2011: The Year of Relevancy

Dear Outdoor Afro Friends,
2011 has been a terrific year! Through the power of social media, we have seen our community steadily grow, and help people make culturally-relevant connections to nature and outdoor recreation.

Throughout my travels this year, the hot topic has been relevancy: “How can we connect more diverse audiences to the outdoors?” people ask. While there is not one neat and tidy answer that can work for everyone (nor should we expect there to be), what we have discovered is that people embrace what is important to them. So it has been a focus of Outdoor Afro to cultivate a sense of caring and community where people can find ways to engage with nature that is meaningful to their own lives.
In our second year, Outdoor Afro has a lot to be proud of, and we are so grateful for the organizations and individuals who continue to make a difference to connect African Americans, and everyone to the outdoors.
The following is a selection of some of the fun, people, and inspiration we have enjoyed this year.


We were proud to partner with California Camp Association to produce our first two trips designed to share the experience of RVing with more Americans. Through a focused media campaign, we were able to tell our story in the mainstream RV industry, and other media, to inspire others by showcasing an alternate and bug-free “base-camp” approach to camping!
In the spring, we were invited to cover beautiful Barbados, and Outdoor Afro correspondent  Danielle Lee, with passport in hand, took on the island and shared with us a wonderful tribute.

In the summer I had the good fortune to head to Alaska for the first time to get to know and share with the Outdoor Afro community the amazing landscape and wildlife in America’s last frontier.
This year was also the launch of our first Meet-Up group in Northern California to inform the creation of forthcoming MeetUp groups in other parts of the country. We hosted three test trips this year, each one progressively more successful and fun than the last! We rode bikes through urban centers, discovered new birds right in our backyard, and hiked to the rocky coast line after tasting local cheeses.

If you are interested in starting an Outdoor Afro Meet-Up group in your area, please email us and let us know!

Partnerships and Collaborations

From the very beginning, it has been critical for Outdoor Afro to build relationships and partner with local and national organizations that genuinely care about diverse participation in the outdoors. I am especially grateful in 2011 for the work we have been able to do with the East Bay Regional Park’s naturalist Bethany Facedini, the Children in Nature Collaborative,  Urban Tilth, Richmond Spokes, Children and Nature Network, the National Park Service, National Wildlife Federation, and the American Camp Association, to name a few.

Outdoor Afro was also selected to be a part of a Cornell-led EPA grant to help develop greater awareness and curriculum designed to inform environmental education from the perspective of urban-American audiences.

Altogether, these organizations have not only helped amplify the message of Outdoor Afro, but also  have clarified the strategic and practical role we can play to help shift the American culture toward greater participation in the outdoors for all.

Keynote Speaking

In January, I had the pleasure of speaking at the American Camp Association National Conference in San Diego to discuss how camps can recognize and cultivate diversity. For black history month, I was humbled to share a podium in Oakland with National Park ranger, and longtime Bay Area activist Betty Soskin.  In the summer, I shared the importance of relevancy with the National Association for Interpretation in California and in the Delmarva region on the East Coast, I shared with black college students how they might turn their passion into an environmental-related career. Finally in the fall, I headed to Seattle, Washington to have an exciting conversation with the good folks at Groundwire to discuss how we can imagine the role of technology in nature.


This was a terrific media year for Outdoor Afro! We were featured in national and local media outlets such as KQED, NPR; magazines and shows such as Heart and Soul Magazine, Childhood Matters with Nurse Rona Renner, Audubon Magazine, Grist, the LA Times,  and more! We were also glad to be a regular guest blogger for Jack and Jill Politics, whose African American politically saavy readers welcomed us and were inspired to think of vacation in a different way. And in an especially proud moment, we were honored to be distiguished as Best Green/Nature Blog by the Black Weblog Awards:

A Birthday Tribute

In October of this year, I turned 40 – and boy was it fabulous! Thanks to my dear sister, Delane Sims, and friends, a surprise Outdoor Afro fundraiser was thrown at the African American Museum and Library to help send more families to my beloved Feather River Camp, where I camped as a child and still take my family today. That night, I felt surrounded by so much love, and we raised over $1500 to help more urban families experience camp. Check out our photos!

