Introducing Group Leader Dr. Sharon A. West, a Gifted “People Whisperer”

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Most people pick a career and then follow that path until they are ready to retire. Dr. Sharon A. West, founder and leader of the Ojai Women’s Fund group, Starlight, is a nice exception to that general rule. To say that Sharon has done a few different things in her life would be an understatement. When asked why she became a psychiatrist after 15 years as an emergency room doctor, Sharon explained herself with a story. When she was an Army reservist serving in Desert Storm, Sharon noticed that the psychiatrist in the hospital was able to learn much more about a patient in an hour than she could learn as their ER doctor. This interest in knowing people and having these conversations is a common thread throughout her life.

When she was assigned to Honduras as the base hospital commander, Sharon found a quiet way to win over a base colonel who had a reputation for making the hospital commander’s job much more difficult. Sharon would host parties that everyone in the base encampment would want to attend (including the colonel). The colonel soon became a trusted colleague. Sharon also helped improve the quality of life for female soldiers on the base, who rarely got a chance to work together and socialize, by starting a weekly “Women’s Tea Group”. Sharon helped them connect and feel less socially isolated.

If you are starting to think of Sharon as a good party giver and natural networker, then another story may help you understand why we are calling her a gifted “people whisperer.” When Sharon was working in the ER one night, a woman came in with a gunshot injury to her face. The woman said she was the victim of a drive-by shooting. Shortly after, the woman’s boyfriend came to the ER and admitted that there was no drive-by shooting; he was responsible for her injuries. Sharon calmly and coolly told the boyfriend to call the sheriff and turn himself in, and that is exactly what he did.

Sharon is genuinely interested in talking to people, and understanding what makes them tick. She appreciates that being of assistance often means understanding what is getting in the way of someone making smart choices and taking care of themselves. Sharon was the natural choice when the Army was looking for someone to manage a combat stress control unit. Sharon and her team of 23 soldiers would debrief units when terrible, life changing events happened ranging from suicides to plane crashes.

When you meet Sharon, there is a grace, dignity and warmth that you cannot miss. She recognized something special in OWF and went from being a group member to forming her own group, Starlight.  Sharon reached out to her friends and acquaintances and quickly had her group of ten: “OWF is an excellent opportunity to meet and socialize with like-minded women and to do a lot of good for our community at the same time.” The “leaders of OWF are really admirable, and they are worthy of emulation.”

Sharon’s experience as an effective communicator with women and groups comes across in how she facilitates Starlight’s group discussion and voting process. Here are some steps that Sharon takes:

  1. Time is allotted to talk about all of the applicants and to give everyone a chance to speak in the meeting.

  2. Sharon encourages everyone to talk about the applicants, and appreciates how the discussion lends itself to people changing their votes. “It is critical that everyone is given a chance to talk. There can be some very disparate opinions. It’s helpful to elicit information from people who may have personal knowledge; or may feel very passionate about a grant applicant.” They can sometimes sway the vote. In these discussions, the “camaraderie is really the most fun about it.” In their meeting, Starlight will do about three rounds of votes. If they can’t come to a consensus, then they will go with the applicant who has the most votes in that category. For members who can make the meeting, they will usually reach a consensus after much discussion.

  3. Sharon keeps track of the votes on a ballot sheet she created. The ballot sheet consists of grids showing everyone’s name, the grant applicants, the group members’ initial votes, and space to show any change in their votes. For the people who cannot make the meeting, she gets their votes in advance and makes note of them on the ballot sheet. “The ballot sheet is really important because, otherwise, you can’t keep track of all the votes. It also quickly shows when there is a tie.” Sharon is happy to share a copy of her ballot sheet with anyone who is interested.

The Starlight group exemplifies and lives the style of OWF with its focus on consensus and democratic process. Sharon fondly remembers last year with a big smile when every group got to make two “bonus votes” because of the record amount of money OWF had raised to award in grants.

We are all a part of making those moments happen by joining, forming, and leading OWF groups. And with group leaders like Sharon, we are well-equipped to continue doing great things together for our Ojai Valley community.

-Michelle Sherman
OWF Member and Communications Committee Volunteer

Click here to become a member of the Ojai Women’s Fund today!
Looking for a group? Email info@ojaiwomensfund.org for assistance in finding one to join!

The Publishing World’s Loss was Our Gain...

Profile of OWF Co-chair Marquita Flemming

There is something magical about the Ojai Valley and its pink sunsets. In 2018, Expedia named Ojai one of the four best small artistic towns in the United States. This is not a shock to anyone who lives in here, however. What you may not realize is that there is something else happening in Ojai that is also quite magical and special… It’s the Ojai Women’s Fund, and the individual women it brings together to be a collective force for good through giving circles and through committee work.

Marquita Flemming

Marquita Flemming

Sitting down for a conversation with Co-chair Marquita Flemming, she suggests that part of the magic behind OWF is “karass” – that rarefied space when “people in your life cross paths and feel like they are in the same space somehow… in your world”. Kurt Vonnegut coined the term for his book Cat’s Cradle when trying to describe the inexplicable connection between some people: “Man created the checkerboard; God created the karass.”

Coming from a long career in publishing, it should not be surprising that Marquita would draw from literature when describing her experience with OWF – she worked for about 30 years as an acquisitions editor for academic text publishers such as John Wiley and Sons and Sage Publications. True to form, Marquita barely took a beat before she jumped both feet into volunteering with OWF after retiring in January 2016.

From the first meeting in January 2016 at the Ojai Women’s Club, Marquita recognized that something special was happening. She was surprised to see almost 150 women in the room… it was completely beyond anyone’s expectations. Marquita likens it to the energy at the 2016 Women’s March in Los Angeles, with people coming together for a common purpose, and having a “sense of power and camaraderie.” It was “just a special moment.”

