In April, the New York Community Trust, a community foundation with $3.2 billion in assets, named Amy Freitag its new president after an eight-month nationwide search.
Originally from Akron, Ohio, Freitag began his career in the world of theater before moving into the fields of architecture, historic preservation and park management. She then served as deputy commissioner of New York City Parks and Recreation under the Bloomberg administration before leading two New York-based funders – the Tortora Sillcox Family Foundation and, before joining the trust this summer, the JM Kaplan Fund.
Freitag’s new role sees him succeed Lorie Slutsky, who stepped down earlier this year after leading the trust for more than 30 years. Since I conducted something like an exit interview in January, I thought it was natural to close the circle and speak with Freitag, who is only the fourth president in the 97-year history of the trust. (“Can you imagine a greater honor than following Lorie Slutsky?” she asked.)
I reached out to Freitag on a glorious late summer day in New York City to discuss her career trajectory, the best advice she’s ever received, and a previous “dream job” that involved (naturally) Bette Midler. Here are some excerpts from that discussion, which have been edited for clarity.
You started your career in the theater, then you went to the doctoral school of architecture. How did you find yourself in the world of community foundations?
I studied acting at Smith College and after graduating I moved to New York and worked at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and then with a Broadway producer. After a few years, I realized that my love of theater wasn’t necessarily a love of working in theater, but of being around theater. So I ended up going to the University of Pennsylvania and got a joint degree in landscape architecture and historic preservation. I stayed in the city to work in their park system and learned a lot about open spaces and environmental justice issues.
But I always missed New York, so I came back in the late 90s and ran a nonprofit within the New York City Department of Parks called the Historic House Trust. Thanks to that, I landed a place in the Bloomberg administration designing and building parks as Deputy Commissioner of Capital Projects. It was an amazing time – we were building the High Line and Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Then I had two children and this job seemed almost insurmountable. So I got my first job in family philanthropy for a small foundation working on education and monuments issues. I then found my way back to New York City parks for a dream job leading Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project, where we planted a million trees. When I had the chance to join the JM Kaplan Fund working on environmental and historic preservation, democratic work and social justice, I couldn’t resist. I ran the fund for eight years, and that’s when I developed a relationship with the trust. So when the opportunity arose to lead this institution, I felt it was the chance of a lifetime, and I’m truly honored to be here.
When I spoke with Lorie, she said she wasn’t sure it was a deliberate decision go into the non-profit field. Do you have a similar plug?
I actually think it was in my DNA. My parents were super committed to our community. My mom was on the board of our local Planned Parenthood and the League of Women Voters. She helped found the nonprofit Friends Group that still supports Cuyahoga Valley National Park. My childhood experiences included volunteering at our local zoo and working in our community theater. So I experienced the real value of local nonprofits, and I think those lessons are really at the heart of my engagement in the work that I continue to do today.
What have been your biggest influences?
My parents were and continue to be huge influences. I’ve also learned from some pretty amazing people on my travels. Lately I’ve been inspired by Elizabeth Alexander and her work at the Mellon Foundation. His fearlessness in transforming what many of us considered a quintessential old-guard institution into a philanthropy that changes the way we engage has been very powerful.
I Got to Elizabeth Alexander by Darren Walker and his book “From Generosity to Justice”, which has a terrific audio version that includes conversations with people like Alexander. We are in an extraordinary moment where critics are focusing on the capitalist roots of our sector and how this has amplified racial and class divisions, and I really appreciate Walker’s call to push our sector towards this fairer future.
But I want to mention another inspiration that came during a recent site visit to St. James Parish outside of New Orleans. I met this group of local church members and neighbors who became these amazing environmental justice advocates, called St. James Rise. They fight the multinationals that have settled in these peripheral parishes and that have devastating environmental impacts. They’ve been very good at carrying their case against extraordinary odds, and that’s one of the most inspiring things I’ve seen in a long time.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I worked under New York City Parks Commissioner Henry Stern. It was a bit of a legend, and it said, “You have to go to the scene”, which means you have to be in the room where it happens to fix the problems. Nothing beats getting in a room with someone to take on a challenge, and that’s what I think of when it comes to the role of community foundations – place matters and where we show up matters. This is something that I think our younger colleagues have really missed during COVID, and the sooner we can meet face to face, the better our job will be.
What’s the last great book you read?
I spent an inordinate amount of time driving across the country this summer, so I listened to a lot of books on tape, and recently finished Michelle Obama’s book. I have to say I recommend it on tape because she reads it and her voice is so powerful. Hearing his story in his own voice was truly inspiring.
I also read a great book on team chemistry called “The Culture Code” by Daniel Coyle. A beneficiary recommended it to me, and I found it very motivating because it talks about building a rapport with people so that the team can be greater than the sum of the parts. I think that’s especially important right now when people are coming back to the office and we’re all trying to rekindle that feeling of connection.
Your first day at the trust was July 6. What has been the most exciting part of the job so far?
I can connect some of the most generous people, our donors, with people who solve some of our most complex challenges, and I can do this work with such incredible staff. The challenges of the climate, the threats to our democracy, the polarization of our communities, the challenges faced by communities of color – I feel blessed to spend my days advancing all of this work with our grantees and donors who share a passion to answer it moment.
There’s a whole new generation of leaders stepping in to direct philanthropy. Giants like my predecessor, Lorie, and Alicia Phillip, who ran the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta, really expanded the definition of a community foundation for more than a generation, and now they’ve passed the reins to the next generation.
A group of us got together last week in Cincinnati and we were struck by the difference between the table today and five years ago. If we’re smart, and maybe just a little lucky, we’ll get through this moment of disruption to a time similar to what Robert Putnam describes in this book “The Upswing.” It is the swing of the pendulum from the hyper-polarized and radically unequal period of the Golden Age to a more equitable period of the Progressive Era and beyond, when we made huge strides in public education , the environment and civil rights.
This is a challenge that awaits all of us now, and it falls especially to those of us who are fortunate enough to lead these community foundations. We can view the disruption as a horrible thing, or we can take advantage of this moment and find new possibilities so we can see the benefits on the other side.