Chattanoogans are accustomed to the sights that come with an outdoor culture-Subarus and light pickups topped with bright plastic kayaks streaming out of town on the weekends, mud-spattered mountain bikers and trail runners pushing carts through grocery stores after their weeknight adventures, and ropes dangling down the façade of a downtown building as harnessed-up people of all ages climb it.
Although many locals enjoy the area’s outdoor offerings, there is an unspoken assumption about what those kayakers, rock climbers, mountain bikers and trail runners look like.
“When you pick up Get Out magazine, how many people of color are on the pages?” James McKissic, director of the city’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, said.
However, Atlanta-based members of Outdoor Afro, a national organization dedicated to connecting like-minded African-Americans with each other and the great outdoors, recently spent a Saturday exploring Chattanooga. The success of the day has strengthened interest in growing an Outdoor Afro leadership presence here in southeastern Tennessee.
“[At Outdoor Chattanooga], we have an ongoing conversation about bringing more diversity into the outdoors and looking at our efforts and errors,” said program coordinator Terri Chapin, who reached out to Atlanta’s Outdoor Afro members after finding the group online. “We wanted to establish a relationship with them and show the need for a chapter in Chattanooga.”
Outdoor Afro began in 2009 when Californian Rue Mapp decided to blog her experiences as a woman of color who enjoys the outdoors. So many African-Americans commented and mentioned similar interests and challenges that Mapp realized “we had just been hidden in plain sight-these people like me who love the outdoors.”
Mapp restructured her blog as a meet-up group centered around her home in Oakland. Shortly after that, Mapp began the Outdoor Afro Leadership Team, allowing cities around the country to organize excursions. Today, the organization has 30 leaders and 18 meet-ups across the United States.
Stefan Moss, who led the Atlanta visit, would very much like to see the organization expand to Tennessee.
“It just makes sense to have a presence there,” he said. “Tennessee provides so much.”
To be a part of Outdoor Afro, a number of standards must be maintained. First, at least two interested leaders would need to attend leadership training in December. Once the leaders are ready, they must arrange for a minimum of one meet-up event each month, all year. Outdoor Afro leaders are also required to participate in a monthly conference call with all the other leaders from around the country.
Moss, a UTC alum, said that one Chattanoogan has already expressed interest in becoming an Outdoor Afro leader. With one more person and some community partners, the city would be well-positioned to become the country’s 19th Outdoor Afro meet-up. Any interested parties are encouraged to contact Outdoor Afro via their website.
“With my roots in the city, I will be able to make sure the group has support from Atlanta,” Moss said.
Outdoor Afro’s leadership program is the key to its success, Mapp said.
“These leaders are everyday people, not NOLS instructors,” she said. “What we emphasize is being able to really inspire and connect with other people.”
Mapp said that providing a group for outings helps blacks overcome a narrative that has many negative associations with the outdoors.
“There is lots of negative history, but we have the chance to write a new story,” Mapp said. “We can change the face of leadership in the outdoors so we are the ones leading, not being led.”
McKissic agreed that Chattanooga’s minority population should connect with the many outdoor pursuits available in the area.
“I see lots of minorities interested in outdoor activities,” he said. “People don’t make the connection that these activities don’t have to be for a certain part of the population. They really can be for everybody.”
McKissic was part of a delegation from the city, including Chapin and Mayor Andy Berke, on hand to welcome Outdoor Afro to town in June. McKissic organized a lunch at City Hall for the Atlantans and encouraged them to come back to enjoy Chattanooga often. The group spent the rest of the day at Ruby Falls, Rock City and the Incline.
Moss said the group had an “amazing time” and plans to return for a slightly more intense outdoor experience.
“We had mostly families and first-timers with us, so we kept it simple,” Moss said. “The city was jumping. We’d like to come back to visit the aquarium and do some kayaking on the river.”
Even if Chattanooga does not become home to its own Outdoor Afro meet-up, local leaders agreed on the importance of taking deliberate action to make outdoor recreation available to a wider demographic.
While many of Outdoor Chattanooga’s events are offered at little to no cost and equipment is provided, Chapin said there is still limited diversity at their outings. As a result, program leaders have partnered with Chattanooga’s Department of Youth and Family Development and also brought skills building classes to local rec centers.
“We go to places where different user groups are familiar with that location, so that’s one less aspect of participation they have to worry about,” Chapin said.
Moss hopes more Chattanoogans of color will discover what he did while he was a student at UTC.
“I always look at my time in Chattanooga as a time of inspiration,” he said. “I would love to see Outdoor Afro become a part of the continued growth of that city.”
Erin Tocknell is an author and essayist living in Chattanooga whose works have appeared in The Southern Review and Sojourners magazine.