- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2000

Dogs on "strings." A clinic just for animals. Birds valued so highly that they are part of a fountain sculpture.

These are some of the things that can be observed while pretending to be a foreigner dropped down on U.S. soil to study "pet culture" in the Dupont Circle area of Washington, D.C.

That was the challenge taken up by a group of Peace Corps recruits during a recent Saturday morning training session. The recruits were asked to simulate an advance delegation from the mythical Albatrossian Republic here to study American culture before a state visit, and they set about the task with only the barest hint of a giggle. Teams in other parts of the city were to examine other aspects of city life.

The exercise was just one of a number of so-called experiential activities in an intensive three-week program the agency conducts twice yearly for new country directors ("CDs" in agency lingo) and staff members, who are both American and foreign nationals.

"Objectivity" is reinforced by the simulation method, but the point isn't what participants learn Americans spend billions more on their pets than on foreign assistance, they were told but how they apply the knowledge and even, eventually, turn it into that elusive thing called wisdom.

Members of the Dupont Circle group talked to pet owners, looked at pet products in stores, observed and made notes. They had lunch together and prepared a three-minute report on their findings to be presented in the afternoon before other teams in Peace Corps headquarters at 1111 20th St. NW.

The exercise, the pet research group agreed, raised questions about different styles of leadership and how different personalities affect a group.

The Peace Corps is "personality driven" in nearly every way. "Information processing" and "teamwork" are other agency bywords. A great deal in the Peace Corps is done under deadline in unfamiliar territory, where both individual and group resourcefulness is key.

Few of the exercises that day or the week to come seemed strange to Bill Bright, 62, of Alexandria, Va., a former associate dean of education at the University of Vermont who leaves Thursday to become a country director in the Philippines. A Peace Corps program has operated in that country for 37 years. (Coincidentally, this week marks an official visit to Washington by Philippines President Joseph Estrada.)

Mr. Bright, wearing a T-shirt reading "Anacostia Jazz & Blues Riverfest" (a future gift for Philippine colleagues) and carrying an umbrella and camera, took the game in stride. He was a volunteer in the Philippines in 1965 and served recently as a staff member there in charge of volunteers' education programs. He is well prepared. For a man about to lead a team of 140 volunteers and a staff of 25, he also is about as laid-back as someone can be. He's relaxed, composed and alert.

What did he learn from the training exercise?

"Nothing absolutely new, but it brought things to the surface again," he says.

The main lesson?

"Not to take things for granted."

There was the additional realization of "how foreign nationals involved [in the training process] might have a better understanding of where volunteers come from and better understand how Americans react how confounded Americans can be when dropped into a country."

The exercises "help make the people involved both Americans and host country nations more aware of the need to be sensitive to others in a new culture," he says. "On an average workday, I come into contact with maybe only one other American, apart from volunteers. We work with Filipinos as colleagues."

Mr. Bright's own leadership style might best be described as Socratic. Often in the group, he raised issues by asking questions and quietly bringing people in. Even Dupont dog owners didn't mind when he asked how much money they spent on their animals.

He isn't much of a dog lover, he acknowledges in an aside; the pet at home was left to him and his wife, Louvenia, by their daughter.

The couple have two grown children, but Mrs. Bright, also a former Peace Corps volunteer, plans to stay in Washington and not interrupt her job as an adjunct teacher in education at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale.

Rebel groups and government upsets come and go abroad, but in most cases and countries the Peace Corps stays on or in touch. Goals have changed only slightly through the years. The corps seeks in the words of Brenda Bowman, a Peace Corps facilitator leading one of the first week's indoor sessions to produce "fat babies, thick forests and technology that works."

Under Director Mark Schneider, the Peace Corps has placed increased emphasis on AIDS education and information technology and, in some areas, paid more attention to young girls' education.

At the center of each of the agency's 77 programs is a director. These are Americans whose job require them to work closely with U.S. ambassadors. (The nomination of career diplomat Peter Burleigh to be ambassador to the Philippines has been on hold in the Senate for nearly one year.) Country directors' backgrounds are as varied as their destinations.

The group leaving this week and next includes a former American ambassador to Burundi, James Bullington, who is going to Niger; Nelson Cronin, a national cycling champion who has been a farmer in California and a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, to Burkina Faso; Lois Hobson, who started the Africare program in South Africa, to Zimbabwe; Elizabeth O'Malley, who speaks Masai, French, German and Swahili, to Uganda; and Timothy Douglas, a former three-term mayor of Bellingham, Wash., to Moscow after having been a state official involved in trade relations with Vladivostok in Siberia.

An international background is virtually mandatory for such folks 11 of the 17 are former volunteers but an affable personality and a positive attitude are valued above all. These are people who relate well to others and can tell good stories.

Mr. Bright's outlook is definitely positive. A native of Michigan whose parents were active in education, he graduated from Albion College in Albion, Mich., and received a doctorate from Wayne State University in Detroit.

His motives for rejoining the Peace Corps include expanding his own vision "and traveling, and maybe make a contribution."

What drew him back to the Philippines are "the people and the place." Some of the young people he knew as students when he worked at what was then the Philippine Normal College are now teachers.

"Each had stories about me. 'Things you did with us,' they say. They were important enough things to remember. They were good stories," he says.

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