Celebrating Black Innovators: Week 4

Rue Mapp

Connecting Black Americans with the Outdoors

Rue Mapp, founder of Outdoor Afro

Rue Mapp is the founder of Outdoor Afro, a social network that connects African American outdoor enthusiasts with nature and each other.

Mapp, who was born and raised in Oakland, California, has always been drawn to the outdoors. She traces her passion to her parents, particularly her father, who built a ranch in Lake County, California, about 2 1/2 hours north of the city, that became a weekend and summer retreat for family and friends. Her father was a black cowboy who moved to California from Texas and brought with him a love of nature. From tracking tadpoles in the creek to watching the stars at night—nature was a skillful teacher. However, as her adventures grew in scope, Mapp noticed that many people in the wilderness didn't look like her.

She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in Art History. In 2003, Mapp founded a game and hobby store that aimed to serve local youth in Southern California.

In 2009, at what Mapp describes as an important crossroads in her life, a mentor of hers asked what she would be doing if money and time were not factors. She told her mentor she would run an organization that would reconnect African Americans with nature. Soon after, she started a blog entitled Outdoor Afro that quickly grew into a movement.

In her writing, Mapp described her experiences in nature as a Black woman. Her words quickly gained an audience. Many of her readers also often felt that they were the only Black people who enjoyed the outdoors. Black people engaged with nature, but their interaction with nature wasn't always valued or even recognized.

A decade later, Mapp and Outdoor Afro have become leaders in not only building a community of Black outdoor enthusiasts but also expanding the definition of the outdoors to include the experiences and knowledge of Black individuals. Outdoor Afro highlights stewardship and conservation. Participants borrow gear and equipment when they can, lean heavily on public transportation, and are taught leave-no-trace principles of packing in and packing out and bringing only what’s needed.

Over the years the nonprofit organization has grown from its headquarters in Oakland to opening an office in Washington D.C. Around 40,000 people participate in its activities each year, and it has a strong social media network of 50,000 people.

Mapp and Outdoor Afro are also working to build equity in the water. Black youth ages five to 19 drown in swimming pools at more than five times the rate of white kids, a legacy of generations of segregation. The organization's swim program is combatting the statistic by teaching African American youth and their caregivers to swim.

In 2010, Mapp was invited to the Obama White House to participate in America’s Great Outdoors Conference, and subsequently to take part in a think-tank to inform the launch of the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” initiative. Mapp’s work and op-eds have been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Seattle Times, Los Angeles Times, Ebony Magazine, Outside Magazine, and NPR. Rue’s work has also been recognized with numerous awards and distinctions, including The Root 100 as one of the most influential African Americans in the country, the Outdoor Industry Inspiration Award, and the National Wildlife Federation Communication award (received alongside President Bill Clinton).

Join the OutDoor Afro community at OutdoorAfro.com

Ibrahim abdul-matin

Lessons in Climate Change from Islam

Ibrahim Abdul-matin

Ibrahim Abdul-matin: an urban strategist, author, and thought leader has been working tirelessly over the last decade to transform the pollution-based culture of our country into one that prioritizes our planet and its people. Through his unique voice, he has helped elevate the environmental vision of Islam and the ethical imperative of how we manage lands, waters, and open spaces.

Ibrahim was born in the middle of a blizzard in Manhattan, New York in January 1977. His mother and father were recent converts to mainstream Islam and lived in Queens. They eventually moved to Brooklyn and as a child, he thought the entire world was a sea of concrete buildings. He became fascinated with the environment when his father brought him and his brother to hike on Bear Mountain, which is just an hour from New York City. For the first time in his life, he saw moss growing on rocks, mushrooms rotting on wood, and breathed fresh air. From that moment on, he felt a deep sense of responsibility to protect the planet.

Together with a small group, he created a database of youth organizations in the United States called the Future 500. In 2004, he helped establish the Brooklyn Academy for Science and the Environment, and then he worked with the Movement Strategies Center, a progressive think tank in Oakland, California.

From there, he went on to earn his BA in History and Political Science from the University of Rhode Island and a master's in public administration from Baruch College.

Ibrahim was at a conference for environmental activists in Memphis, Tennessee, in 2008, and met an old woman at a diner. They struck up a conversation and when he asked her what she thought about climate change, the woman replied, "I think it's something the Democrats want me to be afraid of, just like the Republicans want me to be afraid of terrorists." He realized then that unless environmentalists found a deeper, more spiritual reason for people to get involved in the movement, most people would simply see it as propaganda.

Since he was Muslim, he decided to explore his own religion to learn more about its relationship with the planet and ended up writing the book “The Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet.” The book examines Islamic principles and how they can be applied to water, waste, energy, and food - the four things that any society needs to manage for survival. He also shares his story as a Black Muslim environmentalist and shares stories of Muslim Americans across the country.

