Into the Woods

Bill Thomas

Into the Woods

Rue Mapp is using social media to lure people outdoors.

By Nancy Averett
Published: November-December 2011

Two years ago rue mapp, 39, started Outdoor Afro, a social media network with a mission to connect African-Americans with nature. Today her online community--which includes a mix of Facebook, Twitter, and blog ( thousands of participants who do everything from swapping camping gear to sharing photos of rare birds to discussing black women's fears of getting their hair wet during water sports. Mapp's network even made it onto the radar of President Obama, who invited her to this past year's White House Conference on America's Great Outdoors.

How were you introduced to the outdoors? 

My parents were from the South, and they had a very strong connection to the outdoors by way of farming, hunting, and fishing. So when they moved to Oakland, they bought a ranch 100 miles north in Lake County. There was a creek, and one of my favorite things was to spend time there. It was like a living laboratory. I remember seeing the evolution of a tadpole to a frog there.


What led you to start Outdoor Afro? 

At the same time that I was exploring the outdoors, I was also developing an interest in technology. When I was 11, I got my first computer, a Commodore VIC-20. I was an early adopter of email and I used bulletin boards. Years later Outdoor Afro was an aha! moment when a mentor asked me, "What would you do if you had all the time in the world?" I said, "I'd use social media to connect African-Americans to the outdoors." Within a week, I'd bought the domain and thrown something together on a do-it-yourself blogger site.


What keeps African-Americans from doing things outside?  

Fear that the woods are not safe. There's a historic reason for that. Just decades ago bad things did happen in the woods. You know the Billie Holiday song "Strange Fruit"? She's not talking about fruit hanging from trees, but people. For some, though, it may just be bugs or wildlife . . . or the fear that people are going to stare at you and make you feel like this space doesn't belong to you as well.


What's an organized excursion like?  

I took some Oakland residents on a birding trip to Oakland's Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline, which is home to some famous birds like the clapper rail. For many it was their first time there, despite living in the area for decades. It was a very moving experience. I've gotten follow-up emails from them saying, "I'm noticing all the birds in my backyard now."

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On the love and luxury of the outdoors

I have noticed my middle-class, AA girlfriends want nothing to do with hiking or camping. But I see it as a luxury compared to all that stale indoor air.

There's another reason some people don't see the outdoors as a place to spend the weekend: if you grew up kinda poor, you want nothing more than to have luxury. My (white) mother grew up in a home sleeping three kids in a small bed, gardening out back, and her mom slaughtering chickens. This was not a rural home but in a poorer part of a mid-size town. Now, while we of the next generation did grow up playing outside and valuing nature, you could not pay my mom to go camping. She's lived in rather primitive surroundings and wants to feel like she's escaped that and has "made it" (which she has).

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