Outdoor Afro, where black people get in touch with nature.
BY LAURA MULROONEY, Staff Writer
TAMPA BAY – Walking the uneven paths of Boyd Hill Nature Preserve lined with signs that read “Do not molest the alligators,” mosquitoes swarming, birds chirping, leaves rustling from the wind or some unknown creature, as the humidity dampens the skin. This is an ideal day for Hillary Van Dyke.
A Florida native and part of the Pinellas County education system for the past eight years, Van Dyke loves being outside. Whether mountain biking, white water rafting or hiking, she would often notice that she was the only black person in the group.
Van Dyke is now the leader of the Tampa Bay chapter of Outdoor Afro, “Where Black People and Nature Meet.”
“Many people don’t go outside because of the fact that it’s hot, who cares if you’ll sweat your hair out,” said Van Dyke. “If I get them out once, even if they don’t come back out with me, if they take someone else, I’ve made a difference.”
As a leader, Van Dyke likes to focus on “inspiring black people to get back with nature through history.” Each event since April of this year has been linked to either local or national history, some involving black history, or indigenous and European history.
The most successful event to date was a kayaking trip where 15 participants tandem kayaked through the Tampa Bay waterways, learning the importance of its ecosystem and tidbits from the Tampa Bay history vault.
Founded initially as a blog by Rue Mapp in 2009, the Outdoor Afro has grown into a full-time endeavor for Mapp and her team. From a solo act to overseeing 14 volunteers and paid staff members, Mapp has learned to embrace what she was meant to do.
Mapp realized that people wanted to be a part of something where other people who looked like them were doing outdoor activities, and the Outdoor Afro forum allowed people to be a part of that.
“Outdoor Afro is my true north professionally. It’s not just a job but a movement,” said Mapp.
A movement to connect people back with nature and focus on self-healing.
“Ultimately with everything going on in the universe we need to take the time to self-heal and chill,” believes Van Dyke.
Mapp’s biggest challenge to date is the perception about black people in nature.
“Nature isn’t just for children and the poor,” said Mapp. “We’ve always loved nature. Harriet Tubman was a wilderness leader, how else could she guide all those people to freedom? We need to get back the kind of nature knowledge our ancestors and grandparents had.”
In May of this year, Mapp was able to bring together 60 new leaders to Yosemite National Park in California for a four-day event, admittedly her proudest moment to date with Outdoor Afro. Leaders were provided with starter packs, classes on risk mitigation and instilling a group inclusive atmosphere.
“There was an instant bond and community, almost like a family reunion… the event radiated love, camaraderie and passion,” said Mapp.
The leadership program is for ordinary people; professionals of all kinds can be an outdoor leader. Mapp is looking for people who aren’t necessarily outdoorsy but have a fire in their belly to connect people to nature and who can use their professional experience to feed into their leadership role.
The idea is to shift the visual representation of who goes outdoors and to reshape what outdoor leadership looks like, making room for more people in the conversation, according to Mapp.
Florida is the most recent state to join Outdoor Afro, with networks in Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and Miami.
Van Dyke organizes events at least one Saturday a month and one Wednesday evening, what she likes to call, “a redefined happy hour.”
“Outdoor Afro isn’t just for trying new activities, it’s for those who want to feel part of the community, new in town and want to spark new friendships. It’s a fun way to engage with the community,” said Van Dyke.
For more information Outdoor Afro can be found on Facebook at Outdoor Afro – St. Petersburg/ Tampa Bay Area and Meetup at Outdoor-Afro-Saint-Petersburg-Tampa.