In the book, he says “The planet is my home, and yours too. Together, we can protect, maintain, and respect it. How we treat the planet is a reflection of how we treat ourselves.”

Abdul-Matin has worked extensively with environmental justice organizations throughout his career, most notably as Deputy Director of Green for All from 2009 to 2013. In this role, he helped create green jobs training programs and promote policies that would benefit low-income communities of color.

He is also the co-founder of Green Squash Consulting a management consulting firm based in New York that works with people, organizations, companies, coalitions, and governments committed to equity and justice and specializes in dynamic strategic and focused stakeholder management and partnership development. He sits on several boards, including theInternational Living Future Institute encouraging the creation of a regenerative built environment and Sapelo Square whose mission is to celebrate and analyze the experiences of Black Muslims in the United States.

Mavynee Betsch "The Beach Lady" (1935 -2005)

A lifelong dedication to American Beach

MaVynee Betsch was born in 1935, the great-granddaughter of one of the first truly successful black businessmen in the United States - Abraham Lincoln Lewis. Abraham helped found American Beach, a beach-front community and respite for blacks who, at the time, were not allowed on most Florida beaches due to Jim Crow laws.

Art by Ericka Lugo

Though MaVynee enjoyed a successful decade-long career as an international opera singer, her defining work started after returning home from Europe when she donated nearly all of her fortune to worldwide environmental conservation causes.

By the 1960s, due to hurricane damage and the desegregation under the Civil Rights Act, American Beach was in decline as African Americans branched out to locations that were previously prohibited. Mavynee, sensing the importance of preserving this historically significant community, dedicated herself to the conservation of her Great Grandfather's legacy.

She gave historical tours of American Beach and beautified the struggling town by planting trees. She sold her family’s home to donate the money to environmental charities, and spent time living in friends’ homes and in a trailer. She even slept on the beach itself. Six feet tall, dressed in bright colors, draped in jewelry made from shells and beach stones, and always ready to share her passion for the landscape and its history, she soon earned and embraced the nickname “Beach Lady.” (NPS)

The Beach Lady's enduring influence reaches far beyond her accomplishments as an activist, such as the protection of NaNa Dune from development, as everyone who met her were inspired by her whimsical personality and passion for the earth. Always one with a flair for the dramatic, MaVynee changed her birth name (Marvyne) to align with her beliefs - adding an "e" to the end for "environment" and dropping the "r" in protest of Reagan administration environmental policies.

American Beach Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. A permanent museum to the town's history opened in 2014. In 2020, a grant from the African American Civil Rights Grant Program was awarded to conduct a historic structure report on Evans’ Rendezvous, one of the most popular nightclubs of the town’s golden age. (NPS)

MaVynee Betsch passed away in 2005 after battling cancer, only moving indoors her last few years due to nagging by her family and friends.

Learn more about American Beach here

Captain Charles Young

Buffalo Soldier and Leader of Men

Charles Young

Charles Young's long military career began after graduating from West Point in 1889, becoming only the third African-American to do so. Charles, born the son of exslaves in MaysLick, Kentucky, withstood years of discrimination and bigotry while at West Point, cultivating a spirit of determination that would go on to serve him his entire life.

In the early years of his career, Charles served alongside the Buffalo Soldiers in the 9th and 10th Cavalries, trained soldiers as Second Lieutenant during the Spanish-American war, and commanded a squadron of Buffalo Soldiers in Cuba.

While successfully negotiating a dispute between Native Americans and sheep herders in Utah, Charles mentored a young Sergeant Major Benjamin O. Davis, who would one day become the very first African American to achieve the rank of General in the US Army.

In 1903, Young was assigned the post as "Acting Superintendent" of Sequoia National Park in California, a summer position that had previously seen very little progress in preparing the park for visitors. After a 16-day ride and faced with very little funding or accessible roadways, Captain Young rallied his troops to produce usable roads throughout the park, finally opening the park and its signature giant redwoods to the public.

One of the ancient sequoias in Sequoia National Park dedicated to Charles Young's service and dedication

Highly regarded for his exceptional leadership, courage and honor, Charles was a favorite among the public to play a major role in WW1. Unfortunately, the challenges of racism and discrimination had followed him to this pivotal moment. To the dismay of Young and his supporters, he was given a failing physical, effectively ending his long and illustrious career. On June 22, 1917, Lt. Colonel Charles Young was retired against his will.

Nearly one year later, Charles rode 500 miles on horseback from Ohio to Washington DC to petition for reinstatement and command of an infantry in Europe. Charles was ultimately reinstated, but to his disappointment was assigned to Camp Grant, Illinois. Later, he was sent to West Africa on a research expedition. Colonel Young passed away while on this assignment in Lagos, Nigeria in 1922.

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