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Set screen name Sets Out the Welcome Mat for Diversity in the Outdoors

She became a committed outdoor person on the night she stalled halfway up a climbing route, "starfished" on a rock wall, too afraid to go up or go down…

Today's interesting outdoor person: Rue Mapp operates, an online community that aims to connect African-Americans with natural spaces and one another through outdoor recreation. (Slogan: "Where black people and nature meet.") Her site received a 2011 Black Weblog Award (popular vote) for Best Green/Nature/Outdoor Blog.

Rue MappBio: Mapp serves as Youth Investment Program Officer for the nonprofit, California-based Foundation for Youth Investment. She oversees a $2 million grant program designed "to connect underserved youth in California to the outdoors."

A native of Oakland, Mapp is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, a former Morgan Stanley analyst, the founder and past owner of It's Your Move, an Oakland game store, and a mother of what she calls 3 "free-range" children, ages 14, 9 and 8. Mapp, 40 ("And fabulous!" she points out), shares a few thoughts with The REI Blog:

REI: How did you come up with the name "Outdoor Afro"?

RM: I swear it came to me quickly, as if by revelation. It didn't require a focus group or market research. It just stuck. It's important to me that titles and names quickly get to who and what we're talking about.

REI: What's the purpose of the site?

RM: Outdoor Afro is about using technology, passing on traditions and connecting with nature in a way that can help transform individuals and communities. Those are the things that are really important to me. While the title and the logo are very whimsical as a way to make this message more accessible and fun, it has a very serious intention—to help transform, in an everyday way, who engages with the outdoors.

Mountain viewREI: What do you see as barriers that inhibit African-American participation in the outdoors?

RM: There are several. African-Americans have had a very challenging relationship with nature in this country through forced labor as well as the fears of what can happen to African-Americans in the woods. Those memories and that legacy still persist, that there's greater danger in the outdoors.

There's transportation. The outdoors is everywhere, but to get to some of our more naturalized spaces requires some kind of a car trip or a bus ride, and a lot of these spaces don't have bus service in the evening or on the weekend. That's a real barrier for youth, especially urban youth.

There's gear. If you don't have the right gear to keep you warm, keep you dry and keep your feet from hurting, you're not going to enjoy the experience. It's not that people have to have the most expensive thing, but to have the appropriate thing to avoid injury and to maximize the experience so they'll want to do it again.

Time is one of the biggest barriers. People need to realize that time in nature doesn't have to be a whole weekend. It can be 15 minutes, and you'll benefit from those 15 minutes.

It's important that we reshape these perceptions so that more people can feel included when it comes to outdoor engagement. In my work I keep going back to those barriers and help to dismantle them in various ways. You may be the only one in your hiking or biking club who's African-American. If the Only Ones come together, they can become role models for those who haven't tried anything outdoors yet. Outdoor Afro is a place for the believer and the nonbeliever.

Park Ave.REI: How did you acquire your affinity for the outdoors?

RM: My parents inspired in me a deep love and appreciation for the outdoors through their practice of getting out regularly in nature. My dad was a hunter, a fisherman and a gardener. We had a working farm about 100 miles north of where we lived in San Francisco Bay Area, and we were there every other weekend in the summertime.

At home I was a Girl Scout, I participated in local park and recreation activities and, in a culminating experience, I did an Outward Bound trip. Through that I was able to see just how important nature was. It taught me the lessons I needed to learn: how to live, how to be and how to really enjoy life—to understand what I could be capable of when challenged.

REI: Tell me about the trip's big challenge.

RM: We were somewhere in the Sequoia National Forest. I was about 20 at the time and part of a group of 8. We were climbing near dusk, and I was the only one without a headlamp. A headlamp was included in the list of things to bring, but as someone who hadn't had a lot of backcountry experience at the time I just thought a flashlight was going to be enough. I was slow, and I was about halfway up when it became dark.