Thank you again Birthday donors! CLICK TO VIEW!


As you can see, Outdoor Afro is experiencing a time of growth and it will remain a part of the important conversations and actions to connect more diverse audiences to nature and the outdoors.
And as a fortunate mother of three active children, Seth, Arwen, and Billy — and manager of the grantmaking program at the Foundation for Youth Investment, this work is my life, yet there is no way I could do it alone. I have been blessed to have so many more supporters and allies besides those mentioned here, and whose names would require a separate blog to adequately express my appreciation.
In 2012, expect Outdoor Afro to continue to grow as an organization, while also expanding the conversations, possibilities, and actions to better reflect what America looks like in nature.
Won’t you join me?

Thank you ALL for the many words and deeds that make this work possible!
Yours in Nature,
Rue Mapp

Point Reyes Adventure: Cheese, Hiking, Wildlife, and Oysters!

It is always gratifying for me when the digital conversation leads to action, especially when it involves connecting folks to nature!

At the start of the week, I had the pleasure of leading twenty-four Outdoor Afros on a day trip to Point Reyes National Seashore in California via the local MeetUp group. Many in the group had never visited Point Reyes, in spite of the short drive from where many of the participants live, and our Point Reyes veterans took delight in spending time in the outdoors with a group of people who look like them for the first time.
To prepare for the trip, I tapped into the expertise of Point Reyes visitor guide’s Facebook and Twitter pages, and with their help, mapped out a plan to take advantage of a variety of local offerings to suit our group’s interests and abilities.

Our group began our outing in the center of town at Cowgirl Creamery with a round of warm introductions. There, we were greeted by friendly welcoming staff who offered a variety of artisan cheeses to taste. We learned about the unique techniques of the creamery and the local bacteria in the air that makes Point Reyes cheese special and delicious. After choosing from a variety of tasty lunch options at the creamery, our group headed 15 miles north by car to the Pierce Point Ranch Trail to begin our hike.
The car ride to the trail was bucolic, with rolling hills and dozens of cows scattered over the landscape – a couple of calves had even broke free from their fencing and had claimed the road, allowing our caravan some up close photos.

Further along the road we ran into National Park Ranger John Elby, an African American gentleman who joined our group at the trail head and provided additional insights about the area, and answered our questions. Many were surprised and delighted to see a black ranger (another first for many), and asked him about his chosen career working for the Park Service.

We found the Pierce Point Ranch hike adaptable – the mostly flat turnaround route allowed people in the group to adjust their stroll to their level of comfort and ability. The paved trail was framed by the Pacific Ocean on one side, and Tomales Bay and its hillside farms on the other. We saw some incredible wildlife as well, such as a reserve of Tule Elk, a whale, a weasel, and several raptors circling overhead. The group captured many stunning views in photos. Here are some great pictures captured by social media maven Adria Richardscheck them out.

After a brisk hike for many, several group members headed 10-miles down the road by car for an optional visit to Drakes Bay Oyster Farm, the last cannery in California. There we were greeted warmly, sampled small, medium, and large oyster varieties, and received a lesson in oyster shucking. Several Outdoor Afros purchased oysters to enjoy at home.

As the sun began to set to chill the air, our caravan split up to head in the direction of home, inspired by nature, great company, and delicious food.

Outdoor Afro thanks Cowgirl Creamery, Drakes Bay Oyster Farm, National Park Service Ranger John Elby, Adria Richards for all these amazing photos, and the enthusiastic participants who each reported back the wonderful and fulfilling time they had in nature. Outdoor Afro Sunnie said, “It was a beautiful hike. Everyone in the group was so friendly and warm. I had a great time.”
I could not agree more.

