Growing up in California, Rue Mapp began a lifelong love affair with the outdoors, spending time with friends and family on their Lake County ranch. Though her family's home base was in the city of Oakland, Mapp recounts her time at the ranch in her book Nature Swagger. In the introduction, she says she enjoyed "hunting, fishing, and exploring the surrounding woodlands along country roads by foot or on my bike."
Her time outdoors gave Mapp an appreciation for nature and conservation, which her own mission would soon follow. In 2009, Mapp launched Outdoor Afro, a blog and nonprofit org that inspires Black connections and leadership within nature. Outdoor Afro has over 100 volunteers in 30 states, furthering diversity in outdoor experiences and addressing conservation needs.
Now, Mapp is advancing her mission to bring Black joy to the outdoors with the publication of Nature Swagger, recently released by Chronicle Books. Stunning imagery and personal stories from various contributors fill the 192 pages. Mapp contributed several essays discussing Black history in the outdoors, conservation, and activism throughout the book. She writes, "Nature Swagger is a universal roadmap to discover the delights, joys, and possibilities of transformation for anyone through nature. You will discover the epiphanies of high adventure alongside meditations on the love of a favorite place or person. There are also poetic revelations about our wild foodways—how it can all work together, and, by extension, how we can, too."
Nature Swagger: Stories and Visions of Black Joy in the Outdoors
Wide Open Spaces recently connected with Mapp to ask her about her latest project and see what's next for her and Outdoor Afro.
Q: How did Outdoor Afro begin, and what is the most important message it's trying to share?
A: I saw firsthand the lack of leadership, preparation, or welcoming in nature-based group experiences. I found that the digital answer hadn't satisfied me either. So, I created my blog and website in 2009, which started as a social enterprise, to tell a new narrative of what I believe Black people were capable of in the outdoors. I eventually created groups to safely engage the community in the outdoors that were truly useful, so I incorporated Outdoor Afro as 501(c)(3) in 2015. Today, Outdoor Afro is a national "not-for-profit" organization, and our message is our mission: We celebrate and inspire Black connections and leadership in nature.
Q: Do you believe there is a strong connection between spending time in nature and wanting to preserve it?
A: Yes! For me, as I spent time in nature at places like my favorite parks, Joaquin Miller and Cesar Chavez Park, over the years, my personal connections to these spaces and others like them strengthened. These public lands are now sites I often invite family and friends to visit with me. Over time, a warm curiosity, alongside the responsibility to preserve these parks, naturally evolved. Conservation ethics happens organically in this way for most people.
Q: What was the inspiration behind writing Nature Swagger?
A: It was important to illustrate all the ways people are getting outside and connecting to nature as Black people. Being Black isn't a singular experience-it's reflective of region, age, personal history, etc. Nature Swagger includes stories of many unsung individuals who we can relate to or who remind us of family and friends. Through the book, I want readers to be inspired and see nature from many perspectives and think broadly of what connections to the outdoors can look like.
Q: Since the book is a compilation of stories, is there one in particular that stands out to you?
A: Leah Penniman. I love how someone like Leah can navigate urban spaces with awareness of oneself and be transformed through their connection to the earth and share that knowledge with the people. Akiima Price. How she saw and experienced destruction in her community and found nature was a tool for people to find healing. The book also shares stories that meditate on love. We don't hear enough of Black people in nature and talking about love—that is a theme that echoes throughout the book.
Q: Over the years, has a particular moment stood out as a "This is what I've been working toward" moment?
A: Well, I knew I had to give myself over to Outdoor Afro completely from those early days. As long as I was contributing to other jobs or doing projects not aligned with Outdoor Afro, I knew I was robbing the mission. That was a scary place because it could mean income insecurity and uncertainty about my professional future, but I knew Outdoor Afro was my true north. I had to keep moving in its direction through every fiber of my being. I also got involved with outdoor trade associations and other professional networks, and government agencies to continue to learn along the way, and I meant many life-long friends. It's important to do work alongside a community of fellow champions. I also learned all I could about nonprofit management, fundraising, outdoor retail strategies, and trends, as well as conservation. I had to truly embody the work and go outside my four walls and local community to inform my own journey.
Q: What is next for you and Outdoor Afro?
A: Outdoor Afro is in a phase of rapid growth and will continue to deepen its roots as an organization and platform to solve for unmet needs so people can see their way more clearly into outdoor experiences while celebrating an honorable history of Black joy in nature. The network will continue to provide high-quality experiences in the outdoors and deliver on products that thoughtfully lower barriers to experience comfort, style, and expression in all kinds of outdoor experiences. I envision that Outdoor Afro will become a go-to resource to support and encourage people at any point in their outdoor journey.
This is one reason why in 2021, I launched my for-profit business Outdoor Afro Inc. This enterprise celebrates and inspires Black community connections to the outdoors through product design, manufacturing, sales, and premium outdoor experiences. On September 13, 2022, Outdoor Afro Inc. made history as the first Black-owned business to co-create an exclusive hike collection with outdoor retailer REI Co-op. The collection is a multiyear collaboration with REI and an example of meeting the unmet needs for fit and design barriers in gear and equipment for many more outdoor enthusiasts for years to come.
Nature Swagger is available on Amazon, in bookstores, and at REI.
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