While fly-fishing in the Laurel Highlands, Kim Refosco looked around and made a startling realization.
“I’m a woman, and I’m a person of color. There just wasn’t anyone out on the water who looked like me,” she said.
Being outdoors is second nature to Refosco. As a child growing up in Wilkinsburg, she loved being outside, playing in her family’s big backyard and nearby parks, riding her bike until dark and most of all, fishing with her dad.
“It was our special time. My sister and mom weren’t into fishing, so this was a special kind of relationship that I shared with my dad,” she said of her late father.
When Refosco had her own two children, sharing her love of the outdoors was important, and they spent time camping and taking part in other outdoor activities. As they grew older, Refosco took up fly-fishing, and after participating in a lesson at Ohiopyle with Venture Outdoors, she wanted to go out on her own. That’s when she realized that there no other people on the water who looked like her.
“When I went home, I started looking online for outdoor groups for Black people, and I found Outdoor Afro,” she said. “I followed them for about a year and kept thinking, ‘These activities are so cool, as soon as an event is near Pittsburgh, I’m doing it.’”
Outdoor Afro is a national nonprofit that focuses on inspiring Black connections and leadership in nature. They now have more than 100 leaders in 56 cities across the U.S. In 2017, when Refosco was researching the organization, Outdoor Afro had yet to have a Pittsburgh community.
“I realized, ‘Oh, that’s supposed to be me. I’m supposed to lead this,’” said Refosco, who then applied for the leadership program.
Outdoor Afro was expanding to other cities, and they liked the idea of Pittsburgh. Soon Refosco found herself on a plane bound for California for training. “It was so outside of my comfort level, but as soon as I was there, I felt like that is where I belonged,” she said.
After the exhilarating physical and mental training, Refosco came back to Pittsburgh and organized her first Outdoor Afro event. And no one came.
“It was very awkward,” she laughed.
Refosco kept at it, despite only drawing one or two participants per event. In 2018, she went to another leadership training and came back with renewed enthusiasm. In fall of that year, Outdoor Afro Pittsburgh got a boost when founder Rue Mapp came to Pittsburgh as a Heinz Award recipient.
“It was a big deal. We did a networking event and received a lot of publicity. It helped give us a solid following and foundation,” Refosco said. The group now has waiting lists for their events.
Outdoor Afro Pittsburgh features an average of one event per month. Activities have included hiking, kayaking, snowshoeing, fishing, geocaching, camping, photography, and whitewater rafting. “We are always looking for new activities,” Refosco said.
Jennifer Kennedy became the second Pittsburgh leader this past April, another testament to growing interest in the area.
“One of the best things about having two leaders is that we can do things the other may not enjoy, and we can reach different groups of people,“ Refosco said.
Outdoor Afro helps create a place where everyone is comfortable in nature, something really vital, especially in these challenging times.
Rachid Seabron discovered Outdoor Afro in the summer of 2020. “It was in the middle of the pandemic last year, and I was looking for ways to expand my social circle in the area,” he said.
Seabron remembered someone mentioning a Black group that specialized in outdoor activities. “I was intrigued at the time, and though I didn't immediately follow up, it was always in the back of my mind to try to find that group or at least a similar one, which is how I ended up upon their Facebook page,” he explained.
Since then, Seabron, sometimes with his two children, has participated in many Outdoor Afro activities including kayaking, hiking, swimming, biking, and kayaking.
“I get to do things outdoors, which I love, while meeting new people who share the same interests. I've made several friends through the group,” he said. “I also get the opportunity to try new things I never thought of doing, sometimes in places I never thought of going.”
Outdoor Afro is open to everyone who wants to enjoy outdoor activities.
“This is not all about color. If people want to try a new activity, and they see that we are a group doing it, they can join us—they just have to recognize and support our mission,” Refosco said.
Outdoor Afro partners with many other outdoor organizations, both nationally and locally, and have numerous sponsors to assist in their efforts. Local partners include Venture Outdoors, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Allegheny County Parks Foundation and others.
“There are so many benefits to being outdoors and connected to nature. Of course, we know the physical benefits, but there are so many mental health benefits as well,” said Refosco. “We want to create a sense of community and safety for Black people to enjoy the outdoors.
“People can join us in a like-minded fellowship and feel safe,” she added.
For more information about Outdoor Afro, visit https://outdoorafro.com. Local groups also have Facebook and Meet Up pages.