We need to get more African Americans interested in the great outdoors
I grew up in Oakland, Calif., but spent a great deal of time at the family farm just north of Napa, Calif. There I learned about nature, explored the woods, went hunting and fishing. I need no persuasion about the value of connection to land and water.
But as a woman of color, I am not the norm seen recreating in our public lands in the outdoors. Over the years, I have seen too few people who looked like me enjoying our parks and public lands, and I think that situation needs changing. Frankly, I became tired of being looked at like a rare species.
So in recent years, I’ve gone back to my roots in an effort to provide outdoor experiences like hiking, camping, rafting and climbing for as many African Americans as I can. This venture has not so much to do with boosting numbers of black people on the trail, but is more about creating a cultural shift and remembering our heritage of connection to the natural world.
Today, many African Americans believe they have little to do with the environment and it has little to do with them. In the coming decades, I’d like that attitude to be different. I’d like to see more and more African Americans make the natural world a part of everyday life, and in our mainstream media representation, so that seeing a person of color on a hiking trip is no big deal.
Rue Mapp is the founder of Outdoor Afro, a national nonprofit organization that reintroduces black people to outdoor experiences and teaches conservation leadership. She also serves as commissioner of California State Parks and an adviser to the National Park Service.
This year happens to be the 100th birthday of the National Park Service, and President Obama has been astute in realizing the value of parks and the outdoors to us all. To date, he has protected 22 national monuments of all kinds, conserving more than 260 million acres of America’s lands and waters for us and our children and grandchildren to enjoy. He also created Every Kid in a Park so that all fourth-grade youngsters could have the opportunity to discover our national parks, forests, wildlife and history for free. In fact, the Every Kid in a Park program is the centerpiece of the White House’s National Park centennial celebrations.
But I think we need to get more than kids interested in our parks. We also need to get more adults engaged in enjoying and exploring our public lands so that they understand what we have — and also realize what is vulnerable to climate change, commercial development and political pressures in Washington, D.C. Particularly, I think we need to get more African Americans of all ages to help influence and participate in the future of conservation.
But in order for us to really see a more diverse and representative population of people in nature, it’s necessary to have our leaders make more of an effort to engage people of all ages in outdoor recreation, energy, climate, and environmental participation and leadership. Therefore, we cannot focus alone on engaging youths; we need to engage whole families and communities in this effort.
Our parks and public lands connect us with who we are. America’s spectacular outdoor landscapes — as well as places honoring America’s diverse culture or pivotal events in American history — are all part of our common story as Americans and connect the great diversity that is our shared heritage.
For those of us who return again and again to play in the outdoors, we know that each excursion brings new insights and new benefits for our fitness, social connections and personal healing and growth. These benefits of connecting with nature and spending more time outdoors are an experience that I wish for everyone, especially members of the African-American community.
I will be so pleased to meet up with you one day in the fresh air, walking on a trail, paddling down a river or even climbing up a mountain.
As President Obama has said: “Because no matter who you are, no matter where you live, our parks, our monuments, our lands, our waters — these places are your birthright as Americans.”