How I Got My Job: El Sistema’s Isabelle Tuncer on leading a nonprofit: ‘My advice is to dream big’

Isabelle Tuncer, executive director of El Sistema Santa Cruz, a nonprofit that supports students through music.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Isabelle Tuncer, executive director of nonprofit organization El Sistema Santa Cruz, spoke with Lookout about being involved in the nonprofit sector, how organizations like hers can act as first responders to support those in crisis, and the effects of the Pajaro floods on students and families.

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Isabelle Tuncer is the executive director of El Sistema Santa Cruz, a nonprofit that aims to break down socioeconomic barriers that divide youth from different backgrounds and uplift students through music and art.

Tuncer grew up in France, earning a law degree there in 1993. Tuncer came to the United States in 1995 on a Fullbright scholarship, settling in Texas to research the North American Free Trade Agreement. When Tuncer’s visa expired, she had to go back to Europe for two years before she could return to the U.S. In 1999, Tuncer worked as a legal consultant at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. She returned to the U.S. the following year to be with her husband and moved to California.

In order for Tuncer to remain in the U.S., she had to attend school. So in 2000 she went to the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. After graduation, Tuncer had two children and focused on parenthood, which she says gave her space to make new connections and be involved in the community and school events.

Her children’s elementary school had a large Spanish-speaking community, which allowed Tuncer to discover Mexican culture. Tuncer noticed differences in the ways Latino parents interacted with their children compared to French parenting styles, saying that direct involvement in school is “not something expected from [French] parents.’' She saw how hands-on many parents were and the joy cultivated from these school events.

Seeing this excitement, Tuncer was among a group of parents who wanted to make this a lasting experience. Tuncer and the other parents spearheaded the implementation of El Sistema as an afterschool program, developing it slowly. The organization needed an executive director, so Tuncer volunteered in 2012. She has been doing it ever since, even helping expand the program to a total of nine sites.

When Tuncer isn’t working she enjoys going for walks, cooking, and enjoying time with family and friends.


  • Facoltà di Giurisprudenza, Florence, Italy: master’s degree in law
  • Université de Droit, d’Economie et des Sciences, Aix-Marseille, France: juris doctor degree in law
  • Middlebury Institute of International Studies: master’s degree in commercial diplomacy

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Isabelle Tuncer, executive director of El Sistema Santa Cruz, a nonprofit that supports students through music.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: How did you become an executive director at El Sistema?

Tuncer: It started at [the] elementary school where my children were going to school. There was a parent group, [and] we were wondering what we would do to bring both [the] Spanish-speaking community and the English-speaking community together. Because what we were seeing is that during classroom time, students were interacting, but during recess you could see separate groups. As parents, we came together and we knew we could do something because when we’d have our celebrations you could see that [it] really brought everybody together, and it’s a feeling we wanted to cultivate on a regular basis.

To make that happen, art is one way of doing it and the magic of music. [It’s] what really brings people together because when you do music or [you] sing, you need to hear what your neighbor is doing. Going to Cabrillo’s Festival of Contemporary Music 12 years ago, and hearing [the festival’s former longtime musical director and conductor] Marin Alsop talk about the program El Sistema [that] she started in Baltimore, really resonated with me. It was music with a social justice agenda and we all felt it could happen at the school where we were at.

One of the parents working at the company said, “Maybe we can apply for a grant?” And we did and then we needed to implement the program. I [said] “OK, I can give it a try.” And that’s how it all started. I started in 2012 with the group and that will be 11 years ago.

Lookout: What does a typical day on the job look like for you?

Tuncer: We are at nine different sites in Watsonville, so most of the afternoon I’m at a site and seeing the teachers, the students and where they are. I have regular meetings with the teachers but it’s also just hanging out and seeing what’s happening. [I] feel very, very fortunate to be able to do that and interact directly with the students. Not only to have the [school] administration [be] a part of things, but interacting with the program on a daily basis.

Lookout: How did your prior job experience lead you to your current position?

Tuncer: I grew up in France and I went to law school in France, but I [have] always been interested in development, basically, what can help in the long term to ensure that everybody has a voice and a way to provide for themselves. I went to law school to do that and with that training my dream was to work in [an] international organization, which actually happened. I was working at the United Nations managing programs, so that’s what gave me a sense of how to run a program that had social justice resonance to it.

Lookout: What is the thing you enjoy about your career?

Tuncer: A lot of things. I really enjoy the students [and] the team I’m working with. They’re really exceptional teachers and also the community and community partners. I want to give a shoutout to Pajaro Unified School District, who has been very supportive of El Sistema.

Lookout: How has the Pajaro flood affected your program and the students?

