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Outdoor Afro demonstrates that nature is for everyone

If you buy into the stereotype that black people hate the great outdoors, you can take a hike.

Just ask Toyya Mahoney. She’ll take you.

Mahoney heads up the first local chapter of Outdoor Afro, a nationwide advocacy group dedicated to introducing African-Americans to nature.

The grass-roots organization uses online meetup groups to set up hikes, camping trips and other outings designed to get black people outside to enjoy the natural world.

“Going outside and connecting with nature is something everyone needs,” the 23-year-old UNLV graduate said.

Yet black people are seriously under-represented in National Park visitation statistics, Mahoney said, and surveys show a sizable percentage don’t feel welcome on public land or in other natural settings.

Rue Mapp, a University of California, Berkeley graduate and former financial analyst, launched Outdoor Afro in 2009 as a blog and a Facebook page dedicated to her love of the outdoors and her experiences as the only black person on most hikes and camping trips.

The response she got convinced the Oakland, California, mother of three to expand what she was doing from an outlet to a movement.

Today, the organization has more than 60 trained group leaders and thousands of active members in 28 states. Its motto is: “Where Black People and Nature Meet.” Its sponsors include REI, Keen, the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation.

Mahoney became the group’s first “natural leader” in Nevada in April, after undergoing Outdoor Afro leadership training at Yosemite National Park.

She led her first outing on May 28, a hike with 22 people along the Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail at Lake Mead National Recreation Area. She followed that up on June 25 with a hike to Mary Jane Falls on Mount Charleston that drew 11 participants.

Andi Rucker, 27, took part in both outings. He said the 1.6-mile climb to Mary Jane Falls was one of the best hikes he’s ever been on. “It was super therapeutic,” he said.

Rucker is an avid cyclist who moved to Las Vegas about two years ago after growing up in Cleveland with a diverse group of friends. He said he never felt unwelcome on outings in the outdoors, though he didn’t see many other people of color.

“It’s more of a stereotype within the black community itself,” Rucker said. “If you tell someone you went out into the desert to go camping, they’ll look at you like you’re crazy.”

The stereotype finds its roots in America’s ugly history of systemic racism. Mahoney said its origins are well documented in the 2014 book “Black Faces, White Spaces: Re-imagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors.” Author Carolyn Finney argues that slavery, segregation and racial violence conditioned many people of color to view the outdoors as a dangerous place that belonged to white people.

Disproportionate levels of poverty and urbanization in the black community have conspired to keep that stereotype alive.

Mahoney said a few participants in Outdoor Afro’s first two outings in Southern Nevada had never been on a hike before.

“I love taking people out for the first time,” she said. “They are really surprised and amazed to find themselves enjoying it.”

Mahoney is pretty new to the outdoors herself.

The daughter of a black woman and a white man, she grew up in North Las Vegas, where her mother struggled with mental illness and drug addiction. “We didn’t leave our community much or get involved,” Mahoney said.

She went camping for the first time at age 22. She took her first hike at age 19, after signing on as an intern and then a seasonal ranger with the Park Service at Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

She said some members of her family didn’t understand why she would want to be out in the middle of nowhere like that, so far from home and the city. “They told me, ‘You’re really embracing the white girl in you,’” Mahoney said.

The ranger job sent her to Katherine Landing, on the Arizona side of Lake Mohave, where a chance encounter with a coyote challenged everything she thought she knew about the natural world.

Growing up in the city, Mahoney said, she was raised to think of coyotes as blood-thirsty, dangerous animals. But as she stood there — scared to the verge of panicking — the coyote simply sauntered past as if she wasn’t there.

“It shattered all my misconceptions,” she said.

Now she’s planning future Outdoor Afro adventures, including indoor rock climbing and a trip to see the new Seven Magic Mountains sculpture in the desert south of Las Vegas.

Eventually, the group will go camping, though they will probably ease into that by pitching their tents in a community garden or other open space somewhere in the Las Vegas Valley first. The great outdoors is there for everyone to enjoy, Mahoney said, but it can take some getting used to.

“It’s kind of a hard concept to leave your city and camp in the middle of nowhere,” she said.

Review-Journal videographer Rachel Aston contributed to this report.

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Find @RefriedBrean on Twitter.

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