Marquita recognized a few of the women who attended, but not many of them. Up until this time, she had been working full time in publishing, busy with deadlines and business travel. As she describes it, she was living in Ojai, but 99% of her brain capacity had to be focused outside the Valley with her New York-based job. She was also busy with her two children and building sets for Nordhoff High School theater productions along with her husband, John. The OWF meeting, she realized, gave her the opportunity to reconnect with the local community and the women within it.

This is another thing that makes OWF special. It is being built by women who understand how busy everyone is and that people may be at different stages of their lives. It’s a group that makes space for everyone. There are the members who may have the bandwidth to come to one meeting a year to discuss and vote on grant finalists, and other members who want to get involved on more regular basis with a committee.

During our conversation, Marquita kindly shared some suggestions for anyone who is wanting to join or get more involved with OWF:

If you don’t know enough people for a giving circle, ask for help finding members
The OWF Membership co-chairs can help. “This is important. If you don’t have a group, don’t feel like you can’t join. It is fine to stay an individual voter, but if you would like to come and join a group, we can help you find one.”

Marquita speaks from experience. She had another “a-ha” moment when she was the leader of a group that was jokingly called The Leftovers - people who wanted to join OWF, didn’t have groups, and didn’t want to lead a group. Marquita explained that it “was interesting to watch the whole [group] process unfold, everyone listening to each other. It was a wonderful experience, really wonderful. This thing really works. Women listening to other women, respectfully. Saying things like that is a good idea. No posturing or scoring points off of each other. None of that.” It was “lovely and outstanding.” The best part? That group that came together by chance three years ago… is still together today.

Think about what interests you, and then pick that
“It is important to do what it is you really like to do. In addition to picking a group that interests you, you want to really think about what you want to do for them. For some people the choice is to do the one-time meeting a year and that is a great thing.” This is how Marquita started got involved on the OWF Grants Committee in 2016. She enjoyed intellectual challenges and the work of the Grants Committee to look at numbers, demographics, and evaluate applications is what spoke to her the most… and became something she deeply enjoys. Marquita happily refers to it as her “nerdy” part.

Take advantage of the community of truly talented women in OWF, and look to them for collaboration
The bonds of OWF tend to spill into additional areas of members’ lives and deep friendships have been forged over the years. As Marquita reflects, “There is always someone you can bounce things off of. There are real partners there. There is a sense of always being able to pick up the phone and call someone.”

OWF… One part karass and many parts extraordinary women like Marquita that make it something very special.

-Michelle Sherman
OWF Member and Communications Committee Volunteer

Click here to become a member of the Ojai Women’s Fund today!
Looking for a group? Email info@ojaiwomensfund.org for assistance in being placed in one!

Meet Your 2019 OWF Co-Chairs

The Ojai Women’s Fund and the grants it makes each year are possible because of the passion and dedication of its over 340 members — members who join every year, meet to discuss and vote on grant applications, and donate their time as volunteers on various committees. The committees do everything behind the scenes from reviewing grants to updating the website, to organizing the annual Grantee Gala. They are headed up by co-chairs who also serve on the OWF Steering Committee to oversee the organization’s activities, annual calendar, and finances.

The Steering Committee is led by two co-chairs and 2019 marks the first year that one of OWF’s founders is not serving as its leader. Anna Wagner is in her second term as co-chair and incoming co-chair Marquita Flemming will be embarking on her first. We sat down with Anna and Marquita to discuss their involvement with OWF and how the organization has evolved over the past few years.

Marquita has been involved with OWF from the start: she attended OWF’s inaugural meeting in 2016. During the call for volunteers, she signed up to help review grants as part of the Grants Committee and would go on to lead that group with Margo Haas for two years.

“I loved being able to help develop the procedures that would come to define the OWF grant application and grantmaking process,” said Marquita. “The most rewarding part, however, was that all the decisions were made collaboratively; it wasn’t hierarchical in the slightest.”

Concurrently, Marquita joined OWF as an individual member, a move that, when she thinks back, “was very reflective of how I was operating in the world, and in Ojai. With time — and with time spent volunteering for OWF — my involvement with the organization and the Ojai Community has evolved with deepened engagement in one being mirrored in the other. What’s great about being a member is that it’s not just about raising money, it’s about making social connections and deepening your understanding of what’s going on in the community.”

It’s this sense of shared responsibility alongside other members that makes the grantmaking of OWF so powerful and sets it apart from other philanthropic giving.

“If I were to give $100 to an organization,” Anna observes, “though I know it will alway be appreciated, it also feels like kind of a drop in the bucket. But that same amount of money that I’m giving to OWF carries more weight because I, along with members of my group, have an opportunity to direct my giving with a vote. Our collective gifts amount to giving exponentially more. And now there’s an obligation to give that money responsibly.”

Marquita agrees, “There’s a thoughtfulness that goes into members’ grantmaking decisions that I really appreciate. With the discussion and the debate, there’s a different level of investment. And that conversation is what makes everything stronger.” 

With 2019 marking the fourth year of OWF, the organization has moved beyond what its founders ever imagined. There’s not only OWF’s thriving, engaged membership base, but its recent grant from the Ventura County Community Foundation, which has enabled the group to consider giving $75,000 and even $100,000 annually.

“It’s an entirely different ball game,” Anna said. “It changes the types of grants we can consider and has spurred us to discuss how we can become better philanthropists – how we can help applicant organizations with their capacity and be stronger for the community overall.”

In the meantime, for members who are wishing to become more involved, Anna and Marquita have only this to say: “Volunteer! Whatever your interests and the time you are able to commit, there is a committee or group that can use your help.”