Our Strategy Share series features innovative ideas, projects, and approaches from our community of educators. This post was written by 2019 Education Fellow Rue Mapp.
I am an incidental movement maker.
When I started Outdoor Afro as a blog from my kitchen table in 2009, it wasn’t about creating a movement or what became a national network that celebrates and inspires African American connections with leadership in nature. It was about creating a relationship that was meaningful and authentic for me, and for many others who had not heard their stories and passion for the outdoors positively represented in the world. As a single individual, with a single idea, I didn’t have access to traditional media to reach people, which was the norm. But I quickly learned that social media was a critical tool to communicate with and inspire others. Over time, I continued to share stories that would become 500 blogs. People responded positively, but they were also telling me that they wanted to find community in real life. What was pivotal was that I listened to all those voices asking to find community and connections with each other and the outdoors. I could have decided to make Outdoor Afro about me as a blogger, but, thankfully, I took the time to hear what people wanted and responded.
I did the best I could as one person with a growing community of people whom I had connected with online. However, to continue listening and responding to those needs, I knew I needed help. In 2012, I saw an opportunity to launch the first Outdoor Afro Leadership Team. Thirteen individuals spread all over the United States, most of whom I had never met, answered the call and were trained virtually. I took time to share with them my experiences and knowledge, empowering them to share with others while lifting up their own truth of what it took to convene and support African American participation in the outdoors. With consistency and mutual agreement, we were positioned to scale and shift from participation to creating a platform for leadership.
Empowering others became key to making our movement. It is not just about one person. It is about many people who come together as leaders with a common value and understanding that can be built upon from an authentic place. This is why I felt an immediate affinity with the National Geographic Society as a 2019 Education Fellow. My unique viewpoints in the environmental education sphere were seen and elevated in a community of leaders who work both in the classroom and in the field. Similarly to Outdoor Afro volunteer leaders, National Geographic Education Fellows have their own stories and a platform that they can plug their stories into and share broadly around common values.
I am proud to share that today the current Outdoor Afro cohort has grown from 13 to 90, with over 200 volunteer leaders trained since we launched the 2012 team. People understand our message, they see themselves in it, and they are empowered to participate no matter their age and ability. Our volunteer leaders bring expertise from so many fields—education, business, communications, the arts, and more. I believe that to grow any movement, empowering others to share their stories, knowledge, and skills is critical. For me, the chance to participate and share my story as a presenter at National Geographic’s 2019 Explorers Festival was another example of the power of storytelling to inspire people to take action.
Over the past decade, my team and I at Outdoor Afro have learned many things about ourselves as individuals and as an organization. Most significantly, I have discovered that change can happen only at the speed of relationships, and we have to take a long view knowing that good and meaningful relationships take time and attention to build. A movement is not a movement until many people come together as leaders with shared values and shared empowerment to deepen and further their work.
2019 Education Fellow Rue Mapp is the founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, a national nonprofit and social community with reach in 30 states and over 36,000 participants that reconnects African Americans with natural spaces through outdoor recreational activities. In 2010, she participated in the White House Conference on America’s Great Outdoors and subsequently was part of the team that helped launch First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative. She has also worked for the Stewardship Council’s Foundation for Youth Investment. Mapp’s work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and Backpacker, Ebony, and Sunset magazines, among other outlets. She has been recognized with numerous awards and distinctions.