So I'm on the side of the mountain, I'm starfished out, I couldn't see up or down and I'm panicked. I really didn't know what I was going to do. My instructor leaned over at the moment I didn't think I could go any further and said, "Rue, trust your feet." Miraculously, I clicked into that, and I got up to the top. Ever since that moment, even though I may not know where I'm going or where I've been, I realized I could trust something within me.

Rue at REIREI: How were you able to overcome any inherent apprehensions about venturing outdoors?

RM: Because of my parents, I was able to establish my relationship early and often with the outdoors. We really have to start with children, but we also have to work with their moms and their grandmoms, because that's the source of encouragement that children openly rely on to be able to get outdoors.

I've found the core audience of Outdoor Afro is African-American women 35 to 44, most of whom are leaders and have advanced degrees, which is really interesting. The point is, through that demographic I'm hoping we can access generational change in our perception of who engages with the outdoors and in the actual participation itself. Outdoor Afro is really about connecting across generations.

REI: Is it correct to say that many African-Americans still feel uncomfortable exploring the outdoors?

RM: That can be true if you have not established a relationship with the outdoors. Because I established such a strong relationship from a young age with the outdoors, I feel a sense of ownership and entitlement to be there.

GlacierSo when people respond (to African-Americans) in a way that is curious or even negative, I don't feel any more ruffled by it than if someone was questioning why I am in my living room. I think the key, in the work that I do, is helping people to establish their own relationship with the outdoors.

I think a lot of work needs to be done to help the people who are used to connecting with the outdoors to be more welcoming and receptive to greater diversity in the human species. That way if someone is new, and they've not really had any meaningful outdoor engagement, they can feel welcomed and not repelled.

As people go out for the first time, they face many fears and perceptions about the outdoors. Humans certainly don't need to add to or validate those fears. We have to work on both sides of the spectrum one, to help people connect with nature in a very personal way through recreational activities they enjoy, from the most sedentary to the most adventurous, and two, to help people who traditionally have not interacted with much human diversity in the outdoors become more accepting and welcoming in a way that reflects the true sense of partnership we have to have in society.

REI: Your kids like the outdoors?

RM: They're avid outdoors people. My 14-year-old son got his first summer paycheck through a job he got at Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Not only do they have a lot of experience in and passion for camping and hiking trips that we do, they go outside and play. They're able to create their own outdoor experiences much the way I did.

REI: What's your message to adult African-Americans who still feel hesitant about exploring the outdoors?

RM: It's really about repeated, sustained and varied experiences in the outdoors that can encourage people to feel a sense of ownership and stewardship, of caring—a relationship. That's a long-term solution.

A lot of people are looking for a quick fix, the 3-point plan for diversity, and it just doesn't exist. What we're talking about is going to take time. Lots of people don't know what's even available to them. It will take a little bit of permission-giving. It's going to mean a consistent effort, working across generations and really encouraging people to try.

Footnote from REI: One option for getting acquainted with outdoor skills in a friendly setting: the REI Outdoor School, available in 14 markets nationwide. All 120 REI stores also offer variety of in-store clinics, nearly all of them free. Check individual stores for schedule of clinics. Meanwhile, REI wishes all readers a worthwhile day of reflection and service on Martin Luther King Day.

Photos by T.D. Wood, top to bottom: Rue Mapp following a speech she recently presented in Seattle; along the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington's Glacier Peak Wilderness; Park Avenue in Arches National Park; Rue Mapp, left, chats with Laura Swapp, REI's Director of Diversity and Inclusion, on the REI headquarters campus; Glacier National Park; Rue Mapp and Laura Swapp converse after Mapp's Seattle speech.

Posted on at 11:24 AM

Tagged: African Americans, Martin Luther King Day and Outdoor Afro

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San Francisco, African American here - And I invite all individuals (not only fellow African Americans) to share in the experience and rewards of Outdoor Yoga -

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