After Turkey Kayaking

About a dozen Outdoor Afros met this sunny, crisp morning in Oakland, Calif., for a post-Thanksgiving paddle. We had a wonderful mix of folks of all ages, and embarked on a one-hour kayak with stunning views of the Oakland skyline reflected on the glassy waters of Lake Merritt.

I applaud the participants; most had either never kayaked before, or had not done so in their adult body. At about $12 an hour for a double-kayak, it was an affordable and memorable thrill for all.

The trip reminded me that connecting with others to get outdoors is easy and fun! If you are in Northern California, join our Meetup Group; and elsewhere, connect with Outdoor Afros on our Connect page.
Thanks to the Lake Merritt Boating Center staff for their great service and orientation for our group!

Thanksgiving and the Outdoors

Originally posted Thanksgiving, November 25th, 2009…Enjoy!

prettywarstl: a nice plate!

flickr.com/prettywarstl: a nice plate!

Thanksgiving in my family is more than the delicious turkey, pies, and cobblers my sister Delane makes; it is also a celebration of food that preserves the memories and experiences of those who have passed on, symbolized through the remaking of family recipes…Cherrie’s dressing, Ella mae’s Pea Salad…the matriarchs of my family pulled greens from their garden for dinner, they plucked the feathers of fresh foul, and cleaned the fish they caught in local lakes for Friday fish fries.
Our family also has gratitude for the new generation and experiences that nod toward the future by introducing new culinary creations, such as the anticipated “newlywed dish” from Christine and Antoine this year, my next-generation cornbread dressing that has become a family favorite, and Uncle Jerry’s deep fried turkey that produces the juiciest, tastiest bird in record time.
With everyone at the table, sometimes for the first time in months, it’s a perfect time to discuss goals for your family in the coming year and also celebrate the accomplishments.
This year at the table, I hope you will join me in having a discussion with your loved ones about ways to get back in touch with the outdoors. I’ll bet someone at the table, especially an elder, can recall circumstances that mirror Cherrie and Ella mae’s, and remind us at a personal level the intimate and sustainable interaction possible with the outdoors. These shared experiences can connect people more than we imagine, so don’t let your eyes glaze over when the elders are speaking…you’ll miss something important, I assure you.

Courtesy of Circulating: The Harvest

Flickr.com/Circulating: The Harvest

The point is not to create a complicated or overly-ambitious plan for the outdoors, but to figure out what activities feel comfortable for everyone and commit to do something. Perhaps it’s a short family hike over this holiday weekend; planning more picnics, starting a family garden, taking up bird-watching, or perhaps  polling to see which child (or adult) still needs to learn to swim, and make it a family goal for everyone to learn how before summer.
If you are an outdoorsy family already, then break out the recent trip photos and recall stories to celebrate your activities, keep the excitement around them alive, and inspire new adventure ideas.
I am profoundly thankful Outdoor Afro is here (and growing) to share the diverse experiences of folks of color doing outdoor activities, while inspiring more people to reconnect with outdoor activities that are not as otherworldly as they sometimes appear.
From my family to yours – Have a Happy and Blessed Thanksgiving!
My very best,

Birds in the ‘Hood’

I have come to love birding, especially in areas close to where I live. This weekend, me and two other Outdoor Afros (Clay and Abu) came together as a result of our online planning to enjoy birds and nature near home at the Martin Luther King Jr. Shoreline Park, a part of the East Bay Regional Park System.
The trip was a reminder that you don’t have to venture to remote areas or spend a lot of time to discover and benefit from the awesome bounty of nature.

