Adventuring outdoors or enjoying a relaxing swim might not seem revolutionary, but it certainly can be for a group that’s historically been denied basic access to public land. And this lack of access can have deadly consequences. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that Black children between the ages of 5 and 19 drown in pools at a rate 5.5 times higher than their White counterparts. USA Swimming estimates that 70 percent of African Americans can’t swim. One of the factors? A lack of access to swimming pools.
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: Black Americans have historically been shut out of public swimming pools, from Jim Crow-era segregation to recent incidents captured on smartphones. “This public health disparity is our North American legacy of decades of segregation and exclusion from public pools and beaches,” said Rue Mapp, founder of Outdoor Afro, a nonprofit organization that specializes in connecting and reconnecting Black people with nature.
However, the broader issues of segregation and exclusion are still prevalent, and in recent years there have been countless instances of Black people being harassed in public. In June 2020, a North Carolina hotel employee called the police on Black guests using the pool, assuming the family was trespassing. In 2018, a White woman infamously became known as “BBQ Becky” after calling the police on a group of Black people in Oakland for what she assumed was illegal barbecuing. Black people existing peacefully in nature should be, well, natural, and that’s one of the reasons Mapp, an Oakland native, created Outdoor Afro.
Started as a blog in 2009, Outdoor Afro has since expanded into a network of almost 90 leaders in 30 states across the U.S. The organization has even caught Oprah’s attention—she joined the group for a hike earlier this year. Outdoor Afro hosts a range of hikes (about half of the events), fishing, and kayak trips. Mapp stresses the importance of people getting their nature swagger back, which she defines as “feeling 100 percent comfortable and welcomed. You get to bring your whole, authentic self to the outdoors. You can experience nature [while] being Black, beautiful, and free.”
Feeling unwelcome in nature is something Mapp has experienced firsthand, even while leading Outdoor Afro activities. During one event in 2011, she remembers a White woman following her group into a park, claiming the children were bringing in “invasive species” once they started to play in the dirt. “The kids around me might have rightly been thinking, ‘Is she talking about us?’” she said. “It brought so many levels of shame, embarrassment, and of not feeling welcome in nature."
While Outdoor Afro activities focus on connecting with the outdoors, there’s no denying the community aspect, whether it’s for a newcomer or for a pro who’s been hiking since childhood. This type of community building is one of the group’s core values, according to Mapp.
"That is what makes Outdoor Afro events so special," said Julius Crowe Hampton, who leads events in Oakland and was named Leader of the Year for 2020. "We start every event with a community-building circle where people share a little bit about themselves and what they love to do in nature, and we close with a reflection of how folks are feeling after the event," he explained. "We don't emphasize getting to a final destination or how fast we get there; we truly value the process and the relationship-building that occurs along the way."
Not surprisingly, one of Outdoor Afro’s most important programs is Making Waves, a program that has presented more than 200 “swimmerships” (swim scholarships) to those seeking swim lessons. (While it’s currently on hold due to the pandemic, Mapp looks forward to the program resuming in 2021.) “We have made it our priority to make sure every child and caregiver in our sphere of influence has the opportunity to learn how to swim as a social justice issue,” she explained. “Learning to swim is not only life-saving but also nature-embracing, opening the door to a wide variety and lifetime of outdoor engagement for youth and their families.”
Tonya Abari, an Outdoor Afro participant, told TripSavvy that though she loved being outdoors, the combination of growing up with limited access to nature in Baltimore, financial constraints, and family members who’d make remarks like, "Hiking? Oh, that stuff is for white people,” prevented her from genuinely exploring nature. That changed in 2011 when she moved to Tennessee and fell in love with the surroundings, which led her to join Outdoor Afro in 2017. After attending her first event—a cookout—she described the experience as a “safe space.” “It feels good to see beautiful Black faces. It feels like home,” Abari explained. “In a spiritual sense, I also feel like I am connecting to the ancestors through the earth and through community. It's indescribable.”
Abari also brings her 5-year-old daughter along to some events, including, most recently, a gardening session. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Mapp has noticed a significant uptick of interest in gardening. “I know that so many Black people can think back to their parents and grandparents growing plump tomatoes or picking strawberries or growing herbs right in their home,” Mapp said. “I was happy to see that showcased so much more during this time.”
As for Abari’s daughter? She was “so excited,” Abari said. “She enjoyed wearing her gardening boots, learning about which seasonal vegetables to plant, and getting her hands dirty in the soil.
“[It was] a truly beautiful moment because not only am I learning and reconnecting with the nature that I never knew,” Abari continued, “Outdoor Afro has provided a safe space for young Black children to learn about the wonders of nature.”
Main Photo: Courtesy of Outdoor Afro; Illustration: TripSavvy / Julie Bang