Charlotte Hajer has a knack for communication, which will surely come in handy as she settles into her new role as executive director of the Sonoma Community Center.
To hear her speak, one detects nary a wisp of her Dutch upbringing – she learned English as a child and sounds like any other borne and bred California Wine Country native. She’s also fluent in French, and is currently studying Spanish.
Language may be in her blood. Her father is a professor of ancient Near-Eastern languages and it was his tenure conducting research at the University of Chicago that brought her family from Amsterdam to the United States when she was 19.
Such communication skills will be vital for what she’s hoping to achieve at the Sonoma Community Center (SCC), the city’s art-and-culture hub at 276 E. Napa St. One of Hajer’s primary focuses will be to broaden and diversify the center’s reach. Inclusivity isn’t just a buzz word for the 39-year-old Sonoma resident – she believes the center must serve everyone.
“We want to be sure we’re not just offering (programs) to people, but making those offerings accessible — whether it’s by price point or schedule or location,” Hajer told the Index-Tribune this week. “We want to make it easy for people to find something at the community center.”
It’s that type of big-picture thinking that impressed the hiring team last spring, said board President Steve MacRostie, who also cites her “strong communication and organizational skills” as factors that stood out.
“Upon assuming the role, she immediately mapped out her first year of budget and programming initiatives that will assure continued staff engagement and loyalty to the organization,” MacRostie said. “I am very impressed with her ambitions.”
Hajer started at the center last March — stepping in after the retirement of John Gurney – at a time when the SCC was emerging from a year of pandemic-geared programming, when activities largely took place online and physical togetherness was at an all-time low.
But with a slow and cautious return to in-person programming at the century-old headquarters a stone’s throw from the Plaza, the community center has an opportunity to reboot – making it a perfect time for a new director to come on board.
Just prior to Hajer’s hiring, the nonprofit had also finalized a new four-year strategic plan, which she describes as “ambitious but realistic.”
“It represents the kind of things the community center has always put front and center,” said Hajer, from being a resource for services and event space to being present in the community to stewarding its historic building through its next 100 years (built in 1916, it was the original site of the Sonoma Grammar School).
“And we want to center equity and inclusion as part of everything we do,” she said.
Hajer’s eye for equity stems in part from her previous position as development director for UpValley Family Centers, a pair of family resource centers in Napa County. She likens its work to Sonoma Valley’s La Luz Center, providing “a broad scope of social services to low-income families.”
“One issue that emerges with these communities is that they need a lot of essential services and basic resources,” Hajer said. “And they have more of a need than ever for the arts and what is offered at the community center… (forms of) self-expression and ways to improve well-being.” From music to drawing to hands-on work with clay, she wants to broaden low-income communities’ access to the center.
To make that happen, Hajer and the SCC are casting a wide net to solicit feedback on the types of programming people seek from the community center – not merely from SCC regulars, but from those who aren’t already taking advantage of its services.
They’ve organized monthly community lunches to allow people to “come to the community center and tell us what (services) they’d like.” (To send direct feedback or attend a lunch session, email [email protected])
From photography and culinary classes to movement workshops and live performances, the response has been highly varied, said Hajer. There’s even interest in disaster-preparedness workshops. Like a lot of institutions throughout the pandemic, the SCC is reevaluating its priorities – and reestablishing its mission. The center is even undertaking a rebranding in the coming months.
“Between work and kids, I’m pretty busy,” she says in understatement. Still Hajer manages to carve out time to spend with her husband, Jake, and young children, ages 6 and 4. A self-described “devoted runner,” she also tries to squeeze in runs at least four times a week, early in the morning.
And then it’s off to the community center – or, as she refers to it, that “fantastic organization with such a history in the community.”
“I see my job as not giving it a new direction, but fulfilling the goals it has always had,” she says of SCC. “To become a resource for everyone — the hub of local culture where everyone can come together to find something.”