I discovered in Clay an avid birder, and he was extremely knowledgeable about bird identification and shared some great experiences; Abu and I learned a lot from him.
Our chosen waterfront location is at the intersection of an urban core between the airport, a major freeway, and the homes of thousands of black and brown residents. With only an hour to spend as a group, we observed fifteen species of birds; some common and a few surprises, such as the California Clapper Rail.
I was disappointed that my camera battery died, but we were fortunate to run into Bill Thomas, a regular of the area, who took awesome photos of the birds we observed together, and generously sent them to me to share with you. Here are his photos of our adventure:

After two weeks of work related travel around the country, I found this was a perfect way to get re-connected to home, and it got my weekend off to a refreshing start!
The takeaway: You don’t need a lot of time, people, money, or knowledge to profoundly experience nature. All you need is the willingness to give it a try.
What birds do you notice in your local area? 

Farm Meets Fashion

Who says you have to give up your cuteness to be in nature? Check out Ola Ronke, a Brooklyn, NY yoga teacher and healthy food advocate, getting her garden on with much fashion!

Crunch, Crunch, Crunch: Black Families Sharing a Fall Hike

Contributed by Jennifer Chambers, founder of Hiking Along Science & Hiking for Kids
Last Sunday was one of those perfect fall afternoons in DC:  Bright blue skies, crisp autumn air and amazing colors of yellow, orange and red shimmered in the sunlight. Who wouldn’t want to be outside? Ten families from Jack and Jill, an African American family organization said “sign me up!” and participated on a hike with  Hiking Along in Scott’s Run Nature Preserve along the Potomac River.

Twenty-three energetic kids and their parents hiked two miles underneath old growth trees to learn about the importance of them in their lives and for the Earth. They listened to a story about the seasonal cycle of tress, hammered leaves onto cloth to learn about chlorophyll, did tree back rubbings to reinforce the bark’s essential role of a tree, and played Simon says to learn about the tree life cycle.
Beyond teaching the activities, I enjoyed watching the kids be challenged by the trail, hills and water crossings, but also witness their imagination with logs, sticks, leaves and rocks. The most memorable moment was watching them use team work to carry a large tree limb down the trail. Land managers, here come the next generation of trail builders – energetic and using team work and communication.

Parents are their children’s biggest role model. My passion is helping families share the wonders of nature while hiking. On Sunday, parents and their kids shared memories and tons of smiles because they had fun in nature. The memories are the best but as one parent said to me, “there is one overlooked benefit, my kids went to bed easily.” Amen.

#Occupy Nature

It does not matter if you choose to take to the streets, the #Occupy Movement has captured the imagination of everyone, and is not going away any time soon. The #Occupy prompt has become a symbolic directive to give voice to a wide range of concerns; from corporate bastions, to conceptual ideals, to icons of popular culture.
Of course, being me, I thought of nature – the outdoors, and found it almost ironic how Occupy protesters in my hometown of Oakland, and in every urban hub, were also making themselves sustainably visible in protest by camping outdoors in public plazas all over the country. An ironic twist on the Great American Campout!
As I sat at home with my children following on Twitter the frightening turn of events happening in Oakland recently, I also contemplated what alternatives we might find to affirm (Occupy) peace in our everyday lives. How might we balance the economic pain that has touched us all in some way?
With African American participation clocked as low as 1% in the National Park System, I thought of the 99% of people who look like you and me; those who do not benefit from this public and important resource that holds the possibility of personal enrichment and sustainability in ways hard to quantify in dollars.
Therefore, though Outdoor Afro, it is my goal to help generate a future where people of every hue know that not only public plazas, but also parks and wild spaces are their inheritance, and theirs to benefit from and support.
What might that look like?

Our Photo Contest Winner!

Submitted by Donna Petagrew via Facebook, she writes:
“My son George at the Tooth of Time summit peak (9,000 ft), Philmont Scout Ranch, Philmont New Mexico. This represented a summit in character as he had carried his teammate’s gear in order for both to reach the top together. The outdoors makes men out of boys.” — yes it does!
She won this nifty lamp sponsored by the Coleman Company!
I also have to share with you our very close runner-up (by one vote!), submitted by Cydonie Brown, of a beautiful smiling sister National Park Service Ranger!

