LJ Talks to Rue Mapp, Founder of Outdoor Afro and Author of 'Nature Swagger'

LJ Editor, Jill Cox-Cordova, chats with Rue Mapp, CEO/founder of Outdoor Afro, the nation’s top nonprofit inspiring Black people and leadership by connecting them with nature. She’s a pioneer who changes the narrative in her debut book, Nature Swagger: Stories and Visions of Black Joy in the Outdoors. She talks with LJ about her hopes, her mission, and being a first-time author.

For Rue Mapp, engaging in outdoor activities is a lifestyle. She’s the CEO/founder of Outdoor Afro, the nation’s top nonprofit inspiring Black people and leadership by connecting them with nature, and has won awards including the National Wildlife Federation Communication Award (received alongside Bill Clinton). She’s a pioneer who changes the narrative in her debut book, Nature Swagger: Stories and Visions of Black Joy in the Outdoors. She talks with LJ about her hopes, her mission, and being a first-time author.

What does an “outdoor lifestyle” mean to you, and why did it spark your desire to launch Outdoor Afro in 2009?

For me, an outdoor lifestyle is about integrating outdoors into my everyday life. It’s an experience that complements my daily life, community, and values. It’s not always about connecting to faraway places, either. I see it as an authentic engagement with the natural world, whether that’s personal or seasonal (e.g., gardening in your backyard). It’s also about spending time with family, friends, and neighbors.

Many view you as an activist. Is Nature Swagger a call to action?

I’m not an activist. Instead, I see myself as an advocate or champion of nature. In the foreword, I talk specifically about how the outdoors is a welcoming space where we can build our own narratives. Nature connects us all, so we’re part of this outdoor tapestry with so many versions of our stories worth sharing.

How was your experience of writing your first book?

I very much enjoyed this writing experience. I worked closely with my mentor and other colleagues who helped keep me inspired—even through those tedious parts—to stay on task. Because of them, this type of writing process was filled with enjoyment and discovery for me. Yes, it was an incredible lift but not the hardest thing I’ve done.

You were invited to the White House in both 2010 and 2012. What can you tell us of that experience?

The Obama administration was a highlight for me because not only did I get recognized on the federal level, but it was during a time when Outdoor Afro was a very grassroots social enterprise. That first invitation helped launch my career. I was able to meet people who represented all aspects of the outdoor industry. I made new friends, and the experience was a growth opportunity for Outdoor Afro and professional development for me. Each time was career-affirming and important for Outdoor Afro to show up and contribute to policies that focus on outdoor accessibility for everyone.

Some Black people do not see the outdoors as a place for them or a place where they’re safe, especially during this heightened period of racism. Do you have suggestions for readers regarding staying safe or feeling empowered in the outdoors?

Actually, this time in history is the best time to get outside in nature. We’re in a time where Black people can visit their public parks or go swimming in public pools if they desire to do so. The opportunities to enjoy public lands and nature are for everyone, so I’m hopeful in this day and age. We’re able to create our own sanctuaries in nature and explore places of purpose for our own recreation.

Certain themes resonate across Nature Swagger, such as family connections and gatherings, facing and overcoming fears, lessons learned, ancestors, and strength. These are all universal, so what do you want readers who are not BIPOC to take away from these stories?

This book isn’t here to be an answer to all racial minorities or solve pressing challenges of our country. I hope anyone [who] reads this book connects the stories to their childhood, a family member, or community experience. Or they simply try something new after reading it. Inspiration is universal. Nature Swagger and my outdoor-industry work is about inspiring us all in nature.

What’s next for you regarding adventures and books?

Well, it’s too soon for a memoir. At some point in the future, I will. Right now, I appreciate the ways being outside is challenging and expanding my own participation in nature. I’m now more committed to my hunting, gardening, golfing, and roller-skating lifestyles—the joys to remind me to just be carefree and have fun.

Which authors do you find joy and inspiration from? What are you reading now?

I’m a huge fan of Toni Tipton-Martin and how she empowers through the story of Black American foodways; Isabel Wilkinson’s truth-telling of the Black American experience; Paulo Coelho’s By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept is one of my inspirations behind creating Outdoor Afro; and any body of work by Toni Morrison always includes this strong nature current that runs right through the story.

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