In Boston, a nationwide nonprofit connects Black out of doors lovers with nature

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On a cool fall morning, Kaitlin Smith searches for something special in a carpet of red and orange leaves along the winding path of the Back Bay Fens. It only takes a moment before she finds what she is looking for.

“Here is one!” Smith opens her palm to reveal a delicate, pinstriped glans. “These lines suggest that this acorn is likely from a coniferous oak,” she says. “Most people don’t necessarily like to process these because they’re so tiny.” Processing acorns is an intensive process that includes washing the acorns, breaking them open, and removing the tannins from the nut meat by cold or hot soaking.

Kaitlin Smith is one of several local leaders of the national organization Outdoor Afro. (Arielle Gray/ WBUR)

“It’s a lot of work, which is why many are looking for larger acorns.” Smith bends down again and straightens up, this time with a big, round one. “Acorn processing is an important part of many indigenous communities that have oak trees. It’s amazing the things you can use acorns for.”

Smith doesn’t just find, grade, and collect acorns for fun. She recently led a local group on an adventure along the Fens, teaching participants about acorns and tying the process to author Octavia Butler’s ‘Earthseed’ series. She is one of several local volunteer leaders for Outdoor Afro, a national nonprofit that connects black people with nature and each other.

As one of the local leaders, Smith finds it exciting to share her love of foraging, herbalism and the power of nature. “We’re able to offer a welcoming environment to people of all skill levels in the region and I just think that’s incredible.” Her passion for teaching others is evident as she pulls out a jar of acorns that she has been cultivating for a year dries. Once the acorns are processed, Smith can turn them into flour and other edible foods.

Kaitlin Smith holds up a jar full of acorns that she has been drying for over a year. “Once washed, you can store acorns anywhere from two to five years,” she says. (Arielle Gray/WBUR)

“It’s important for people of color and black people to have safe communities where nature is central,” says Rue Mapp, founder of Outdoor Afro. She spent her youth frolicking and working on her father’s 14-acre ranch in California, where she was closely connected to nature. “But as I got older and started looking for groups to take part in outdoor activities, I realized I wasn’t seeing enough people who looked like me.” This lack of representation is what prompted Mapp to close Outdoor Afro in 2009 establish.

The “nature” gap is a term used to describe experiences like Mapp’s. The gap is a marked inequality in the participation and representation of people of color in outdoor activities such as fishing, hunting and hiking. Data from the US Fish & Wildlife Service shows that whites make up an overwhelming majority of those who participate in fishing, hunting and other wildlife-related recreational activities.

The glossy pages and ads from outdoor magazines and companies featuring mostly white models reinforce the perception that people of color aren’t “hiking, camping, or whatever the misconception or cliché might be,” says Mapp. “But people of color have always been out in nature, often as stewards and protectors of the land they inhabit.” Her recent book, Nature Swagger, reinvents these misconceptions by putting black people and their stories at the heart of the outdoor experience puts.

“Racism and discrimination have created barriers for black people wanting to go outside,” Mapp emphasizes. A 2015 study published by the Travel and Tourism Research Association traces how racist outdoor policies created and angered the “Adventure Gap.” “Tribal peoples have been forced off their lands. Black and colored people were simply denied access to certain parks or areas,” says Mapp. “Nature has been marketed as an ‘American’ bygone era, but who fits into the narrative of what an American is?”

Rue Mapp, founder of Outdoor Afro (right), recently published her book about black people's experience of nature.  (Courtesy of Bethanie Hines)Rue Mapp, founder of Outdoor Afro (right), recently published her book about black people’s experience of nature. (Courtesy of Bethanie Hines)

Aside from racist politics and fear of discrimination, a sense of uneasiness also keeps blacks and people of color from using nature. Kaitlin Smith is no stranger to this – she recalls one instance when a white man confronted and questioned her just because she was in the woods. “He said to me, ‘What are you doing here?’ and other things like “You don’t get to choose anything” and other intrusive comments. He didn’t really work for the park or the state or anything like that. It was just a random person who felt compelled to tell me what to do and where I belong.”

Luckily, Smith was with a group, so she was less scared than if she had been alone. “That’s why groups like Outdoor Afro are so important,” she says. “This example showed how powerful it can be to have a group of people to venture into the woods with, so that you feel a greater sense of security and also build a community.”

As of this year, Outdoor Afro has over 60,000 network participants and 32 states with local networks. Volunteer leaders like Smith go through a training process before they start organizing meetings and leading groups. Activities in Massachusetts range from excursions like Smith’s foraging to more intense excursions like rock climbing at Pawtuckaway State Park in New Hampshire.

“Our networks are sort of a system of on and off ramps, like you could get on and get on the slow lane and do that neighborhood walk, or you could get on the fast lane and find yourself on, you know, a hike up Mount Kilimanjaro “Mapp says.