These images, along will all of the other submissions, are testaments of existing African American engagement with nature in such a wide variety of ways, and in all kinds of weather.
Thanks to everyone who participated by sharing images and voting –  by doing so, you are helping shift our culture’s perceptions of who engages with nature!

Birding While Black: Does it Really Matter?

Contributed by J. Drew Lanham

Birding while black; it’s not something that I simply think about, it’s something that I live.

A birder since the age of eight, I’ve always been the odd one out; the “rare” bird in the flock. Now approaching the fifty year mark faster than I care to admit, it wasn’t until my late twenties that I began to encounter the other rare birders of color out there. It’s unfortunate that it’s become normal for me to be “that guy”. Accepting it has been a challenge and at times a chore. On a few occasions it’s been downright scary.
Not that I haven’t enjoyed the bird-filled days afield with my fair-faced friends, but being the only one at a meeting, or having the stares (real or perceived) linger on you just a little longer gets tiresome. Even more so, having my color factor into my thoughts as to where I might bird is a sad but true reality. Do I really want to chase Chukar into the same far flung areas that folks have set up to separate themselves from the “mongrelization” of America? Will the folks who live in places where black faces are uncommon (or not readily accepted) accept my crepuscular habits as something less suspicious than the search for secretive sparrows? Will the police really believe that I was just looking for the skulking Connecticut warbler that was reported in that shrubby corner of the park yesterday?
These have been just a few of the realities that I’ve lived and pondered over the years–almost on a daily basis. Perhaps, as some say, it’s my own paranoia. Certainly with Obama in office all of the racism and hate has disappeared. African-Americans have arrived and so certainly among the largely liberal bastions of birders progress in the area of diversity has been made. Really?  Really? Guess again. I’m here to tell you that skin color still matters in 2011. Birding is among the “whitest” things a person can do. I just happen to be one of the few that adds a different hue to the mix. It’s critical that along with biodiversity we think about the human component as something just as important. Linking humans of all hues to nature–through birds or otherwise, means that more will be engaged in trying to save it. Air, water, birds, trees–we all need them. That word has to get out.

Students birding at a Summer enrichment experience-definitely not the norm!

This past weekend I had the distinct honor of being a panelist at the Focus on Diversity: Changing the Face of American Birding meeting at the Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia.  A long overdue effort, it finally took the courage and uncanny persistence of a New Jersey birder and middle school teacher to turn the talk into action.  Dave Magpiong is not a star in the birding world. That was until yesterday when his dream for what should be took a flying leap off of the ledge of potential into being.

Dave & fledgling birders (photo courtesy- fledgling birders.org)

Quicker than a Cooper’s Hawk with the comedic comeback, Dave is as deeply impassioned and purposeful a person as I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Beyond his daily work as a teacher he founded an organization dedicated to getting kids out into nature with birds as the vehicle for doing so. His Fledgling Birder’s Institute ( http://www.fledgingbirders.org/ ) is proof that one person can indeed make a huge difference.  I met Dave  for the first time at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival last November in Harlingen, Texas. There we and several other fine fellows including Dudley Edmondson, Douglas Wayne Gray, Jeremiah Alexander, Roy Rodriguez and Paul Baicich became the Sky Dawgs. (What are Sky Dawgs you might ask?  Well, they are ravens. The name was bestowed upon us by Dudley on a winter birding trip in Duluth and it has stuck.  It’s a complimentary thing I think as ravens are smart, playful, mischievous and mysterious birds that hold sway in the lore of many native cultures. Plus, they are black—like me!)

