At age eleven, Rue Mapp was programming computers while growing up on her family’s ranch in northern California, participating in both recreational and organized camp experiences (with the Girl Scouts and Outward Bound). An early adopter of social media, Mapp combined her interests in nature and technology to create Outdoor Afro, “a social community that reconnects African- Americans with natural spaces and one another through recreational activities such as camping, hiking, biking, birding, fishing, gardening, skiing — and more!” In an interview with ACA, Mapp discusses the universal need for nature experiences and how camps can build relationships with families and communities of color that have not traditionally been a part of camp or nature experiences.

It seems like Outdoor Afro has really been able to fill the need that people have to share their outdoor experiences. On top of that, it seems to have inspired people to get outdoors who perhaps wouldn’t have taken that step before. Could you talk about this role of Outdoor Afro?

Outdoor Afro was definitely at the forefront of using social media to have this conversation, but I also know that there are many, many people who have been having this conversation in academia, at conferences, and in books for decades. Outdoor Afro wasn’t a new conversation; but it was a new dissemination tool through which to have that conversation. And what it’s done is created a space for the believers and the nonbelievers. People who felt they were the only ones who loved nature finally have a place to share their love of nature through pictures, photos, and videos; and those who are not quite sure whether or not this is for them can see pictures and inspiration — an invitation to get outdoors. When you see people who look like you enjoying the outdoors, it becomes easier to see yourself participating in nature, too.

What is Outdoor Afro’s mission, and what experiences inspired you to create Outdoor Afro?

Outdoor Afro is about celebrating and inspiring all African Americans to connect with nature. We do that through social media, peer-led networks of leaders around the country who are getting folks outdoors wherever they live. I’m able to work with nonprof it organizations to help them rethink how they might more meaningfully engage with audiences that cut across the spectrum of diversity. I started Outdoor Afro by simply writing about my experiences. And those experiences started to resonate with people across the country. I was able to meet people who were professionally engaged in this conversation and welcomed me in. They allowed me this platform to talk about the role of technology in connecting with more people. It was from those first few months of Outdoor Afro that things really started to take off. It’s been an amazing journey that’s allowed me to work with many different organizations, including the American Camp Association. I feel like I’ve arrived home. I get to share my experiences with others, make a positive impact, and help connect more people in nature in new ways.

Nature experiences offer all kinds of benefits: increased creativity, reduced stress, improved cognitive functioning, time and space for free play and self-reflection, etc. When it comes to your own children, what do you think is the most important reason to give them nature experiences? What are benefits you’ve noticed for those engaged with Outdoor Afro?

I think one of the things I’m most proud of with my family is that we’ve gone to family camp together since each of the kids was very young. And by sharing the camp experiences with my children at such a young age, it really helped them go on to experience camp on their own. I’m a big proponent of family camp experiences, and I’d encourage all camps to have family camp experiences as part of their programming.

Busy, working families need nature to unplug and really connect with each other. For Outdoor Afros, we have found that the value of getting out in nature is not only for nature itself, but also to connect with other people. So it’s an important part of the Outdoor Afro experience to just be together. And the same thing is true, of course, in family. Nature allows you to just be together in ways that you can’t always accommodate when you’re busy with everyday household responsibilities, getting the kids where they need to be, doing homework, and so on. With overscheduled lives, I’ve found the camp experience to be a way to really reconnect with my kids in a way our day-to-day lives don’t allow.

As camp directors think more about how to engage families of color in nature experiences — through family camp experiences, social media, and so on — are there certain things that camps need to consider when reaching out?

I think it’s in how you communicate about the camp experience. I really like to encourage people to move away from the term “outreach” and move toward “relationship.” People respond to relationships versus outreach. For example, would you go to a party that you were invited to if it was four or five hours away from your home, you didn’t know anyone, you didn’t know what the food would be like, you didn’t know if they were going to have the music you like, you didn’t know if the activities were going to be things you wanted to do, and so on?

It takes some genuine listening to find out what people really want. And if you know what communities want, you can build your relationship from known values — think about the ways the relationship can be mutually beneficial. It’s not enough to simply want people to come to your camp. Camps need to be asking themselves the question, “How can we build meaningful relationships from which people choose to come to our camp?”

Camps have a way of giving communities what they need. Maybe the camp decides to build a relationship with a church and build trust by showing up to that church for their events. Ecological contributions a camp could make to a church might be helping to build a butterfly garden or other community-enriching efforts. There are things that can be done beyond summer to just make friends in the community. These things then make an invitation to camp so much more authentic, and people respond to authenticity — we all respond to what feels genuine and heartfelt.

