Lawyer and former NFL journalist, Cory Sterling discusses bringing Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian youth together through soccer with Mifalot in Tel Aviv, researching past success cases surrounding the Right to Food alongside SPARC BC, and how a crowded family room in Tunisia helped remind him what the human experience is really about.
Tracy: You did some work with the non-profit organization Mifalot in Tel Aviv that aimed to connect Jordanian and Palestinian children with Israeli children through the game of soccer. Want to talk a bit about your experience with this initiative and what led you there?
Cory: Of course. To place it in context, before I volunteered with Mifalot and then worked for the Mifalot organization, I worked in the NFL for two years for the Oakland Raiders on the media side. I grew up loving sports with most of my heroes as football players and hockey players, so being able to work for a team like the Raiders in many ways was a dream come true. My job was literally to watch ESPN, watch NFL team practises, travel with the team to games, and I got to stand right on the sidelines at Superbowls. But after some time it grew pretty empty and meaningless.
--And you were translating all of this viewer time into sports editorial and news content?
Part of my job was to provide content for the team's official website, but on top of that I had other gigs doing sports journalism for the ArenaBowl for example, or for the NFL UK, or for NFL Canada, or other journalistic projects. Specifically with the Raiders, my job was to go and interview the players after practise, get the game preview, or write a feature on a certain player. So for many this was a dream job, but as I mentioned, I realized how vain and shallow it could be. I'll emphasize this is my own perspective, because if someone has that job today and they love it then that's great, but for me I just realized I was only watching sports, and so I was eager to see how sport could be used in more productive ways. When I left, I had only visited Israel once with my family but I had always wanted to go back, so I signed up for a program that integrated people who wanted to live in Israel with different avenues that had to do with their fields of study. Since I completed my Masters in Sport Management in San Francisco, I was told about this great program called Mifalot which is a non-profit that facilitates operations so that young, marginalized, and adverse youth in Israel can play sports. They do it for Israeli communities but they also do it for Palestinian communities and Jordanian communities as well. So it all runs between Israel, Palestine and Jordan. To me this was the perfect opportunity to get involved with local communities, and to get out of the superficiality of the NFL and professional sports, and apply my love for sport in a different way.
What was this experience like for you as a Westerner?
For one thing, you certainly learn quickly how things operate in the Middle East, which is on a completely different time schedule than North America in terms of when things get done, when people say things will get done, and the organization of most things. There's a lot of frustration, screaming, yelling, and raising your voice - which was a bit of a shock when I first moved there. After a while you realize that in the Hebrew language, at least in Israel, when people are raising their voice, typically they're not angry, that's just how they like to communicate. At first it seemed that every meeting I was going to, or at every event happening, everyone was so heated, but that's just an entirely different culture, which is a pretty neat realization. Pertaining specifically to our work, there were a couple different initiatives I was involved with where we would go into Palestine (often with a group of United Nations Ambassadors) and we would hold workshops with Israelis, Palestinians, and a third party UN or European Union official. We would all talk together about our programs, what it was like working with these kids, and we would eat lunch together. Everyone was friendly, positive, and obviously working collectively towards a common goal of helping children have positive experiences with each other. Worth mentioning is that people involved on both sides were people who had lost family members - children, siblings or parents - to terrorist attacks from either side. Violence was committed by Israel, and violence was committed by Palestinians, and the people there were all closely affected. As anyone might guess, the logistics would be very challenging in terms of setting up operations for the kids to play together. I learned from the whole experience that you can have 99 people who want to see something positive happen, and it only takes one person to ruin it completely. We would spend a ton of time organizing a tournament, figuring out all the logistics, and then two days before, there would be a threat from either side saying that if we went through with the tournament, or if the game happened, then something terrible would happen on that day. And when the threat is real enough, you have to pull back and cancel everything. That being said, I was with Mifalot for 8 months, and during that time there were only about two tournaments that were cancelled. I helped coordinate many different games with both Israeli and Palestinian kids together which were all unbelievable, so you realize that in some ways the situation is very complex, but it's also very simple. It is simple in the sense that ultimately these kids innately don't understand what hate is; they're just running around chasing a ball, laughing, and being children. The complexity comes from the politics surrounding the situation on a much larger scale. But it was really wonderful to see sport used as such a positive tool, and to be around so many positive people who wanted to make a change for the better.
Did the children understand the politics at all? Perhaps the older ones more so than the younger ones.
They ranged in age from about 6 to 15, and mostly they didn't, no. They just wanted to play sports, so I didn't witness this eureka moment where they all thought, "Wow we're really all just one", or anything like that. My impressions were of simplicity more than anything else. Everyone I was involved with there was trying to make a change and trying to do something positive. The older kids would probably understand a bit more of what was going on but because they were enrolled in this program, my guess is that they were part of the percentage of people who wanted to make a positive difference in the situation and see a resolution.
I see. They're not coming in from a background of viewing the other players as from a different place where their family members were hurt. So there wasn't that initial tension or fear to have to navigate through.