Tuncer: We’re still dealing with it. We had the Pajaro flood but we also had flooding happen in January. Then we also had COVID. And 2½ years ago it was the [CZU] fires. There is a lot of trauma going on. So what can we do as an art organization to help?

What we have seen is, during COVID time we were a part of safe spaces. Safe spaces were pods of students that either couldn’t connect, didn’t attend school online or had difficulties. These safe spaces had the classes online but also a music program we were teaching in person. We realized these pods were the ones most attended. That’s where we kind of know increasingly that art is a way to cope on the social-emotional level. We could see that it was really making a difference.

Isabelle Tuncer, executive director of nonprofit organization El Sistema Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

We had interviews with students and [asked] a simple question of: what do you like [about?] music? It’s not because it sounds pretty or because I can see my friend. [It’s] I feel safe and I feel well. That’s when we realized there was a real significance and impact of what we’re doing that was going way beyond music.

Since we have a relationship with families and students, we can relay information. Not that we’re the only organization doing that, but we have a unique relationship, so we can help and we’re there to listen. Our priority was to keep the program going on no matter what [and] to help the programs that couldn’t get going because they were flooded. So it was giving instruments to programs that lost instruments or couldn’t access the places where instruments were stored.

Lookout: What do you find is your biggest challenge?

Tuncer: After all we have been through, it would be nice for our organization to have a place as first responders. I think I wasn’t the only organization asking, “What can we do?” and reaching out to some of the organizers bringing [evacuated] families to the fairground in Watsonville. I know it’s a high-pressure situation where it’s difficult to include other people; the priority is to bring [evacuees] to a safe place with food and shelter. But then when you have food and shelter, what do you do?

As a group, some of the teachers wanted to go to the fairground to have a little concert or have a group that could do musical games. It’s nice to forget where you are in this situation, at least for a little bit of time. That’s where I thought that it [would] be nice to have a representative who can connect with other organizations.

When families and their children go to shelters, [it would be nice] to have drawing tables and have people engage these families and kids in something that will take them out of their trauma. It would be nice to have an art organization be a part of that group saying, “OK, we need to do that” and for us to jump in saying, “That’s a service we can provide.” Since we’re very close to the families, we can actually help in the process.

Lookout: Why is it important for an art nonprofit to be incorporated into crisis response?

Tuncer: I think it’s important, especially art nonprofit[s], because art is sometimes considered as what comes after. When you see what art brings, it allows not only in the moment for people to think about something else, but it can help the families and children connect with other things and become part of that organization later on. [It] offers more stability in the future instead of only thinking about the moment, where you think, “OK, so we have food and shelter. It’s good, but what’s going to happen after?” It’s about dealing with the aftermath of the situation, and we can be there on site helping with that.

Lookout: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in becoming involved in a nonprofit or being an executive director of an organization like this?

Tuncer: Do something not only that you think you’re good at, but [that] you believe in. Passion is something you need. When I started this job I didn’t know a lot of things. I didn’t know how a lot of things were done, especially in the United States. So I had to learn. I would say, never think that not knowing is a struggle because there’s always a way to learn how to do things. Never think that failing is a problem because we may fail once or twice, but then we learn. My advice is to dream big.

Lookout: If someone wanted to get into this field, would they have to have a specific educational background?

Tuncer: I’m glad you’re asking that question because that’s exactly the question we were asking ourselves a couple years ago: “What can we do in order for us to extend the program?” Because finding teachers was difficult. We started training teachers for teaching art. We have five trainees, either people with strong musical backgrounds [who] would never teach in a group setting or people who have the class management down but not the musical piece. Also, one of the things we’re planning for next year is CTE training, which is career and technical education.

Lookout: What personality and professional background is best suited for this career?

Tuncer: I think somebody who is ready to listen, very flexible but also knowing what the ultimate goal is. For me it’s always [putting] the children first. I think any background will work, as long as there’s passion [involved]. I wouldn’t say that there is one profile better than the other one, but definitely structure, knowing how to cooperate with people.

Lookout: How much can someone expect to be paid as an executive director of a nonprofit?

Tuncer: It really depends. There’s a wide array of salaries right now. Some people have been doing pro bono. I know that for a while, I [was] volunteering my time and that’s not the case anymore. It really varies [based on] the size of the nonprofit [and] the kind of funding the nonprofit is getting.

Lookout: What is something that people misunderstand about this job?

Tuncer: I will talk generally about art. People think that art is something you do on the side and that it can be fulfilling on a personal level but not much else. Art can be a way you change how people are living, forming community and how people are changing their life.

Lookout: What is the typical career trajectory for your job?

Tuncer: I am not sure there is a typical trajectory, but I know that there are a lot of nonprofit[s] looking at executive directors [and] at people who can join their nonprofit. So there are job offers. Not only in the arts community. There is a need for people locally to get into that field.


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