Words: Faye Lessler / Images: Klean Kanteen
Partner Spotlight: Outdoor Afro
Have you heard of Outdoor Afro? This incredible organization was featured in the September 2020 issue of O Magazine, where they offered exclusive gifts to anyone who donated to support their work. Klean Kanteen was proud to provide Outdoor Afro branded reusable gear for any donation of $150 or more - if you’d like to donate, head over to Outdoor Afro today!
What is Outdoor Afro?
Founded in 2009 by Rue Mapp, Outdoor Afro has grown from a blog to the nation’s leading network that celebrates and inspires Black connections and leadership in nature. Having grown up spending weekends and summers at her family’s ranch in Clearlake, CA, Rue has always felt a connection to the outdoors. But as she grew up and expanded her scope of outdoor adventures, she noticed that there weren’t a lot of people who looked like her out on the trails.
Now, Rue is committed to disrupting the false perception that Black people don’t have a relationship with nature by increasing their visual representation outdoors, restoring Black leadership in outdoor spaces, and helping Black people take better care of themselves, their communities, and our planet.
Outdoor Afro currently works with more than 100 volunteer leaders in 35 states plus Washington D.C. who lead hikes, yoga, park walks, and other outdoor activities within their communities. These volunteers and the overarching goals of Outdoor Afro show us what Black leadership looks like, promotes intergenerational healing, and encourages the kind of reciprocal, holistic relationships with nature and community that our society so badly needs today.
“The structure of empowering local leaders was baked into Outdoor Afro’s mission from the beginning. It’s so important that people see other people in their community doing the work. Nobody is going to trust me if I create an event in Chico, CA but I live in Los Angeles, you know? We specifically look for leaders who understand their community nuances, and we work with people who are really passionate about building community. I like to think that what we really do is build community, we just use nature as a conduit.” - Rue Mapp, Founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro
Why Oprah Loves Outdoor Afro
Earlier this year (before the pandemic set in), Oprah reached out to Outdoor Afro as part of her 2020 Vision Tour and came out to Oakland, CA for a community hike. Oprah got the authentic Outdoor Afro experience, joining in on a healing hike in Joaquin Miller Park led by Rue. If you watch the ABC7 News segment on the hike, you can tell that Oprah was struck by the experience, saying that she too finds “peace and sanity” amongst the trees.
Outdoor Afro's Founder and CEO Rue Mapp told us that working with Oprah "is really a wonderful reminder and validation of how our work reaches so many people. As a volunteer leader or as someone who works in HQ, you know you’re making a difference in your local community, but when you get noticed on the national stage it’s just a great reminder that your work is translating, not just in my backyard, but all across the country. It’s wonderful and motivating to know that we can do work on a local level and still make an impact on the national scale."
How Outdoor Afro Champions Black Leadership And Healing In Nature
For Outdoor Afro, empowering a new generation of Black leaders is the most important thing. For the most part, Outdoor Afro leaders are not outdoor professionals, but teachers, nurses, architects, or students. By working with regular people who love being in nature, Outdoor Afro helps them build expertise as leaders in their communities as well as create career opportunities for themselves in the outdoor industry.
Outdoor Afro gives a lot of autonomy to their volunteer leaders, allowing them to build trust in their communities and engage in this initiative in the way that is most impactful for them. The leaders apply and go through training on a yearly basis and are given specific guidance on how to structure events and write event descriptions in a way that feels the most comfortable for potential participants.
Rue tells us that the leaders’ favorite moments are when they take someone out for the first time and then hear later about how that participant took their family camping or went on a solo hike as a result of their experience with Outdoor Afro. She says “It’s those moments when people start to do things on their own that we just celebrate. We give people the tools, the confidence, the resources, and the community support so they can get out and do that on their own.”
One thing that Outdoor Afro recognizes and draws on as motivation for their work is the historical trauma that Black people carry when it comes to spending time outdoors. Nature and the land are ever-present in the stories of enslaved people as well as their ancestors who were free, but who have been systematically discriminated against ever since. By normalizing the image of Black people outside and encouraging more Black folks to connect with nature, Outdoor Afro is undertaking the huge task of dismantling intergenerational trauma through healing. Their work goes beyond this generation, creating a future where Black people can feel connected, joyful, and safe in nature.
The Grand Vision for Outdoor Afro’s Future
For Outdoor Afro, that connection and healing with nature goes beyond just hiking in the woods. They recognize that nature can be anywhere, from the vegetables on our plates to the parks in our neighborhoods. Rue says that their goal is to help encourage relationships with both nature and community, and to show Black people that nature doesn’t have to be far away.
One specific way that Outdoor Afro wants to reconnect Black people with nature is through swimming. In 2019, Outdoor Afro launched its Swimmership Program, which helps Black youth pay for swim classes at a place of their choosing. A 2014 study showed that Black children are more than five times more likely to drown in swimming pools than white children are. This public health disparity is a legacy of decades of segregation and exclusion from public pools and beaches, resulting in a generation of Black folks who don’t know how to swim.
Rue says that “our grand vision is to teach every Black child in our sphere of influence how to swim. If a child never learns how to swim, maybe they won’t ever go kayaking, fishing, or want to hike to a waterfall. Teaching folks how to swim is a mission of ours because we want to take away that barrier.” Outdoor Afro has provided more than 200 swimming scholarships so far for people of all ages, and this video shows just how much of an impact just one scholarship can make.
For Outdoor Afro, their vision is not to get bigger, but to go deeper. Rue says that “we don’t necessarily need 300 leaders or a global program, but we do want to get more deeply involved with the communities we are in to offer more support like swim programs. For us, Black leadership is the most important thing.”
“We need nature now more than ever. We need to understand that nature is everywhere, as close as your backyard or your windowsill garden. This is such an important reminder during these times because the truth is that not everyone can get out to a national park or a secluded hike, but we do all need nature in our lives.” - Rue Mapp, Founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro.
How To Support Outdoor Afro
At Klean, it’s important to us that we partner with organizations who make a tangible impact on a community level. We love working with Outdoor Afro because they share that same goal. So far we have donated $45,000 to Outdoor Afro and will be donating an additional $10,000 this month in support of their great work. We also love working in-kind with Outdoor Afro because that means we get to support their leaders and participants in making healthy, eco-friendly choices when they go outside.
Rue tells us that partnerships for Outdoor Afro are always intentional. “We choose partners who believe in the work we’re doing and want to support that work. We prefer ‘trust partnerships’ like the one we have with Klean Kanteen, where they offer a combination of financial resources, in-kind support, and amplification of our message.” This is so important to us because we truly believe that impact arises out of relationships, not just financial donations.
If you want to support Outdoor Afro, you can make a direct donation through their website. Another way to show support and get involved is to attend their upcoming Glamp-In event on September 12th. The Glamp-In is a broadcast version of their yearly Glamp-Out fundraiser event and will feature speakers including their inspiring leaders, elected officials, celebrities, and diverse outdoor and cultural champions. This event is an open invitation to people all over the world to come together to celebrate and uplift both nature and community.
We are so grateful to work with Outdoor Afro because they are more than a nonprofit that connects Black people to themselves, their communities, and the outdoors—Outdoor Afro is a living, breathing, thriving dream for a better future.