Another thing to consider is that each community is going to have different wants and needs. There’s no right way for you to engage one group of people that’s going to work across the board. Regionally, there are different attitudes and responses that camps will find from communities that they’ll need to be in tune with. That’s why the relationship piece is so critical and so basic. It’s not just about your flyer, social media, or PSA. It’s about sometimes stepping out of your comfort zone to show up where people are, meeting them where they are, and recognizing the benefits of those relationships can be mutual.

Building those relationships can take a long time and a lot of effort, but genuine relationships are not forged overnight.

Yes. I love that you say that because the work I do is a long-term commitment. It’s a cultural shift. Think about the way the cultural shift happened around smoking, for instance. It didn’t happen in one year; it happened over the course of twenty-five or thirty years. Now you can’t smoke in many public places, such as restaurants, and people aren’t smoking around children. But it took a long time. There’s no public consciousness for who exactly is responsible for that shift, but it happened.

And that’s how I see Outdoor Afro. We’re helping to shift the culture to this point where it’s really not that big of a deal that we have communities choosing camps in proportion to the opportunity in their population, and they see it as a natural part of their vacation options or experiences. And it’s no big deal; the same way it’s no big deal that other types of behaviors have changed over time. We really have to take this long view and look at examples of other social change in our history.

On the topic of cultural shift, there is a shift in school cultures happening. Schools across the country are becoming more and more involved in creating environmental literacy plans and making environmental education part of the curriculum. Why do you think this is happening now?

People are looking around and seeing that something is not quite right. We are seeing alarming rates of childhood obesity, stress on the environment, and demographic changes with more people moving to urban centers. We are at a crossroads where people are recognizing that kids are not getting outside and having the unstructured time to play like they used to.

There are people and institutions that are not only taking notice but are taking action. I’m very encouraged by all of this. I know the benefits of having unstructured time in nature — how it developed my creativity, leadership, critical thinking, and independence. And I think because kids spend most of their time in schools, it’s a “low-hanging fruit” type of platform to introduce those values. I think there’s a growing awareness that children deserve better, they need to be involved with the environment, and it has to start now. Schools are a great place for that to happen.

When someone visits the Outdoor Afro blog, they’ll see photos of quiet self-reflection in nature and photos of groups and community in nature. Can you speak about the need for both types of experiences for the Outdoor Afro audience and all people in general?

We don’t have to go to research to know how people feel when they’ve had some time in nature. When you go out in nature, it’s a recharge to your whole system. It’s a way to unplug from the increased demands we have on our lives and our attention spans.

Nature adapts to whatever your need is. If you want to go out for recreation, nature is there. If you want to go out for meditation, nature is available for that. If you want to discover wildlife in their habitats, nature provides that.

For some people, perhaps going out in nature by themselves isn’t as appealing. So being out in nature with others can help one experience nature in a way that replaces any fears with camaraderie. I just love the way that nature is so widely adaptable; people can use it in whatever way they want.

In regard to Outdoor Afro, people love group outings because a lot of times, it’s a chance to try activities for the first time with the company of others. It can be intimidating for a new audience to try a new activity with a bunch of strangers or people you’re not as familiar with. Being in an Outdoor Afro event takes a lot of the intimidation factor away. People feel a lot more courageous. I’ve taken people camping and whitewater rafting who had never done that before, and they trusted the group experience to help them overcome their fears.

What do camps need to keep in mind as the elements of a good nature experience for kids, especially considering that oftentimes, camp experiences are the first time some kids really engage with nature?

A good nature experience is one that respects children and adults where they are. It doesn’t try to push a specific agenda or goal. Because we love what we do as camp and nature professionals, we can sometimes push our comfort level with nature on people who are just beginning.

People have to move along a continuum of engagement. We’ve been engaged with nature for years, and of course we think it’s awesome, wonderful, and cool. But for a kid who lives in an urban area and hasn’t had much exposure or connection to wildlife or more natural spaces, it can be a little intimidating. I think we have to be incredibly empathetic and work in programs expecting not only what we think people need, but what people feel comfortable about doing and what they value.

If we move forward with our evangelism in nature without asking people what they want to get out of nature, then we can sometimes do more harm than good. It’s about making the experience relevant for everyone, and the only way to know that is by asking, spending time with communities, and really building relationships. You have to think well beyond the next camp year — you have to think more long term.

And I think it’s also important that you celebrate your success. Your success might not be a transactional success. It might not be that you have 20 percent more people of color in your camp; instead, maybe it’s the fact that you’ve built some meaningful connections. Those connections might not come to camp next year, but they’ll come to camp the following year. Don’t be easily discouraged! You’ve got to really be in it for the long term and give it time. Make sure that you are able to celebrate your success so that you can recognize your incremental victories.

Also, remember that you can enlist the support of others in communities to help you. If your desire to connect with people is sincere, people will respond to that and work with you. Know that you can do something to build relationships and bring the camp experience to more children, youth, and adults.

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Originally published in the 2014 January/February Camping Magazine