Ode to the Organizers: Debbie Westheimer

December 16, 2008   

After being elected the next Organizer of the NY Tech Meetup, I thought it would be a good time to write tributes the Organizers who have been most influential in shaping my interest in and philosophy of organizing. I'm starting my "Ode to Organizers" series by recognizing my mother, Debbie Westheimer. The single most influential community organizer in my life has been my mom. No joke!

When my family decided to home school in the mid-80s, there were no secular home school support groups in the Cincinnati area. So, along with 3 or 4 other mothers, my mom founded the Home School Network of Greater Cincinnati. By the time I stopped home schooling and went to high school, the group was 350 families strong.

Despite its tremendous growth (or perhaps lending itself to it), the group has remained grassroots in nature, largely due to my mother's involvement and the organizing style she instilled early on. For instance, instead of being an over-reaching and top heavy organization needing professional aministration, the group always focused on self-organization and, using a monthly newsletter, a phone tree and a shared calendar to encourage member to member communication and coordination for get-togethers, events and initiatives.

(Fun Fact: I edited the Sports Page of the monthly newsletter and ran the baseball card trading club.)

For the first 10 years or so of the organization's life, my mother was the glue that held things together: she invested herself in developing new leadership and facilitating organizational meetings. Greatly influenced by her experience at Earlham College (a Quaker school), she built an organization on foundations of egalitarianism and the belief that every member was capable of contributing and being a leader within the group. In fact, she made it clear that without the participation of everyone in the organization, the organization would cease to exist.

Today, because of the organization she built, hundreds of families in the greater Cincinnati area have been empowered to educate their childen at home. Her work has touched the lives of thousands.

But my mom's organizing didn't stop there.

Also in the mid-80s, my mom founded a food co-op out of our home. Using her network of friends (many from the Home School Network), she coordinated the Lake Allyn Food Co-op.

At first, she managed the monthly buying and distribution of food from our farm. But, as the co-op grew, so did the responsibilities. Naturally, she made it a mandatory part of membership to have some sort of responsibilities: meeting the delivery truck; keeping the books; splitting up the bulk items when they had been bought collectively; delivering food to those who couldn't make it; collecting orders; dealing with the distributor; etc.

During the years she ran the food co-op, I watched my mom lean on the other members to get stuff done. When someone didn't do their work -- when checks weren't deposited or the truck wasn't met -- it would fall back on her, and she would either have to turn around get pick up the slack or get someone else to do the work. Watching her delegate has been one of the most influential experiences I've had in learning to manage an organization. The work needed to be done -- she made it clear -- so who's going to do it?

(Fun Fact: The Lake Allyn Food Co-op was the first place my brother and I sold produce, prior to the founding of Westheimer Bros Plants & Produce.)

The things I've learned from my mother are innumerable -- but the things I've learned about Organizing from her are clear:

Healthy organizations rest solely on the participation of its members. Either you're in or you're out, because the work must be done. Lastly, organizing is in its purest form when working with other people makes your and their lives mutually better -- whether it's to support the education of your children or to collectively gain access to healtheir, more affordable food.

To my mother, thank you.

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