In the outdoor recreation industry, commitments to inclusion are only worth as much as the actions taken towards closing the gap in access. Sun Outdoors, a luxury camping company with 175 locations, is serious about its pledge of inclusion. In February 2022, the brand announced a partnership with Outdoor Afro, a national nonprofit dedicated to expanding access to the outdoors for the Black community. Outdoor Afro’s annual leadership training will take place this April at the Sun Outdoors River Run RV Resort in Granby, CO. 117 Outdoor Afro leaders from 56 cities will convene for a multi-day leadership training summit.
“One of the main goals from the launch of our new brand, Sun Outdoors, was to find select long-term partnerships that shared our passion for the outdoors, sustainability and accessibility,” said Nick DiBella, senior vice president of operations for Sun Outdoors. “Outdoor Afro is a perfect fit in that they promote and are rooted in nature and community, and that entails a great deal of what we are committed to at Sun.”
Outdoor Afro Annual Leadership Training
Community leaders attending the training represent a wide range of backgrounds. Representing over 30 states, Rue Mapp, CEO of Outdoor Afro, explained that there is no average profile of an Outdoor Afro community leader. They come from all ages, professional backgrounds and levels of experience in the outdoors. Typically, leaders have some prior experience with outdoor recreation and a strong passion for creating Black joy through building community.
“It’s not your typical outdoor training experience. It has the feeling of a homecoming, but it absolutely has the rigor of helping leaders learn real skills such as trip planning and logistics, health impacts, conservation ethics and practice, risk management and effective social media engagement. We also value storytelling around our community activities that also lift up Black history in places that help reinforce feelings of connection and belonging for everyone,” said Mapp.
Historically, a passion for the outdoors is passed through the generations by family members. It’s one reason outdoor recreation is often limited to white middle-class folks. According to Mapp, Outdoor Afro’s theory of change encompasses the act of passing on outdoor education and experience through community, making the process inclusive and accessible. Outdoor Afro volunteer leaders are at the forefront of cultivating this change in their home communities. The summit serves as a catalyst for their development as leaders and outdoor stewards.
Sun Outdoors Partners with Outdoor Afro
At the moment, this type of partnership is unique. Sun Outdoors and Outdoor Afro hope it soon becomes the standard, not the exception. Many advocates in the outdoor inclusion space have been calling for outdoor industry support for years. Many have yet to make a real investment in facilitating access to the outdoors for marginalized communities.
“Not only can we share in our affinity for the outdoors [with Outdoor Afro], but we also have the opportunity to highlight our River Run Resort, which opened in 2019 and just recently concluded the first phase of development, in addition to all of the natural beauty that exists in Colorado,” said DiBella.
This year’s leadership training features Outdoor Afro’s largest cohort of leaders. Outdoor Afro held their first annual leadership summit in 2012 with a starting class of 12. In 10 years, the cohort grew to over 100. Mapp noted that in recent years, 80% of attendees were returning participants from past years. Typically, their summits take place on either coast. This year is the first summit hosted in the Rocky Mountains.
“We really couldn’t have hoped for a better way to be introduced to the region and to have the physical space that can accommodate people comfortably but also give us the space to do our training that is so essential for our leadership’s success,” said Mapp.
Time spent in nature has proven health benefits, including stress relief, creating a strong sense of belonging and releasing endorphins. The Black community faces higher rates of chronic health conditions, in part due to a historic lack of access to nature. Outdoor Afro works to remove those barriers, and their volunteer leaders propel that effort in their local communities.
A Long Term Partnership
For Sun Outdoors and Outdoor Afro, the leadership summit is just the beginning of a long-term partnership. The two plan to work together on programs throughout the year. This type of long-term engagement allows Sun Outdoors to continue supporting Outdoor Afro’s mission and amplifies its level of commitment to expanding inclusion in outdoor recreation.
“Sun is striving to be an informed leader for transformation in the diversity, equity and inclusion space, and this initiative affords us the opportunity to provide the resources to help build a foundation for change. Through its many programs which focus on the outdoors, Outdoor Afro has the ability to mold our future leaders, and we are extremely proud to be a part of that critical effort and hope to be involved in many more like this in the future,” said DiBella.
Outdoor Afro is one of the leading organizations committed to creating access and a sense of belonging in the outdoors for the Black community. With a network of over 45,000 community members nationwide, their partnership with Sun Outdoors may open more welcoming spaces for Black travelers.
“Outdoor Afro is about a real celebration of what it means to be in touch with our humanity and by extension, nature. It’s a reminder that nature isn’t some separate thing out there, that we are nature,” said Mapp.