This commencement address was given May 14, 2016 at Unity College by Rue Mapp.
Wow! What an honor. I am so happy to be here. So I have so much heart-felt thanks and gratitude for the whole Unity College community: the president, the trustees, the staff and to you the graduating class of 2016 and all the people surrounding you who walked with you every step of the way of your journey. And I also give thanks for the natural world and nature needs us all now more than ever.
So I’ve come from sunny Oakland, California, a mere 3,286 miles away. So I must make these 10-15 minutes worth your while. But I am here to share actually another journey. It the journey that brought me to you here professionally.
Now I have a few admissions to make. I did not grow up with the legacies of John Muir or that of Rachel Carson. But we had other role models in nature like George Washington Carver, who took the peanut and brought out innovation to new intellectual heights. We also had Harriet Tubman, when I think about what she needed to know, to lead people to freedom in the cover of night in nature. She is every bit a wilderness leader. She absolutely didn’t have a GPS.
And I also had my father. He is no longer living, but his legacy lives on within me. He came from Texas, from the Jim-Crow south, to California. And he loved everything about the land. And wanted to stay connected to it and he wanted his family to stay connected to it. So even though we lived in Oakland half of the time, we had a ranch up in northern California. And it was truly my laboratory. We had cows and we had pigs. I learned to hunt and I learned to fish. We had a bountiful garden and such a wonderful way of bringing that nature know how. Just knowing the cycle of life and harvest back to home. It was a really unique childhood.
But we also had something else going on up at that ranch. We had hospitality. It was something so special to my father to bring people from the community in Oakland, who did not have the chance to see start at night, or the youth who did not have the chance to see the evolution of a tad pole into a frog in the local creek. It was the wonderment that I grew up with, understanding that wonder was just as important as nature itself.
I also got a chance to be a girl scout growing up. As an adult, and a peak outdoor experience as I found myself on the side of a mountain in Sequoia Kings National Park as a student of Outward Bound on a Mountaineering Course. Now even though we had all this nature love going on in my family, we had not done any type of mountaineering or camping for that matter. And I didn’t even have all the right gear that I was supposed to. So I found myself on that side of the mountain just stuck. I didn’t think I had the ability to move forward. And I was about to give up. But my instructor leaned over in my moment before saying ‘I’m done with this’ and he said ‘Rue, trust your feet.’ There was something in his words that resonated with me to dig down and somehow the magic of his words helped me to climb to the top.
I was about 20 years old at that time. It was a moment for me to understand nature as a powerful teacher. That me here, at the precipice of adulthood, that I had everything that I needed inside of me to move forward. And I tell you, I’ve been trusting my feet ever since.
After many years of working in the corporate world, I worked at Morgan Stanley as an analyst. I found myself back in college to take care of a neglected undergraduate degree much older that most of the peers I had at UC Berkley. Are there any non-traditional age students graduating? Can you please stand up? (Applause). Thank you. You are an example that it is never ever too late. It takes a lot to disrupt your life and go back to school. It was the most important time in my life to get a chance to build relationships with people that I wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance to in the professional world. So I salute you and your families that also sacrificed to help you along.
So that experience that was once humbling and challenging, but it provided me this opportunity for reinvention. Near my own undergraduate graduation in 2009, I had majored in the history of art, I had a mentor. Mentors are so important. I had a mentor who asked me the question that I think that everyone should be asked. So if you are mentoring someone, please ask. And that was, what if time and money were not a barrier? What would you be doing? And I opened my mouth and my life fell out! I said oh, I would probably start a website to reconnect African American to the outdoors. Surprised me.
From that conversation in just two weeks I just grabbed a google template and created Outdoor Afro. And out of that conversation, around the time that social media was just coming onto the horizon, I realized using that art history degree that I had this opportunity to help shift the visual representation of who can be and lead in the outdoors. And I’m proud to say that Outdoor Afro has grown from a social media conversation and now a national not-for-profit organization in 28 states with 62 leaders and we’re connecting tens of thousands of people back to nature. And we have found that (applause – thank you…. Thank you). And we have found that the best leaders that we have in our network are everyday folks. People who have a shared passion in their belly for connecting people to nature. And we’re also reaching millions through a multi-media approach. And just as I did back in 2009, so to do you have everything that you need to be successful, as you define it, in support of our natural environment.
But as you know and as my fellow speakers have alluded to, the world is changing fast. We have to take our knowledge and apply it in entrepreneurial ways and weave networks together and technologies together for impact. I’m happy to learn the ways that Unity College has adapted to these changes and has welcomed a broader and more international demographic in recent years. No longer can we work in our silos on projects and research. The success of our work also depends on us making the outdoors relevant and welcoming to everyone.
According to research by the Outdoor Industry Association, the outdoor economy is believed to be as high as four percent of the gross domestic product, providing economic vitality to communities across the country and providing jobs that cannot be shipped offshore. And socially, we need nature now more than ever.
In my homework on Oakland after Ferguson happened, it erupted. There were people in the streets, there were helicopters overhead. It was just total unrest. This was happening all over. I have to admit, I have aged out of that form of protest. I’ve got dinner to make for kids, I’ve got to be at work the next day. I’ve no time to be arrested. But I felt like there needed to be something else for people to tap into. There was something that I should be doing. As I was walking to my car from my office, the answer came. And the answer was ‘Rue, you do nature, that’s your lane.’
So the very next day I got on the phone with the Sierra Club and other partners and Outdoor Afro leaders around the country and we organized Healing Hikes. And the following day in the Oakland Hills, where we have redwoods, we met about 30 people of all different backgrounds who wanted to come together and share. We worked our way down into that Redwood bowl. As we got to the side of a stream I realized that we were doing what African American and Southern Baptists have been doing from time eternal. And that was we were laying down our burdens, down by the riverside. As we came out of that Redwood bowl that absorbed all of our tensions, our questions, our concerns and our love for one another, we came out with resolve that we shared about what we might do differently in our homes, in our workplaces and in our communities. It was another lesson for me to understand that nature is the ultimate equalizer and is a healer.
So, over time I have come to realize that this work is about love and resiliency. I hope that you will harness your passion for the long game. What we hope to accomplish cannot happen in one year, cannot happen just with children. It requires a multi-generational engagement over time. When our work is truly done, I am afraid to say there will not be a parade down Main Street. There will not be balloons in the sky. There will not be a ticker tape parade. It will be in that quiet moment when humans of every hue and from every background will enjoy and fiercely protect our natural world and it will be no big deal.
Wishing you all the best in nature’s grace. Congratulations Class of 2016.