No and what's interesting is that most of the people involved had been victims, knew of victims, or had lost loved ones as a result of the political situation, but everyone was excited to move forward from that. In fact that very program is still doing this today; I just recently got an email from someone doing very similar work to what I had done. There are new initiatives and new programs being implemented, so despite everything that has happened since I left Israel, and continues to happen, this work is still going strong which is incredible. Of course it's a very dynamic landscape and political will exists on one level, but people trying to make a difference and improve the situation exist on another level.
You place a lot of value on travel and having very raw experiences: you prefer not to stay in hotels and not to rely on the internet. You once found yourself sitting in a crowded living room in Tunisia with a family breaking the fast of Ramadan.
[Laughter] In that moment, I was sitting there in Sousse just observing that very otherworldly experience. While participating in that very event (and others like it), I try to be so aware of every single thing that's happening. I just live for those experiences, even when they can be so ordinary. We were just sitting around an old television while the prayers were on eating dates. Everyone was squished on the couch together, [and] I was just thinking, "So this is what happens here, today, in Sousse." So I always aim to expand that type of experience, because those very moments are what make you appreciate living. For me life has always been about the human narrative and understanding the connection of human beings. One caveat is that all people interpret the word travel very differently, but my goal in travelling has always been to see what's taking place in a local area, and what people actually do in day-to-day life. I don't care to go to a place where they put on a show of their cultural traditions and all the tourists clap with their iPhones out, but rather to be involved in getting to know people and trying to speak to them in the context of the ordinary course of their lives. I suppose selfishly to some degree, this helps me to contextualize where I come from, but also to see that every human experience is so different. One thing that has always been really striking is that in a lot of the [fiscally] poorer countries I've visited, the people are way kinder, way happier, and way more inspired. They just enjoy life to a degree we can't here because of a lot of the complexities that arise from the comfort and fortune that we have.
We've all been told the narrative of how much luckier we are because we can afford a $5 coffee, or have our TVs and blowdryers, but this immediately places a hierarchy on the world where the ostensibly 'developed' nations are the more advanced and better-off societies. Yet most social scientists agree that to be happy and healthy we need: more human connection, a sense of belonging and culture, more activity and time spent in nature, to cultivate our own food rather than consume packaged goods, less time online, and a less self-centric mentality. Oddly enough, the so-called 'underdeveloped' countries live this way, and the studies are showing that yes, [in absence of war] they are in fact happier, and in some cases healthier.
I can see how this is true because when I was in the Philippines I lived with a local family in extremely impoverished conditions - extremely. And when I stayed there it was amazing because there were about six of them in the family and they had one bedroom that they all slept in, and they absolutely insisted that I sleep in the bed. They said, "You're here, you're our guest, you have to sleep in the bed." Of course I felt extremely uncomfortable doing so because I'm putting six people out of a bed, but the other part of you doesn't want to insult them so you just have to do it. What they were able to give me was their bed, so I had to do so out of consideration and they were so happy about being able to offer this to me. I want to bring up the point that, while yes, you're right in the sense that just because they have fewer material means than we do it doesn't necessarily mean they're all solemn and depressed, but I do also see how privileged I am in the sense that if I choose not to live that way, I don't have to. For example, when I lived in Argentina, I played on a soccer team and out of the entire team, there was one other guy who had been outside of Argentina. So if you look at both you and I having been all over the world and we're now sitting in a coffee shop, other people do not have that as an option. When I would speak to my soccer team about where I had previously lived, they couldn't believe it. Of course this isn't to say that I'm better, or happier, because those guys have that sense of belonging you were talking about: they have their families, they play football as much as they want, they drink their mate, and they're really happy living their Argentinian lives. Another example is when I lived with a local family in Vietnam on their farm. Their lives are certainly very, very difficult, but because they're difficult, that doesn't mean their lives are worse or that they're less happy. A North American individual will view a certain situation with a certain lens. So we're wearing our North America glasses and we look at the Vietnamese farmer who's 65 years old, who wakes up at five in the morning, who tills the land and has to support his family, and we can think, "Wow man, that must really suck doing all that physical labour and not having electricity." But what I've seen from all these people is that they're beautiful family units, they really love each other, and maybe the ease and convenience of life that they don't have, is made up for in a lot of other ways. Coming back to live in North America after having recognized that was a tough thing for me. We think that life here might be more convenient, but it's not necessarily better by any means. So the more you have exposure to different cultures, the more you're able to see through a different lens. Those North America glasses will change their shade. It's just like reading; it's expanding your knowledge of the human experience.
Well said. How has your experience of travel evolved after living on four different continents?
