Well, this is wonderful. Thank you so much. I’m not accustomed to doing talks in the round. I apologize if I have my back to anybody. And just thank you. This is a wonderful honor, a wonderful view I’m looking over at right now, and thank you Megan for just being such a bridge builder. I’m just in great company right now.
I don’t think anyone knows this, but Megan and I met at an executive finance class and it’s just a reminder that we’re not only in the business of nature, but we’re also running businesses and sustainable organizations are very much a part of our success. I have a lot of memories of this region. I have a very solid connection to this area. I was only nine years old when I had my first overnight camping experience at Hidden Villa Ranch. It changed my life. And I was proud a few years ago to receive an award for humanitarianism and that experience I remember writing about in my diary. I had this Hello Kitty diary and in big loopy cursive brand-new language I’m learning, I wrote about every single detail of that experience and journaling was definitely a big part of my connection to nature because it was the way to record what I had experienced and to revisit it over and over again.
But my connection to nature, just like with Steve, began with my family. My parents came to California just like many African-Americans came to California and North and East, in search of the warmth of other suns. They were coming away from a Jim Crow South, they were in pursuit of greater economic opportunities. My parents were a part of that great migration, but what they brought along with them was a love of nature and the outdoors. While we lived most of the time in Oakland, California where I’m proud to be from, we also had a ranch up in Lake County and it was truly my parent’s laboratory and it became mine as a child. I learned how to hunt and how to fish. I was able to ride my bikes on endless county country roads. I was able to have a relationship with my local creek where I was able to monitor the life cycle of a tadpole into a frog. Not only was it a place to connect with nature, but it was also a place to connect with one another.
My parents are known to this day for being some of the most hospitable people you might ever meet. And hospitality is a real core value of the work of Outdoor Afro, that I get to perpetuate even though they’re no longer here on this earth. It was a place where you could go and you can show up without notice and you might be offered a hot plate of food and offered to spend the night if you didn’t have another place to go. So I was exposed at a young age to not only connections to nature, but connections to hospitality in nature.
But it wasn’t until several years later, that I had a lot of my life come together for me. A mentor asked me a question back in 2009. A question, I think, that everyone should ask or answer and that is: if time and money were not an issue, what would you be doing? And I opened my mouth and my life fell out. I said, “well I’d probably start a website to reconnect African-Americans to the outdoors”. It was one of those moments of revelation where all the things I had taken for granted, things I loved about nature, things I loved about community building and family, and technology. It came together in a really beautiful crisp moment. Two weeks after that conversation, I started Outdoor Afro as a simple blogger template blog. I started just telling these stories, stories that I’m sharing with you right now.
Back in 2009, it was pretty much the beginning of social media. The algorithms were nice and flat, so from my kitchen table, I was able to have these conversations with people all over the world about why nature was important to me. And something magical happened, people started replying and saying I love nature too and here’s how, here’s my story, here’s my video, here are my photos. My background is art history and I know this is Stanford country but go bears! I got a degree in art history from UC Berkeley, so I really value and appreciate the importance of visual representation. So hearing from so many people, I realized that we actually have a visual representation problem, that we weren’t seeing people who look like me in the covers or the pages of Backpacker magazine or Outside magazine and trust me, by now they have definitely come along. But back then, we weren’t seeing ourselves reflected in the mainstream representation, so I was able to use social media as a platform to tell a new narrative.
After a while, I got to know this community and they wanted to know more about how to get connected with people in the outdoors right where they live. So back to social media, I asked the question, who wants to be an Outdoor Afro leader and a brave baker’s dozen people said yes, I will be an Outdoor Afro leader. I brought those folks together near my parent’s ranch in Lake County, California. We partnered with amazing partners like the Sierra Club and REI and Klean Kanteen and many more who are still partners with us today to learn from each other about what it would take to shake environmental and outdoor leadership that reflected the community. And yes, we have grown as you heard. We started that group of folks back in 2013 and I’m proud to say they’ve grown to actually 80 men and women and our network is now more than 35,000 people. And a proud moment, a group of those folks actually went to Tanzania just this last July to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro.
You know there’s also the reality when we think about the history of African-Americans in the outdoors, that there’s not always a feeling of welcoming. There actually is a history that is terror in the woods and we can turn to the plaintiff lyrics of Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit that testifies about that history. So we have a chance today through this work to tell a new story, a story about our grandmother’s gardens, a story about connections in nature that help us to transform communities. You know it was about 3-4 years ago that Oakland, like many cities, were bracing for violence in the wake of police-involved violence of black bodies in the outdoors. Oakland was surrounded by police and there were helicopters overhead and I was leaving my office that evening, as the city was getting ready to protest and I asked myself, what’s my role in all of this, what does Outdoor Afro need to do? The answer came. It was nature. Rue, you do nature. That’s your lane and so the weekend came about and I invited our partners and local leaders to get out in nature and do healing hikes. We went to the Redwoods, up in the Oakland Hills and we had some intentions, we did some yoga exercises, we talked about the experience we wanted to have and we went down as a group of 30 people into that Redwood bowl and as we went down that path, leading into the stream trail, I could feel all the stress leaving us and we were able to hear each other. We were not surrounded by police riot gear and as we got down to that stream trail, I realized that African-Americans have always known that we could lay down our burdens down by the riverside.
That was the moment I realized nature is a powerful healer and we’re still doing healing hikes. That’s still our reason to come together. What I love about nature is that it’s the ultimate equalizer: The trees don’t know what color you are; The birds don’t know how much money you have in your bank account. It’s a way for us to shed the -isms that weigh on us throughout our work days, throughout our week, and give us that respite and that opportunity to actually connect with other people. Nature provides a sense of place and belonging. Here in the Bay Area, people as you know, are leaving in droves because of housing and other social pressures. A connection to nature gives people a chance to develop a relationship and helps us be better stewards of the land.
In Outdoor Afro, we value green expertise of both nature and community and it’s not limited to leaders who have been wildlife biologists or have taken specific outdoor education programs. The Outdoor Afro leader is typically someone who is a professional of any background, but has a fire in their belly to connect people to nature and I’m really proud of just how we’re able to help restore outdoor leadership back to the home. So all parents, caregivers, teachers, can all rise up in leadership and it’s no environmental education program that taught me the love of nature better than my parents and that’s what we’re trying to mimic in Outdoor Afro.
Today we’re measuring our success by people’s lives and how they transform and their stories of leadership. It’s about the school teacher who just summited Mt. Kilimanjaro, it’s about measuring joy and fulfilled lives, and how people are now going to be becoming Outdoor Afro leaders and taking on greater responsibility and professional roles and environmental education and experiential programs.
So my call to action today is for us to link arms with one another. We can absolutely have greater representation of Outdoor Afro leaders here on the peninsula and you can find out how by asking or visiting our website. You know I’m often asked what does it look like when our work is done. I’m afraid it’s not going to be ticker tape parade down Main Street. It won’t be balloons falling from the sky. It’s going to be this quiet moment when we’ll be out in nature and we’ll see people out enjoying it in proportion to their population and their opportunity and it’s no big deal. Thank you.