Taking Diversity To The Outdoors

A University of Wyoming survey finds that 78 percent of visitors to America's national parks and forests are white, compared to nine percent Hispanic and seven percent black. Rue Mapp is trying to change that. She speaks with Michel Martin about her website 'Outdoor Afro,' which aims to educate African-Americans about the importance of getting involved with the outdoors.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: When you dream of getting away from it all, what do you see? Do you picture hotels or spas with luxury accommodations or do you think of packing a tent and some boots and heading to the great outdoors?

Well, if you're in that second group, don't expect to be hiking that trail with a very diverse crowd. Studies have shown that among minorities, African-Americans are the least likely group to visit national parks and forests. But that's not to say that there is not a vibrant group of black outdoor enthusiasts. And there are several organized groups and websites that actually encourage African-Americans to get involved in the outdoors in a variety of ways.

One such is OutdoorAfro. It's a website that helps to connect more African-Americans to outdoor activities. And joining us now to talk more about this is the founder of OutdoorAfro, Rue Mapp. Rue Mapp, thank you so much for joining us.

RUE MAPP: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: You founded OutdoorAfro in 2009. How did that come about? Did you have like a eureka moment when you were out and you just said, oh, enough of this? Or did you just invite one too many girlfriends to go with you on a hike and they were like, oh, girl, no, I've got to get my nails done. Or how did that happen?

MAPP: It was a conversation I had had with a friend who just asked me the question of what would you like to be doing if you had all the time and the money in the world. And I just rattled off, without even thinking about it. I was like, yeah, I probably would develop a website or a social media site to connect more African-Americans to the outdoors. And her mouth dropped. She's like, wait a minute. I had no idea that you cared about these things in this way. And I said to myself, how would she?

And so it was kind of an outing of all the things that I had taken for granted about myself that, you know, I finally was comfortable shedding light on. And what I found quickly happened right after founding OutdoorAfro was that it became not just about my stories, but about the stories of African-Americans from all over the country who said, me too - I love the outdoors and I want to be visible too.

MARTIN: So I'll just play a short video that speaks to that point. You aren't the only person who would like a little bit more company out there on the trail. This is a video that you posted on your site. This is the actor, Blair Underwood, in "The Black Hiker." It's from the Funny or Die website and he's hiking and he gets a little frustrated by people's reactions to seeing him out there on the trail. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF "BLACK HIKER")

BLAIR UNDERWOOD: (As character) Hasn't anybody ever seen a black hiker before?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: (As character) I haven't.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: (As character) No. This is the first for me.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: (As character) I saw an Asian Boy Scout once.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 3: (As character) Are you kidding me?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 4: (As character ) I think he was from that animated movie, "Up."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: (As character) Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: (As character) Oh.

UNDERWOOD: (As character) Hey, hey, hey, hey, this is ridiculous. You people need to get out of your bubble.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: (As character) Get out of your bubble, everyone.

UNDERWOOD: (As character) My man, I got this. Hey, look here. Two hikers. African-American hikers. What's up, fellows?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: (As character) Hey, I'm from Vibe magazine. Can we get a picture?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 4: (As character) Hey, man, I'm lost, homey. Where the Nike store at?

MARTIN: Okay, okay. I think that was a joke.

MAPP: It was. Yeah.

MARTIN: But why don't we just ask the why then? Why don't we just sort of (unintelligible) why do you think that this is?

MAPP: Well, you know, first of all, I'd just like to give a lot of credit to Blair Underwood for making light of something that I think is really serious and is an experience that is often true when African-Americans are in the back country. While it may be true that African-Americans are not visible in more wilderness-based parks and trails, they are quite visible in local parks. And so I find that it's not necessarily true that African-Americans are not engaging with nature. They prefer, however, to engage with nature closer to home.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, that's just the question though. Do you think that it is that African-Americans have become an urban population? And so is part of it, you think, is it a lack of exposure or do you think it's just economic factors, that some of these desirable outdoor locations that many people, you know, might have really enjoyed, like Aspen, is expensive to get to and when you get there, it's expensive to be there? Or that hiking equipment or outdoor equipment can be expensive? I mean, you can use it for a long time and it kind of - if you use it a lot, you know, it advertises its cost at the time, right?

MAPP: Sure.

MARTIN: I mean, it's not like, you know, going to the spa where, you know, it's it. But is it that - it just seems as though the initial getting there is expensive.

MAPP: I think so. I think there are definitely a number of fears and perceptions about the outdoors that limit people from considering it as an option. And so what I do in my work is help people to see that they're actually spending the same money in other places. You buy those Manolo Blahniks or you take that trip to the Caribbean or you go to Disneyland. I mean, those are high, big-ticketed items that people don't think twice about spending money on. And so what I like to do is talk about the real costs of engaging with nature.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that you recently wrapped up a trip to Big Sur...

MAPP: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...on the central California coast, but I do understand that there was an RV involved?

MAPP: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: Is that cheating?

MAPP: You know, that's a very interesting question. And what I found was the RV experience is rather a base camp, because we didn't spend our time inside the RV during the day. We were out exploring the trails. We were in the river. So I really felt that we had the best of both worlds.

MARTIN: Okay, okay. Now, you have three kids. Now, if I were to call them, which one of them snuck the PST there? The video games, for the uninitiated.

MAPP: Yeah.

MARTIN: The mobile video game.

MAPP: Yeah. If there was one thing I would regret, it was bringing that along because...

MARTIN: Oh, busted.

MAPP: Because they really, you know, spent a little bit too much time discussing, you know, whose turn it was next. And again, you know, it's not about being a purist. You can find that comfortable middle place that works for you. You can find your own outdoor groove and stick to that or build on that.

MARTIN: Rue Mapp is the founder of the social media website OutdoorAfro. She joined us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Rue Mapp, thank you so much for joining us. See you on the trails.

MAPP: Thank you so much for having me.

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