What do an American football team, the Chicago Bears, and Ethiopia have in common? It’s Michael McCaskey, the current chairman of the board and CEO of the team in the United States National Football League.
McCaskey, who worked in Ethiopia in the 1960s, is still involved with its people more than 40 years later.
The Peace Corps years
It was 1965. President John Kennedy’s call for public service was reverberating across America. Michael McCaskey was one of thousands of young people volunteering to serve.
Who would know that the young man who served in Ethiopia in the 1960s would come to be CEO and Chairman of the Board of the Chicago Bears, one of the best-known football teams in the United States and a franchise estimated by Forbes magazine to be worth over $ US 1 billion.
The team has won 17 Championships, including the Super Bowl, an event as prestigious in the U.S. as World Cup soccer championship.
McCaskey joined the Peace Corps fresh out of college. He decided to serve in Ethiopia. He was struck by the country’s beauty, history and warm climate. He says Ethiopians “[have] great pride in what they had accomplished over [the] years.”
For two years he worked in the little town of Fitche, north of the capital, Addis Ababa, on the edge of the Rift Valley. He was assigned to teach science and English at Asfa Wossen primary school, with students from all of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups.
“My students were astounding; they were highly motivated,” says McCaskey.
“You’ve heard stories about students walking barefoot for six or seven miles every day to go to school, and that fit my students. My days as a teacher in Ethiopia changed my perspective on the rest of the world, for which I am very grateful,” says McCaskey.
It also changed his views on competition.
Playing ball, Ethiopian style
“I played soccer and plenty of volleyball with my students in Fetche,” says McCaskey. “After I left Ethiopia, the next several years it was hard for me to play without giving out the call in Amharic.”
Then, there was parents’ day, when parents were invited to the school to see how their children were learning. It was marked by food and drinks, music and dance, and plenty of competitions, including one he took part in, a tug-of-war between parents and teachers.
There are very few level places in Fitche so the event was held on a sloping field.
“I assumed that we would be playing the tug-of-war pulling across the slope, that way neither side would have a particular advantage. “ McCaskey says.
To McCaskey’s surprise, the parents gathered at the bottom of the hill, with the teachers at the top. The parents won the first round. For the next round, the two teams switched places, and the teachers won. After the contest there were shouts of cheer and jubilation. McCaskey realized the point was not to defeat or humiliate a challenger but to create an event that was fun for both sides, in which there is no loser.
“I hadn’t thought about it this way. This is very different from the way Americans look at things. For me the incident opened my eyes to another way of thinking about sporting events,” explains the CEO of the Chicago Bears football team.
Give peace a chance
Relations were not as friendly when McCaskey returned to mediate another type of competition in 2005 – a conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea over a disputed border region.
But his experience 40 years earlier served him well.
He and four other Peace Corps alumni who served in Ethiopia volunteered to help persuade the leaders of the two countries to move from the battle field to the negotiating table. The group met with the political, social and economic leaders of the rival neighbors.
“Ultimately we were not successful, but I think it shows the spirit of the Peace Corps and the good will the Peace Corps had developed over the years,” says McCaskey.
“Both men [Ethiopia’s Melese Zenawie and Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki] were very intelligent and dedicated to the wellbeing of their own country. They were stubborn on certain points. We could see it was a complex situation. There were huge forces in place and try as we may, our ability to push was limited.”
McCaskey has been more successful working with Ethiopians in the United States.
Back home in Illinois, he’s an active supporter of the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago (ECAC), a non-profit charitable organization created in 1984 to serve the needs of refugees and immigrants in the mid-Western American city.
Shortly after the group was founded, its executive director and co-founder, Erku Yimer, called McCaskey. At that time McCaskey was starting a new job as CEO of the Chicago Bears.
“He had heard that I served in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia,” McCaskey says. Yimer asked him to join the advisory board for the ECAC. A year later they got together and, according to McCaskey, it has been a good association ever since.
McCaskey started exploring ways to help the Ethiopian community in Chicago grow and prosper. Working with Yimer, he helped expand the Ethiopian community center with classrooms and computers for training.
Yimer wanted to get more local Ethiopians involved in the business world. McCaskey and his wife liked the idea. They created a successful training program that was conducted in part by an Ethiopian businessman who used to be McCaskey’s Amharic instructor during his Peace Corps days.
“Out of that training program any number of businesses were started, including several restaurants, and some of them are prospering today,” says McCaskey.
This was one way to help Ethiopian immigrants who struggle from month to month to pay their bills.
“In Chicago, we have very well educated, hard working honest group of Ethiopians who are under-employed. They are working as parking lot attendants or in the service industry, and really they can and should be doing things that bring a better financial reward and more prestige in the community,” McCaskey says.
“For those who are entrepreneurially inclined and are willing to take the risk of starting a restaurant, or a messenger service, or a jewelry outlet, all they need is some training, encouragement, and support and they can do very well, thank you.”
It’s a message he put into action in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, and it works in Chicago today.
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