One Man’s Worldwide Listening Tour

Russell Flemming

Russell Flemming joined the Peace Corps following a career with the U.S. Army. He spent two years teaching fifth graders in Ongombombonde, Namibia. “Diplomacy is too important to ignore,” he says.

Our country doesn’t do diplomacy well. I have the ability to listen to the other side of the story and understand what’s driving others’ actions, ideas. There are other viewpoints. You have to learn them—if you have preconceived ideas, you’re making judgments of others. Building trust and acceptance takes time.”

That’s the kind of critique you might expect from an Evergreen graduate. But Russell Flemming ’79, also speaks from the vantage point of a 30-year U.S. Army career. Communicating effectively with a broad range of people takes learning to adapt to the situation and to accept everyone, Flemming says.

Flemming trod an unusual path to Evergreen—and through his work life. He first encountered Evergreen by running right into it.

“I was visiting my sister in Olympia and was out trail-running when I came upon some big gray concrete buildings. I went in and wandered the halls, and asked, ‘What is this place?’ I found out it was a college.”

Once he learned more, Flemming decided to apply. “I didn’t know how innovative it [Evergreen] was. People in my family didn’t go to college, so I had no preconceived notions.”

He sees similarities between his military family, close-knit on-base schools, and Evergreen. “It is a closed community, too,” he said, but he credits the program Management in the Public Interest, led by faculty member Virginia Ingersoll, with helping him learn the communication skills he would put to good use over the next 30 years and beyond.

“It was a great program, with a diverse teaching staff. The faculty all showed up, and would ‘sharpshoot’ each other.” That’s how Flemming described the verbal jousting and debating skills the faculty members demonstrated to the class. “It was a novel concept to be expected to think, and to support our arguments. We had Irwin Zuckerman, the Marxist economics professor. And [former Republican governor and Evergreen’s second president] Dan Evans and [former U.S. representative] Jolene Unsoeld visited the class. I got diverse points of view that made me more open. That served me well.”

Join the Army, see the world

After graduation, Flemming decided to follow in his family’s military-service tradition. “My father was Air Force. All of my uncles were in the military. I told myself I’d get to travel, to see Europe,” he said wryly. Working within the U.S. Army military medical community, first as a medic, then as an administrator, he did see Europe—and many other places as well.

Flemming served in military hospitals, a MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit, and was in Operation Desert Storm. He was stationed in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Germany, and Hawaii. He worked at the Pentagon in the Office of the Surgeon General of the Army. While in the Army, Flemming also earned a Master of Health Administration from the University of Washington.

The interdisciplinary, liberal arts education Flemming enjoyed at Evergreen armed him with flexibility for his Army career. “I had a generalist life in the military. I loved the variety of jobs that the Army afforded me—strategic planning and operations, human resource management, marketing and recruiting healthcare professionals. I was able, somehow, to move in and out of different career paths.”

Flemming also credited his success to seeking out good mentors along the way. “Mentors help you understand different organizations, groups, and cultures. If you’re enjoying your career, look above you for role models.”

Lifelong learning in action

In 2010, Flemming retired from the Army as a colonel, and went back to college once more, this time for a degree in English with a focus on creative writing, at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. His works have been published in poetry journals and history magazines.

A chance meeting with a Peace Corps recruiter on campus led to his most recent adventure. The recruiter said the Peace Corps needed teachers and had no upper age limit for volunteers. Flemming packed his bags for Africa.

Three girls
Kid at Nemo Wall

Learners looking at and checking out books

Waterberg Boys Soccer

 

Here, a collection of photos Flemming took helps tell his story. From providing books, soccer balls, and education to learners, Flemming’s time at Waterberg Primary School was a life-changing experience for all involved.

He settled in the village of Ongombombonde, Namibia, on the Atlantic coast of Southwest Africa, where he taught English to 5th grade students (called “learners”) at Waterberg Primary School, and provided HIV/AIDS education to villagers. He was trained to speak Afrikaans, but once he arrived in Ongombombonde, he discovered that none of the children there spoke it. He had to learn the language of the Oshi-Herero, the language of the Herero people, on his own. “It’s a good thing I learned to land on my feet,” Flemming said.

One of the world’s youngest nations, Namibia was under colonial rule by Germany from 1884 to 1915, then by South Africa until it gained its independence in 1990. According to the United Nations Development Programme, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, food insecurity, and household poverty are among its biggest challenges. As a result of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, nearly 17 percent of the country’s children have lost at least one parent, and 44 percent of Namibia’s households are headed by women.

Adopting English as the official language of the country was supposed to unify its many tribes, who speak 16 different languages, but it hasn’t, Flemming said. “It was an eye-opener to see Africa, to see the poverty and the impact of colonialism and apartheid. Older teachers were taught under apartheid. For the first six months, they just watched me to see how I was. Slowly but surely, we built trust.

“The SWAPO [South West Africa People’s Organization] party runs the country now—it has become very corrupt, so money doesn’t reach the schools. That Greener edge never left me, I guess—I’m still something of a rabble-rouser. I used my marketing experience, Twitter, and Facebook to bring in lots of books, pencils, and soccer balls. Later I taught the teachers to use Twitter themselves to get donations from all over!”

Knowledge is power for Namibian girls

One of Flemming’s Peace Corps assignments was to provide HIV/AIDS education to villagers, but this proved to be his biggest challenge. He gave HIV/AIDS prevention advice to anyone who would listen, including handing out condoms to his grade five female students. He went into shabeens (illegal bars) and tried educating their patrons.

However, his efforts seemed like a drop in the bucket in light of the enormous scale of Namibia’s HIV/AIDS pandemic. “You can’t stop the epidemic. Some don’t believe how AIDS is transmitted. Prostitution and women’s role in the country’s male-dominated culture are all problematic, and young boys and men are not easy to talk to about AIDS,” he explained.

Flemming decided that focusing his efforts on educating young girls afforded the most hope for the future, because the girls would listen and could help change the culture by being empowered to insist on condom use. “Young girls can grow up to be leaders.”

Now that he’s back in the U.S., Flemming says he really misses the 140 young learners in his classes. When asked about the factors that help lead to more understanding between people, Flemming said, “I’m not a fan of always using the Defense Department as a first response. Diplomacy is too important to ignore. We need to learn to listen better as a country—with truly open ears. We need to find a true place where realistic conversation and listening can happen.”

Back in Everett, Wash., Flemming is taking time to reflect on his African Peace Corps adventure and to consider his next move.

A possible consulting stint in China is one option. He plans to work on the mystery novel he has in the works and he’d like to spend time writing about and running marathons, one of his passions. He intends to keep exploring, with a mind open to ideas.

“Now that I am older, I would love to be in one place and build a sense of community for more than just three or four years—put downs roots and make good friends, and find new mentors for the next stage of my life.”