After high-profile shootings last month reignited a national debate on race and policing, thousands of black Americans responded through protests across dozens of cities with chants of “black lives matter” and demands for policing reforms.
A smaller but growing number have also replied in another, subtler way: by heading to the mountains and forests for yoga and daylong walks through the woods.
The “healing hikes,” organized by Oakland-based Outdoor Afro, have taken place around the country in order to give black Americans a chance to talk and meditate over a summer of violence — and take respite from it. In the last month, they’ve taken place by a riverside outside Atlanta, in the hilly streets and parks of San Francisco, at a Key Biscayne beach in Miami and in an urban Baltimore park.
Now, Outdoor Afro founder Rue Mapp wants to bring healing hikes and what she calls the “outdoor black experience” to more Americans.
Mapp, a former Morgan Stanley analyst who grew up on a ranch 100 miles north of Oakland, launched the outdoor community seven years ago as a blog to encourage black Americans to experience the outdoors before expanding it into a nonprofit with chapters in 30 states.
The group has issued a call for healing hikes to be held across the U.S. and is training community leaders in how to translate trauma over violence into the empowerment of black communities.
The Times spoke to Mapp, 44, about black Americans’ relationship to the outdoors, the role healing hikes can play in civil rights movements, and diversity in American parks ahead of the National Park Service centennial on Aug. 25.
Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
What’s the origin of Outdoor Afro?
It began as just something I was interested in. But it evolved into a national platform to bring people together from all walks of life to not only be participants but leaders in the outdoors, which you don’t see enough of among black Americans. Usually, you might picture a white, male park ranger when you think of the outdoors. I saw an opportunity to shift the visual representation of who the outdoors belong to.
Black people are intimately familiar with the environment. Think of George Washington Carver, think of Harriet Tubman. She had to have that working knowledge of how to navigate away from danger and amid wildlife. How can we tap into that today to be resilient to the challenges we face?
People are not joining clubs in the traditional sense anymore; they’re hitting the “like” button or going to Meetup.com, where our groups are organized. A lot of black neighborhoods have been brutalized. People are no longer able to afford to live in the places they used to. They want their kids to experience the parks they grew up around but no longer have easy access to. That’s where we come in.
How did healing hikes come into the picture?
It was just around the time of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson in 2014. Oakland was bracing for tension. I didn’t go protest but I wondered what my part could be. I was walking to my car one day; there were helicopters over my head. The answer came: You do nature. Nature is your lane. We got 30 people together in the Oakland hills. We assembled in this place that doesn’t have a lot of visitation from people like us but is very much ours too. We started with an intention of peace and understanding. There was something cool and calm about the redwoods. We were in the forest and could hear each other a new way.
We went down by the riverbank to talk about how the violence had impacted us. And we realized we were doing what African Americans have always done. Like the Negro spiritual, we were laying down our burdens down by the riverside. It was not until that moment that I understood how nature is here for healing.
Sadly, because of all these tragedies, we’ve had more and more of a reason to do healing hikes. We’ve had more than 50 of them. When there is gun violence, when we are traumatized, we go to nature. When you’re at work, in the office, you have to leave so many pieces of you at the door. When you’re outdoors in nature, you can bring all of your parts. We’re parents, we’re LGBT people, we’re biologists, we’re lawyers, we’re Christians. We take everyone.
There have been 16,000 people who have joined Outdoor Afro hikes over the years, and there are now 61 volunteer leaders around the U.S. who organize weekly and monthly events. What has the impact been?
For us, we’ve gotten to advance our own narrative. The violence is all happening outdoors. It’s caused people to feel marooned in their own homes. They don’t feel they can be outdoors and safe. The other night, just a block from my home in Oakland, a man was coming out of the corner market and was roughed up by the police.
For us, it’s not just about being outdoors. It’s about black joy while being outdoors.
For us, it’s not just about being outdoors. It’s about black joy while being outdoors. For a long time, I had a banner image on our website of black men running down the street laughing. That is the freedom we are trying to get back. We used to have a stoop culture, we used to have mothers of the neighborhood watching kids as they got into all kinds of mischief. But now we are so worried about the criminalization of play. You can’t go into an abandoned lot and goof off; you can’t accidentally break a window anymore.
We are not just doing this as protest. We’re doing it to reclaim black joy.
National parks set a record last year with 305 million visitors. The most recent study of racial makeup of park visitors, which was released in 2011, showed that just 22% of visitors were non-white. Why is that and how is Outdoor Afro trying to change it?
It’s not that we’re not welcome in our parks; it’s just that people don’t realize there is a community of folks like them that they can go with. We’ve found that sometimes when you get grandma on a trip, she’s got more to say about nature than the team leader. We’re also not that far from the horrors and terrors that were brought upon us in the cover of night and nature. In our recent past, lynchings were numerous. Still, it’s safer in some ways to be out in nature or even the backcountry than to be in many of our neighborhoods.
People apply every year for us to train them in how to lead our groups across parks, beaches, lakes, rivers and mountains. We’re trying to cultivate people who will be stewards of our parks for the future and who represent the diversity of our nation not just right now but the diversity of what it will become.
I always thought I wanted to do this work to get people outdoors and to cultivate leadership that’s not seen in other outdoor groups. I didn’t realize, though, how critical this work would come in building a positive view of nature and of black community.
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