Q&A with Jeremy LaTrasse

December 12, 2011

It’s always interesting to know more about our donors and what makes them choose to support Walden. Jeremy LaTrasse (dad of Aldi in the Upper Group and Rei in the Middle Group) has been an enthusiastic supporter of Walden since Aldi joined the Lower Group in 2005. Jeremy has volunteered extensively on the Fundraising Committee, the Construction Crew, and in countless other ways. Two years ago he gave Walden a $10,000 challenge grant, followed by a $50,000 challenge last spring. In September, he made an unprecedented stock donation valued around $1.6M to help us realize our long-term goal of rebuilding our campus for the future. Development Coordinator Sarah Cheney had a chance to sit down with Jeremy to find out about his philosophy on philanthropy and why he wanted to make sure both of his children could come to Walden.

Sarah: What is your philosophy about philanthropy?

Jeremy: I want my philanthropy to be very focused on things that I can tangibly see and contribute to physically. I don’t want to just write a check and have it go across the country. Also, while it’s important to give to disease fighting and home building for people who can’t afford it, the primary goal of my giving is to increase kids education and to broaden their perspectives. Everything I do involves art and kids.

I also wanted to be involved with the community where my kids were. Before Walden I worked about thirty hours per week for the Oakland small schools and primarily donated my time. To feel like I’m part of a community and that I’m giving as much as everyone else is giving is important to me.

S: Some people might hear your response and wonder how you can feel like you need to give as much as everyone else when you just gave the school an unprecedented $1.6M gift?

J: I look at people like Lee McRae and Audrey Goodfriend (two of Walden’s founders) and the teachers at Walden and I know that there are so many people who have worked on Walden for so many years. I’ll only be here for nine or ten years and I view my money as my gift. The questions I want to answer are: How can I ensure the community’s existence? What do I want it to be like when I leave? How can I make it better?

S: Why did you choose Walden for your children?

J: The kids of a friend of ours went to Walden and we knew we weren’t going to send our kids to Oakland public schools. I wanted them to have autonomy and art. We cast about when it was time for Aldi to go to Kindergarten and Walden is the only school that we attended an orientation for. We came to the orientation and it was talking to Jenny Holland (Walden’s Music Teacher at the time) and Cristin Costello (Walden’s Middle Group Teacher and Admissions Coordinator at the time) that convinced us. Cristin did a great job of describing the anarchist/communist roots of the school and Jenny and I got to have a great deep discussion about music and children and evolution and that sold me. Shannon and I decided that we needed to find a way to make it work even though we couldn’t afford full tuition. At that time I had been unemployed for two years and Walden made it work and made sure we could continue to send our kids there.

S: How do you orient toward an anarchistic viewpoint?

J: A lot of people confuse anarchy with discord and violence. The black bandana anarchists, they are nihilists. We are “little l” libertarians. Our values include that personal liberties be intact, the ability to be able to fail, to be able to make mistakes, to not fit into the confines of what’s dictated by a society. This doesn’t mean you get to behave the any way you want to. You need to be thoughtful and considerate or otherwise society will shun you. Inconsiderate behavior leads to isolation. I’m not talking about going around trying to make everyone happy but the reality that the need to consider others is important.

S: In what ways to you see that alive and well at Walden?

J: Immediately I think of the fact that kids aren’t required to wear shoes and that there’s no uniform of any kind. A lot of it is about self-organization; there isn’t some talking head out there telling us what to do and where to go. You can see that in action with the assemblies and the work crews at Walden.

S: You have always found a way to give to Walden generously even when you didn’t have the financial means to give. What do you say to someone who doesn’t feel a sense of responsibility to give or who says they cannot give?

J: I believe that there are people who are not in a situation where they can give right now, however, I think that’s when you have to reprioritize your life. If you can’t give money that’s fine but if you can’t give time there’s a problem. If you have kids or grandkids coming to Walden and you want to be involved in their life, a majority of their waking hours are spent at school. If you don’t have time to spend there then you need to revaluate your life and priorities.

A sense of responsibility is mandatory for any social group. The equation in my mind is that if you are going to participate in the society and you say you want to be part of the community, there is an inherent requirement for action, if you feel like it’s someone else’s responsibility, you aren’t even meeting the baseline requirement for being part of a community.

S: How do you define the level at which you give?

J: My whole thing is to give ‘til it hurts. Give until it impacts my ability to do something fun or that I’ve wanted to do. I always noticed that the people I wanted to be around most in my life were the ones that would drop everything important in their lives to come to the aid of a friend. That’s how I want to be in my life. Here’s a great example: About 15 yeas ago a friend of mine gave a kidney to a complete stranger. I went through an evaluation after that. Would I give my kidney to a complete stranger? The answer is no. That’s superhero behavior. But it made me evaluate how I measure myself.

S: What are your personal goals for Walden/the world that you hope to achieve through your donations?

J: I don’t have a world picture. All I have is a Berkeley/Oakland picture. The Berkeley/Oakland picture is that I want Walden to be accessible to any kid whose family wants them to go there. Throw the doors open and invite people from our community to come. A large part of my big gift is to get the school onto solid ground in terms of its ability to support what the teachers and the community need and want long-term.

S: What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they knew?

J: That’s a hard one. How would you answer that? What I’m bad at is expressing visually and vocally is how much slack I actually give other people. I make poor choices in words but my number one goal is to learn by making mistakes and that’s my goal for everyone around me. You get lots and lots of chances with me.

Also my heroes are Aldous Huxley, Noam Chomsky, and Terry Gilliam.

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