Seven Questions for Amy Freitag, the New York Community Trust’s New President

Amy Freitag

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 national search.

A native of Akron, Ohio, Freitag began her career in the theater world before pivoting to the fields of architecture, historic preservation and parks management. She went on to serve as deputy commissioner for New York Parks & Recreation during the Bloomberg administration before leading two New York City-based funders — the Tortora Sillcox Family Foundation, and, prior to joining the trust this summer, the J.M. Kaplan Fund.

Freitag’s new role finds her succeeding Lorie Slutsky, who stepped down earlier this year after leading the trust for over 30 years. Since I conducted something like an exit interview in January, I figured it was only natural to close the circle and speak with Freitag, who is only the fourth president in the trust’s 97-year history. (“Can you imagine a bigger honor than to follow Lorie Slutsky?” she asked.)

I checked in with Freitag on a gorgeous late summer day in New York City to discuss her career trajectory, the best advice she ever received, and a previous “dream job” that (naturally) involved Bette Midler. Here are some excerpts from that discussion, which have been edited for clarity.

You started your career in theater and then went to graduate school for architecture. How did you end up in the community foundation world?

I studied theater at Smith College and after I graduated, 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 was not necessarily a love of working in theater, but being around theater. So I ended up studying at the University of Pennsylvania and got a joint degree in landscape architecture and historic preservation. I stayed in the city working in their parks system and learned a lot about open space 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 Parks Department called the Historic House Trust. Through that, I landed a place in the Bloomberg administration designing and building parks as the deputy commissioner for capital projects. It was an extraordinary time — we were building the High Line and Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Then I had a couple of kids and that job seemed almost insurmountable. So I got my first job in family philanthropy for a small foundation working on education and monument issues. I then found my way back to New York City Parks for a dream job running Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project, where we planted a million trees. When I had the chance to join the J.M. Kaplan Fund working on environmental and historic preservation, democracy work and social justice, I couldn’t resist. I was head of the fund for eight years, and that’s where I developed a rapport with the trust. So when the opportunity came to lead this institution, I felt it was a chance of a lifetime, and I’m really honored to be here.

When I spoke with Lorie, she said she wasn’t sure it was a deliberate decision to go into the nonprofit field. Do you have a similar take?

I actually think it was baked into my DNA. My parents were super-engaged in 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 the 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 core of my commitment to the work I continue to do today.

Who were your biggest influences?

My parents were and continue to be huge influences. I’ve also learned from some pretty incredible people during my travels. Lately, I’ve been inspired by Elizabeth Alexander and her work at the Mellon Foundation. Her fearlessness in transforming what many of us saw as a quintessential old guard institution into a philanthropy that is changing the way we engage has been very powerful.

I got to Elizabeth Alexander through 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 focused on the capitalistic roots of our sector and how this has amplified divisions of race and class, and I really appreciate Walker’s call to push our sector toward this more equitable future.

But I want to mention another inspiration that came up on a recent site visit in St. James Parish, outside of New Orleans. I met this group of local church members and neighbors who’ve become these amazing advocates for environmental justice, called St. James Rise. They’re fighting multinational corporations that have set up in these outlying parishes that are having devastating environmental impacts. They’ve been very effective in bringing their case against extraordinary odds, and it’s one of the most inspiring things I’ve seen in a long time.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I worked under the New York City Parks Commissioner Henry Stern. He was a bit of a legend, and he would say, “You’ve got to go to the scene,” meaning, you have to be in the room where it happens to grapple with the issues. Nothing beats getting in a room with someone to work through a challenge, and that’s what I think about when it comes to the role of community foundations — place matters and where we show up matters. This is something I feel our younger colleagues really missed during COVID, and the sooner we can get face-to-face again, the better our work will be.

What’s the last great book you read?

I have spent an inordinate amount of time driving around the country this summer, so I listened to a lot of books on tape, and I recently finished Michelle Obama’s book. I have to say I recommend it on tape because she reads it, and her voice is such a powerful one. To hear her story in her own voice was really inspiring.

I also read a great book about the alchemy of teams called “The Culture Code” by Daniel Coyle. A grantee recommended it to me, and I found it very motivating because it talks about building a rapport with people so the team can be greater than the sum of the parts. I think it’s especially important at this moment when people are coming back to the office and we’re all trying to rekindle that sense of connection.

Your first day at the trust was July 6. What has been the most exciting part of the job so far?

I get to connect some of the most generous people, our donors, to people who are solving some of our most complex challenges, and I get to do this work with such an incredible staff. The challenges of 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 our donors who share a passion to meet this moment.

Any parting thoughts?

There’s a whole new crop of leaders stepping in to lead philanthropy. Giants like my predecessor, Lorie, and Alicia Phillip, who led the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta, really expanded the definition of a community foundation for over a generation, and now they’ve turned over the reins to the next generation.

A group of us got together just last week in Cincinnati and we were struck by how different the table looks today than it looked even five years ago. If we’re smart, and maybe just a little bit lucky, we’ll ride this moment of disruption toward a time similar to what Robert Putnam describes in this book “The Upswing.” It’s the pendulum swing from the hyper-polarized, radically unequal period of the Gilded Age to a more equitable period in the Progressive Era and beyond, when we made tremendous gains in public education, the environment and civil rights.

That is a challenge that lies before all of us now, and it falls especially hard on the shoulders of those of us lucky enough to lead these community foundations. We can look at the disruption as just a horrible thing, or we can build out of this moment and find new possibilities so we can see the benefits on the other side.