Self Determination, Empowerment and Contribution

Self Determination, Empowerment and Contribution

By Thomas Arie Donch, 1973 St. Paul Open School graduate,

attended 11th and 12th grades.

Photo by Chris Pirsig

Self-determination, empowerment and the belief that we as individuals can make a difference in creating positive change and helping make the world a better place. These are the most important qualities and lessons I carried away from my two years at the St. Paul Open School. Most of the facts and examinations, from my ten years’ prior education, have long been forgotten. These lessons from my Open School years have endured, assisted my work and continue to nourish my life.

Tom Arie Donch and partner Cathy Forcas

There is no one single experience at Open School that I can point to. Intrinsically it was the exciting atmosphere of new experimental learning and the trust given to let a young man make his own mistakes and grow from them.

My first public speaking experience was at the Open School. Traveling to other places and schools we talked and answered questions about our new experiment in learning. Appearing on the Today Show and talking about the “B.S.”  of traditional education was also fun. (My friend from the Catholic Boys High school I had previously attended stated that I got to be on TV just because I had become a “hippie”).

Learning to focus for days uninterrupted on a single work of art was valuable and exceptional, as was the counsel and support of my art teacher Pat Fitzgerald and fellow student Mary Nelson. I loved the egalitarianism of the volleyball games with teachers and students. Tutoring other students taught me.  Being on the school advisory council was empowering as it was comprised of equal numbers of students, teachers and parents. Students were mentored and we felt listened to. The environmental class, (that I never attended), sued five local corporations for pollution and won in court. How thrilled I was to see the front page of the St. Paul paper announcing my fellow students’ success.  Even being on the periphery, it further empowered the belief that we could all make a difference. So many talks and experiences of social activism took place at school and influenced me.

Perhaps most seminal was the building of the school itself in an old paper warehouse. Community members, parents, students and teachers built the school from scratch.  At the time, I probably ate more donuts than I did work, but an adolescent absorbs far more than can be seen in the moment. This was my first community built experience.  It undoubtedly influenced me in my life’s work as a community built professional transforming community environments and empowering people to make a difference.

It was the way that the St. Paul Open School opened this education to the world that was most helpful for my life and career. The new current school name “Open World” is very fitting.

So much of my education happened outside the school building. I took classes at the University of Minnesota and the Twin Cities Institute for Talented Youth in psychology and social practice. I hitchhiked for a month out to California to study free schools there and learned many life lessons. I attended the party at Willow River, camping trips and many other crazy adventures which were very important to me, (As they probably are to any high schooler).

Starting a wholesale business in the evenings, which grew to thirty retail outlets, helped me to successfully run my own company later in life. Most importantly I learned that education does not stop at the school’s doors. Open School helped engender the understanding that all of life is a learning adventure.

I am especially grateful to David Legge, assistant principal, who met a sixteen-year-old in transition and broke a few rules to get him into the school.   That boy needed the St. Paul Open School so much at the time and this man is grateful for the school and the adventures in learning that he experienced there.

Tom Arie Donch has worked for forty years, across twenty-one states as a park designer and public artist.  Public parks, playgrounds, public art, monuments, skate parks, nature trails, children’s’ hospitals, school enhancements, and environmental projects have all been the focus of his work with communities. Tom is a founding member and served 25 years on the board of directors for the Community Built Association. In 2017, he retired his company Interplay Design, Inc. Tom continues to be a social activist, helping at-risk communities transform their environments and he now sculpts for the pure joy of it.