Summer Issue 2016
THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST is famous for its abundant and accessible outdoor spaces. Oregon boasts nearly 200 state parks and recreation areas, and in the Portland metropolitan area alone we have 17,000 acres of public parks and trails. Along these trails, and in these parks and forests, you might see an old growth Douglas fir, a great blue heron, or a Western white trillium. But one sight is much more rare to find—a person of color.
According to a 2013 report by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, 9.6 million people visited Oregon's National Forests between 2006 and 2009, and of those visitors, 97 percent were white. Within the Portland metro area, 86 percent of visitors to day-use areas are white; 1 percent are African American. These statistics are not unique to Portland or the Pacific Northwest. The National Park Service reports that African Americans make up only seven percent of people taking advantage of the nation's parks. Our national parks are not reflecting our national character.
Rue Mapp founded Outdoor Afro in 2009, as a means of not only encouraging more African Americans to take advantage of natural spaces, but also as a means to connect with other people of color who enjoy outdoor activities. Beginning in Oakland, California, as a small, self-maintained blog, Outdoor Afro has since expanded across 28 states, amassing thousands of members.
"Outdoor Afro is about providing a platform to meet people where they are," Mapp says on the phone from her Oakland office. "So no matter what your outdoor interests are, there's a place for you, a community for you."
As founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro—now a national not-for-profit organization—Mapp has garnered numerous awards for her advocacy, and her work has been featured in multiple news outlets. She has been invited to the White House three times, as an advocate for the president and first lady's "America's Great Outdoors" and "Let's Move" initiatives; and in 2014, Governor Jerry Brown appointed her commissioner of California State Parks. Mapp's other duties include selecting and training the Outdoor Afro volunteer leadership team, which currently has 62 leaders nationwide.
"The thing that is so beautiful about the Outdoor Afro leader is that they're not like the wilderness first-aid guide," Mapp says. "They're not people who have taken a whole month in Nepal and extreme-mountaineered. These are grandmothers, architects, accountants, civil rights attorneys, teachers, dads—they're just everyday people, and the thing they all have in common is a fire in the belly to connect to people."
One of those people who answered the call to leadership is an energetic, Portland-born woman, Pamela Slaughter. A lifelong outdoor enthusiast, Slaughter had been taking her grandson, nephew, and her nephew's brother—"the Tripod," she calls them—on outdoor expeditions for almost 10 years. She learned about Outdoor Afro via social media, and in January 2015 she applied to become a leader. After being selected, Slaughter attended the annual leadership training at the US Fish and Wildlife Service's National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia, then returned home to lead Outdoor Afro Portland. The Outdoor Afro Portland Meetup page currently has over 200 members, and the Facebook group page lists over 500 members. Slaughter estimates membership to be closer to 400, though some members are more active than others.
One of Outdoor Afro's biggest motivations is to make outdoor spaces welcoming and accessible to those who might not know where to begin, or who might otherwise have reservations about being in the woods.
"We've grown up hearing things that have happened to black people in the woods," Slaughter says. "Historically, we've disappeared in the woods. We've been lynched. We feel safer in cities. We still enjoy nature, but in a safer, easier way. People want to get out more, but they don't know what to do or where to start."
Slaughter organizes and leads monthly excursions within a short distance of the city. Past trips have included the Punchbowl Falls in Eagle Creek, other Columbia Gorge waterfalls, and the Oregon Garden in Silverton. While other cities sometimes lead adventures like whitewater rafting or rock climbing, most of Portland's outings are easy to moderate hikes, focusing more on scenery and history than strenuous activity. Slaughter attributes this to her own interests and skills, though she welcomes others' contributions.
The growth of Outdoor Afro mostly depends on social media and word-of-mouth, which is how Bethany Batsell came to be involved. In January 2014, Batsell—a senior credit analyst at Keen (one of Outdoor Afro's sponsors)—noticed a coworker wearing a sweatshirt with the Outdoor Afro logo. "I was immediately like, 'What's this about, who started this, how can I get involved?'" she says. Batsell, who was born in the Dalles and grew up all around Oregon, says that Outdoor Afro Portland "helps expose us to the beauty of the Northwest. They make it more acceptable, less fearful. They are helping to build a community within a community."
When discussing the role of nature and the outdoors in African American history, Outdoor Afro leaders often cite the example of Harriet Tubman, who was not only the well-known emancipator of slaves, but also a wilderness expert in her own right.
"She knew every animal, she knew every trail, she knew all the plants, she knew what to eat," Slaughter explains. "She didn't survive all those long hikes just by having friends with homes. A lot of it was spent in nature by herself. She knew a lot about the environment, mimicking the animal calls and bird calls."
Slaughter acknowledges the stereotypes that surround African Americans and the outdoors. The assumption that black people don't go outside is as widely held as the belief that black people don't live in Portland. Through Outdoor Afro Portland, Slaughter is helping to break down both stereotypes, while reintroducing the African American community to its outdoors heritage.
"We've been disconnected as a people from our roots," she says. "We used to be farmers and explorers. As black people, we've always been deeply connected to the earth and to nature."