September 13, 2016

A Conversation with Rue Mapp

The founder of Outdoor Afro—which brings African Americans together in Nature—has set her sights on achieving even larger cultural shifts

By OMCA Staff

It’s no secret Oakland is changing. From its ethnic makeup to its natural landscape, the city’s story is constantly evolving. That’s why, according to Rue Mapp, Oakland needs organizations that can bring people together in the places they call home. That’s the central mission of Mapp’s nonprofit, Outdoor Afro, which uses volunteers and social media to organize outdoor excursions for a nationwide network of some 10,000 members of all ages. OMCA recently partnered with Outdoor Afro to integrate outdoor experiences with the Museum's valuable natural sciences resources. Inside Out spoke with Mapp about building community and connecting people with place.
OMCA: What was the impetus for starting Outdoor Afro?

Rue Mapp: I was born and raised in Oakland, but my parents had a ranch in Lake County, so it was like I lived in two worlds. That really set me up to have a unique childhood. Fast-forward many years, and I’d gone back to UC Berkeley to complete a neglected degree in art history, studying artistic representations of the American forests. I was thinking about nature and representation and community: Who’s out there, and who’s engaging with the outdoors? A mentor asked me about my next move, and I said I’d like to start a website to connect African Americans with the outdoors. I was on the cutting edge of using social media to reach people broadly.

OMCA: What was the initial reaction?

RM: People were hungry for a new narrative. They wanted to be seen in nature, but weren’t. And when you see yourself in nature, there’s an embedded invitation. You feel like, This is my place.

OMCA: You eventually transitioned to leading people on outdoor trips. What have you learned from that?

RM: Having this platform for ordinary people to not just experience nature, but to lead in nature is the most important pivot we’ve made. We now have thirty team leaders across the country. We’re trying to develop leaders who are already in our midst; to help people make connections to one another and to nature; and to build a sense of place and belonging.

OMCA: What do you find when you’re able to take people out of the city and into nature?

RM: We make a lot of assumptions about people in nature. In fact, in urban spaces, people are getting out and enjoying what pockets of nature they have. Look at Lake Merritt: Every hour of every day, there are throngs of people out there. It looks like the United Nations—every demographic is represented.

OMCA: Do people enjoy the opportunity to disconnect in nature?

RM: Yes; when you get into a natural environment, it gives you a chance to exhale. That said, I’ve also found that technology can help enhance the experience. When I use my cellphone to share a picture of a sunset or a moment of camaraderie, it gets people excited—it goes back to that visual representation idea.

OMCA: And you can help raise people’s environmental awareness.

RM: When we’re engaged with these places, we see the changes to the landscape. I can point out: There would be a creek here, but there’s no rain! But it’s never about hitting people over the head with environmental values; it’s about helping them develop a relationship with nature. If there’s just some little shift that makes you more attentive, that’s a measure of success.

OMCA: What role do institutions like OMCA play in developing this kind of community relationship?

RM: OMCA is a great model for how to be a good community partner. I’m working on a program that the Museum is hosting to celebrate urban birds, and I’m really energized by that. We learn from each other and leverage our resources to create a relevant community program. It’s about developing a true partnership that benefits both sides—a real relationship.

OMCA: Finally, what’s the next step for Outdoor Afro?

RM: In the future, I don’t want what we’re doing to even be a thing. I want to see people enjoying and protecting their natural resources in proportion to their population and opportunity, and have it not be a big deal. We’re pushing toward that, and we’re closer than ever before.

Outdoor Afro is collaborating with OMCA to present Celebrate Urban Birds in the Gallery of California Natural Sciences. See our other story, Birds of a Feather, to learn more.

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Inside Out, the Oakland Museum of California's Member magazine.