Taking pride in nature

  • Posted: Friday, Sep. 16th, 2022

As a Naturalist Fellow, Allie Steffen connected with students in after-school programs at Friendly Hills Middle School in Mendota Heights. It got her thinking about what she had wanted to learn when she was their age. The answer was easy: it was all about the outdoors.

Her love for nature propelled her to study biology at Carthage College and earn a graduate certificate in environmental education from Hamline University. Her year living and learning as a Naturalist Fellow at Dodge deepened her knowledge of the natural world and “taught her to teach” students of all ages.

Allie Steffen teaches young learners about wool on the farm at Rock the Barn on May 21, 2022.

But she knew that not every young person has the opportunities she had. Earlier this year at a program-planning meeting, Allie spoke up about a gap she thought Dodge could help fill: LGBTQIA+ youth in our community need more outdoor opportunities and places to be themselves.

Her colleagues told her, “Go for it!” So, she built Pride Outside, a nature and outdoor skills program for 5th-12th grade youth of any sexual or gender identity.

The whiteboard is decorated with colorful markers for the first Pride Outside program on January 18, 2022.

“No one knows who they are quite yet at that age,” Allie says. “But at Dodge, I want kids to know they can be themselves and they’re welcome, no matter what.”

The response to Pride Outside was swift and enthusiastic. When the first session filled, Allie quickly sought help from fellow naturalists so Dodge didn’t have to turn anyone away. The twice monthly program has drawn dozens of students from 10 different schools—public, private and home-based—including from as far as Woodbury.

Everyone is encouraged to bring friends and classmates. Thanks to generous donors and the Nourishing Everyone’s Need for Nature Campaign focus on increasing access, the program is free for all participants.

Students Elijah and Elizabeth walk the Dodge trails at Pride Outside on October 4, 2022.

“Extracurricular activities often cost a lot,” Allie says. “We didn’t want money to stand in the way of any kid coming to Dodge.”

What’s a typical afternoon at Pride Outside? They begin with introductions and share their pronouns. Then they get outside to explore an array of environmental topics, including wilderness skills, sustainable farming, and climate change.

Student Quinn and Naturalist Allie taste a bug larva at Pride Outside on September 20, 2022.

But the primary experience? Allie says it’s all about “curiosity, chatter and casual conversation.” While hiking and hanging out at the nature center, young people are asking questions about the natural world around them and forging new friendships.

“Beyond building their outdoor skills, my huge goal is to be a supportive adult,” she says. “I want to be someone they can rely on.”

fionn warren, Allie Steffen, and Leah Darst at Dodge's interpretation table at West St. Paul Pride in the Park on July 9, 2022.

Allie’s support for young people and the LGBTQIA+ community is clear. On July 9, she and coworkers Leah Darst and fionn warren brought animal activities to a local celebration, West St. Paul Pride in the Park. Organizers surprised Allie by naming her West St. Paul Pride Community Advocate of the Year.

This article was originally published in the Nourish Your Need for Nature Newsletter, Fall 2022.

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