Ashley Freitag, On Rising to New Leadership Challenges
Ashley Freitag first came by her interest in social change work through an unlikely source—photography. “I enrolled at MCTC in the journalism program,” she explained. “I saw photo journalism as a way to give a voice to the voiceless.”
A few semesters into her program, however, she took her first class in community organizing. “That class was so profound that I changed my major two weeks into the class, she recalled. “It helped me understand that there are ways I can bring about changes more quickly and directly.”
In particular, Ashley has appreciated the Community Development program’s focus on racism, poverty, and inequality. “You start to understand the structures that have created and maintain these,” she said. “I was learning so much about what was happening in the world and why it was happening and how I could be a part of change. Every class I took illuminated ways I could be a part of systematic change. In fact, I found myself wanting to change career paths every semester because I had some new paradigm shift.”
“I was learning so much about what was happening in the world, why it was happening, and how I could be a part of change.”
Ashley also felt the community she found with her fellow students in the program helped her, and others, thrive. It can be daunting, she noted, to learn about “all of these inequities and all these structures that are really huge and really powerful and you’re trying to fight them.” For Ashley and her fellow students, “having people walk through this with you was really beneficial.”
She also had high praise for MCTC professor, Lena Jones, who also coordinates the Community Development program. Ashley recalled asking her friends in other degree programs, “What are your next classes? How long until you are done? Do you know what your internship will be?” But they typically responded that they had no idea and no direction.
Thanks to Professor Jones, Ashley’s experience was different. “Lena really pays attention to her students and makes sure we have an idea of what our career path will be when we graduate. She put us through pre-internship classes to make sure we succeeded. It was so helpful. It made me take the internships really seriously. I would not be where I am now without her. She was an amazing, critical part of my path.”
Those internships, through the Community Development program’s Field Experience class, were also instrumental to Ashley’s growth as a change agent. One of her internships was with Seward Towers Corporation, which was in the process of closing a $100 million refinancing package that would allow the building to be renovated and be kept as affordable apartments. “Sitting in on those board and community meetings, I learned so much about the process of community development and the importance of keeping affordable housing in my community,” Ashley said.
Ashley’s second internship was with her neighborhood association—the Seward Neighborhood Group—which provided her an unexpected opportunity to exercise many of the new leadership skills she had been acquiring through the Community Development program.
“Right after I finished my internship, one of the Board Co-Presidents stepped down and no one stepped up,” Ashley explained. “My internship advisor from MCTC encouraged me to run for the positions. She helped me see that even though I didn’t have a lot of experience, I had the education, the passion, and the desire to be a good Co-President. So I decided to do it and I was elected. It’s scary because you’re walking into something you don’t know much about but you want to be really good at. You want to make sure you give them your best and I think I have so far.”
“Even though I didn’t have a lot of experience, I had the education, the passion, and the desire to be a good President.”
Though Ashley was nervous to step into this new leadership position, she also felt she had received the necessary training to live up to the challenge. Through the Community Development program, for instance, Ashley says she learned how to build relationships and collaborate with others.
“When I first decided to run for Board Co-President, I wanted to prepare myself and learn as much as I could about the position and what was needed,” she said. To do so, she reached out to stakeholders and conducted a series of relational meetings (or “one-on-ones,” as they are often called in organizing lingo.) “I had never done one-on-ones before,” Ashley admitted, “but I had learned about them, how to do them, and how important they are in my organizing classes.”
Perhaps most importantly, Ashley’s experience in the Community Development Program taught her a lot about herself. “I’ve learned I’m good at being an organizer and organizing smaller communities, like my own neighborhood,” she said, pointing to her new role as Board Co-President by way of example. “I’ve also learned that I’m a natural leader and a very hard worker. It’s important to me to work hard and be good at it because it’s about helping my community.”
“I realized I’m good at being an organizer and organizing smaller communities, like my own neighborhood.”
Ashley will finish her degree in the fall, and plans to look for a job with a neighborhood organization in Minneapolis. She hopes to apply her new skills to a clear community change pathway. “I’d like to work as an organizer for a few years and then become an Executive Director,” she said. “And at some point, I’d like to work with the city government in the neighborhood and community relations department, which distributes city funds to neighborhood organizations and connects citizens to the government and government to community.”
Whatever the future holds, Ashley is sure of one thing: “I’ll be able to go to sleep at night knowing that I’ve spent my hours doing something really good. So wherever that takes me I’m fine with it. Having a healthy, happy, sustainable community is what comes first to me.”