me, “I don’t do that nature stuff,” you know, they’re thinking about camping. They’re thinking about roughing it. They’re thinking about hanging off the side of a cliff. They’re thinking about some extreme outdoor experience. Right? And I have to wean people out of that. So I say, “But you like to barbecue, don’t you? And they say, “Yeah, yeah. I like to go to the park and have a cookout with my family in celebration.” And I say, “That counts. Do you like to walk around on a local trail with your dog or take a lap during your lunch break around the building where you work?” So what I do is help people see that they already seek out ways to be in nature. And they’re already connecting to nature, and that the outdoors and nature is really everywhere around us. I can see beauty in falling leaves as well as in pristine places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It is so much about just taking a moment to slow down and look at what’s around you. Because beauty is not some place over there. It’s right in front of our face.

Do you think that sometimes, if we’re not careful, beauty can drive artists and people of color out of a community through gentrification?

I think that a lot of where it goes wrong has everything to do with bad policies. And we do need to be thinking more deeply about green spaces in particular. We talk a lot about park-poor communities and making sure we’re helping make parks and green spaces more accessible. But at the same time, we’re accelerating gentrification because guess what happens when you’ve got this beautiful park next to where people live? Their property values increase, the desirability of that area increases, the rent increases.

So we have to be having a more multidisciplinary conversation around housing policy than we are, really looking at the whole community of stakeholders and making sure that when we’re talking about accessibility to nature and greening areas, we are also thinking about our rent control policies and how might they protect or reduce access for populations that may have been waiting for a long time for their neighborhoods to come together and suddenly can’t afford them anymore. And that to me is a real tragedy. And I’ve seen that happen in other cities where it wasn’t good for a long time. And then a lot of those older residents who had been holding on were now being forced out because there’s the new co-op down the street and the great park and other people naturally wanting that.

Everybody wants a chance to be able to afford a decent place to live, to have a place where our kids can be safe and go to a decent school and have some green nearby. You know, we all want the same thing. And I think there is enough. But I think that our policies have to articulate that better.

This interview has been edited for length.