When was the last time you saw African Americans hiking, skiing or camping in a tent or RV?
They are out there, but not in the numbers that reflect their presence in the U.S. population.
Why is that?
And how can involvement in outdoor activities enhance the lives of African Americans?
These are some of the questions Rue Mapp of Oakland, Calif. is exploring
through OutdoorAfro.com, a website she founded to reconnect African Americans with the Great Outdoors.
OutdoorAfro.com is filled with stories, photos, event listings and other resources that educate, motivate and inspire African Americans.
You’ll find photos, videos and blog postings of African Africans who enjoy bicycling, hiking, camping, birdwatching and outdoor photography as well as skiing, rock climbing, whitewater rafting and scuba diving.
Read through the discussion groups, blog postings and event calendar and you’ll quickly discover there are many African Americans across the country who are eager to interact in nature with other African Americans. The challenge, of course, is to find them. But that’s where OutdoorAfro.com can help.
Here you’ll meet people like Winston Walker, an African American hiking enthusiast from Colorado who frequently leads hikes to scenic destinations across the country.
Or people like Clifton Sorrel, who writes a blog called “Trekking for Life.” Or people like Jeremy Thomas, an African American bicycling enthusiast who teaches at an environmental school in Portland, Ore.
Some of OutdoorAfro members even exchange healthy recipes with one another and share photos, videos and descriptions of their trips to scenic destinations as diverse as Belize and Denali National Park in Alaska.
“We’re like a platform where people can be visible to each other,” Mapp said.
Indeed. Since it was founded two years ago, more than 7,000 African Americans have become active members of OutdoorAfro.com, and the numbers are growing.
All of them are passionate about the outdoors and are eager to find other African Americans to enjoy activities with.
Various members and groups with organized activities are also posting information on the site, which is unique in helping African Americans find outdoor activities with other African Americans.
“Many of them are just like me,” said Mapp, who grew up in Oakland but spent weekends with her foster parents on a ranch in Northern California where she cultivated a passion for natural spaces, farming and learned how to hunt and fish.
In her youth, Mapp was involved in Girl Scouts and Outward Bound, which broadened her outdoor experiences in camping, mountaineering, rock climbing and road bicycling. But while she always enjoyed these endeavors, she seldom saw other African Americans participating in these kinds of activities, a cultural phenomenon that has troubled her to this day. “I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me,” she said.
In fact, when a friend asked her a few years ago what she would do if she had all the money in the world, she said she would use social media to connect African Americans to the Great Outdoors. And herein lay the roots of OutdoorAfro.com.
So how did African Americans lose their connection with the outdoors?
It’s a tough question, but Mapp is gradually finding some answers.
“African Americans are not necessarily disconnected, but somehow we’ve lost touch with something that’s already a part of us,” she said. “Many of us have grown up or lived in close contact with the land, such as in food and farming activities. So a relationship with the land was a natural thing for us.”
Many African Americans, however, have not developed an interest in outdoor recreation. There are several factors that contribute to this phenomenon.
“The biggest reason for non-engagement is time,” Mapp said. “People don’t have a good sense of how much or how little time is really required to enjoy outdoor recreational activities. But beyond this, African Americans often don’t know what groups to join or how to find other African Americans to enjoy these activities with.”
But by serving as a social networking site for African Americans with an interest in the outdoors, OutdoorAfro.com can move and inspire people to get involved.
“It’s imperative, not merely for the sake of enjoying the beauty of nature, but for our own health,” Mapp said. “Right now, we’re facing 30 percent obesity among African American youth. In Oakland, it’s closer to 50 percent. So we’re looking now at a generation with lower life expectancy than their parents because they’re starting off on the wrong foot.”
Mapp concedes that efforts to reconnect African Americans with the Great Outdoors will take time. But the benefits will be worth the effort.
“In my lifetime,” she said, “I’d like to see African Americans enjoying the outdoors freely without inhibition and without spectacle and to be able to do so in a way where it’s no big deal to see African Americans involved in recreational activities outdoors.”
Mapp’s efforts are already starting to generate attention – both in government and in the business community.
Last year, President Obama invited Mapp to participate in the White House Conference on America’s Great Outdoors. She was subsequently invited to participate in a White House brainstorming session for Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, offering her ideas and insights on ways to engage Americans to become more involved in outdoor recreation activities.
The California Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds has also taken an interest in Mapp’s efforts, and, working with Auburn-based American River Sales and Rentals, has arranged to provide her with a free teardrop trailer rental for a mid-August camping trip to Ponderosa Ranch RV Resort, a Thousand Trails park on the South Fork of the American River in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Mapp, who is expected to visit Ponderosa Ranch RV Resort Aug. 12th to 14th with her three children, plans to share blog postings about the trip and will also be available for media interviews.