The Sky Dawgs post Aplomado: (r-l) Dudley, Jeremiah, Doug, Roy, Dave, Me

At Dave’s insistence, prodding, pleading, cursing and cajoling, we found ourselves together in a hotel room one night with a few beers (okay –more than a few), a pizza or two and a bag of pork rinds.  With the combination of nutritious food, wholesome drink and kind company, the recipe for something less than an intellectual discussion was primed. However, we gathered there not to exchange bird sightings or crude jokes (though both did slip into the conversation from time to time), our hearts and heads instead were ready to share our ideas about why diversity should matter to birders beyond their life lists. We all had anecdotes of racism on the birding trail—covert, overt and sometimes scary—to solidify why the discussion of diversity had to be enjoined by the almost lily white cadre of millions who call themselves birders.  The hours of talking were a boon to my soul as I learned from this group of extraordinary people why the face of American birding has to change. That night, after much laughter, some empathetic anger and maybe even a timid tear or two, we all committed ourselves to the effort—to making something happen beyond the talk that too many conservation organizations simply throw out as well-meaning politically correct double talk when pressed about why the lack of color is so prevalent among them.

Typical Outing–One of these things is not like the other!

Beyond that initial meeting, the rest of the week with my fellow Sky Dawgs was spent cruising the South Texas landscape, finding Aplomado falcons and other birdy treasures.  I’ve never laughed as hard as when we encountered the mother of all western diamondback rattlesnakes or thought we’d been locked behind the gates of Laguna Atascosa one evening (Stay tuned for the story!). Watching the sun set on rafts of redhead ducks was a bonding over birds I’ll never forget.  I’ve also not felt as close to a group of birding friends as when we shared our hearts and minds over the serious issue of how people matter too.  I must throw a huge debt of gratitude to Mary Gustafson who organizes the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival and  made the very courageous decision to diversify the leader group at the  event last year. She doesn’t know it yet, but she is also one of the Sky Dawgs. I’ll teach her the double-secret handshake when I make my way down there in a couple of weeks.  I don’t think the others will mind!

And so last month, it happened.  The meeting Dave Magpiong dreamed of and we all talked about in that hotel room happened.  A room of folks—of all colors and persuasions– filled a conference room at the John Heinz Refuge to capacity at the first Focus on Diversity: Changing the Face of American Birding meeting.  They listened, asked questions, net-worked and shared their heads and hearts as we had in that room that November night in Texas.  I felt honored to be among the number and humbled to serve on a couple of panels that spoke on the issues.  Private citizens and folks from several federal agencies (USFWS, USDA Forest Service), the American Birding Association, Audubon Together Green  and various other organizations showed up to support the cause. Folks as famous as Kenn Kaufman, John Robinson, Richard Crossley and Mamie Parks were there to lend their celebrity to the cause.
Unfortunately, several other organizations that should have been there to support the cause weren’t. The absence of folks from such an important gathering who say they care about such things spoke volumes to perhaps a lack of true commitment to the cause and a deeper problem that needs to be addressed.  We’ll all be watching to see if they join the push to make the community of birders a more inclusive neighborhood. We’ll welcome all comers to the party.  It matters if we want to conserve birds, habitats and have generations of people who look like the future of America to do so. Their perceptions of nature, the issues and ultimately passion and commitment to protect birds, water, air, trees and all the natural things that matter to all regardless of color will be shaped now.

Regardless of the absence of some of the “big guns”, I think one conclusion was obvious from the gathering.  Changing the homogeneous face of American birding will start with the individual.  For each of us, reaching out to someone of a different hue, mode of thinking or simply different somehow than ourselves will go a long way to making birding look more like America.  And that my Dear Kindred Conservationists, matters as much as the birds.

Philly Sky Dawgs–r-l; Dave, me, Paul, Doug, Roy, Dudley

Kudos to Dave and to my Sky Dawgs! Here’s to the work ahead and the next adventure! And here’s a hearty toast and tip of the hat to all those all who attended and committed to changing the face of American birding. Until we meet again! Good Birding!
J. Drew Lanham is a Professor at Clemson College, and a Certified Wildlife Biologist and Senior Ecologist