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

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