Good question. As with anything in life, my concept of travelling has shifted. My first trip was to Copenhagen with two of my guy friends and we had a travel book with tons of things planned. But now I don't organize anything, just a hostel for the first night and then you arrive and just speak to local people: find out what's going on, see what happens in that particular place. Where do people eat, when do people eat; where do they go outside, and what do they intend to see? This is simply another integration into the local experience. When you don't plan anything, you're very open to letting things unfold out of your own control. When a trip happens, you can have a map, you can have a schedule, or you can have tickets, but like many things in life, things aren't going to happen exactly as you think they will. So the expectation simply changes. Rather than thinking you might miss out on something, if your expectation is simply to arrive and explore, your trip unfolds as it should, so you view it as a success.
With such a spontaneous life, how did you choose to pursue the rigidity of legal studies and a career in law?
There isn't a concrete answer of what in particular led me into it. Encouragement and support systems are usually the reason for what people choose to do, and for me my parents definitely encouraged me to pursue law because they thought I might be good at it. Then when I worked in the NFL I was lucky to meet a lot of executives like the commissioner and the man in charge of NFL UK; I would do informational interviews with people in professional sports, and every executive told me to either get an MBA or go into law school. I made my first move into further education because from the position of a writer, I saw that there's a glass ceiling on your abilities to move up and to expand within an organization based on what your credentials are, and the different assets you have. Going back to Mifalot in Tel Aviv, I loved the program and I loved the idea, but I know that I if went there now as a lawyer, the impact I would be able to have on the situation would be significantly different. Your powers are more well rounded and they become more applicable to high levels of operations. Of course I don't want to say these limitations are inherent, because I think that anyone can overcome them. But to be honest that's what it came down to. I do believe there's a built-in responsibility to use that education and those skills for the better: to help other people out and improve society in ways that you are now able to, but that wasn't the specific deciding factor initially.
You were doing some work on food justice with SPARC BC. Can you explain what this organization is all about and what your role with them was?
Yes, Scott Graham from SPARC BC is very inspirational to me. He's extremely well spoken, incredibly intelligent, and he's dedicated to the lives of other people, social justice, and serving communities who need help. I hadn't had too much exposure to those areas while going through law school because it's a very competitive process, and during that time you tend to just focus on a particular outcome of either getting good marks or a job afterwards. That process could be really different if they told you that the experience was strictly about helping other people. Law school doesn't exclude that side entirely however; there are a lot of people there who are involved with pro-bono work, social justice, and criminal aid. So with SPARC BC I was working on a couple different initiatives, the first of which had to do with local foods and assuring that people who couldn't otherwise afford healthy produce can gain access to it. The footwork involved checking out other models at universities and colleges to find out where they source their food from, because we're looking at the possibility of implementing a policy where post secondary institutions would source all their food locally. If we could stamp an agreement where all the produce used on campuses was to be sourced from local farmers with what's in season - obviously that would be of great benefit. I know one of the universities in Ottawa and a lot of other organizations are doing this, so we're trying to find models where this is already being implemented and then determining how to make it possible to perhaps bring to UBC. I also did a bit of reading for Scott on the concept of the Right to Food, which was really fascinating.
Explain what exactly the Right to Food is.
What I found discouraging about that research is that there's so much literature on what the Right to Food really means. There's a Special Council for the United Nations whose report I read that talked about coming to Canada. The author did a tour of Canada and met with farmers to come up with this report, but it's not binding on governments at all. So it's more like he just comes, makes observations of how adverse communities aren't receiving sufficient food, puts it in a report, yet nothing has to be done about it; it's not binding. Of course it did put the information out there. So our concept of the Right to Food looks at providing affordable and easily accessible food (but also dignified access) to at-risk communities and people living at or below the poverty line. The Right to Food entails the ability for these people to eat local, organic, freshly produced food. A lot of the challenges with this type of food right now is, let's say they live in social housing, maybe they don't have access to the different facilities providing that food, or simply that local food markets are too expensive. So we're getting the wheels in motion on how to solve that. How it could be possible to provide this right to local, organic food for impoverished communities.
It's good to have organizations like these as avenues to lend your skills to while still pursuing your own career, and those which might open us up to a new path in the future.
Yes, and there are some other great programs happening with SPARC BC as well. I've really enjoyed working with Scott because by tying these kinds of goals into law, justice, and social service, he is definitely the guy who inspires me to want to use this knowledge for the better. In law school, and working in corporate law, you can sometimes get caught up in an environment where the goals aren't at all aligned with social service. One of the benefits of having exposure to different social justice programs is that you realize life isn't just what happens at your office or at your law firm. I found with my experience in law that when you're stressed out about a certain file it can seem like that's your entire world, but you just need to step out for a minute to see that it's not. In the same way with travel, once a month I try to take a trip by myself and go somewhere I've never been because it always provides perspective and makes you realize that what you think is the only thing that matters in the world, is not. It's amazing how defined your tunnel vision can be. All it takes is being in a random town to think about your path and to remind yourself not to get caught up in a bubble of what you know, because there is so much life happening all over this world.
Well thanks for chatting Cory, it was nice to gain insight into life's many adventures through your eyes!
Anytime Tracy, a pleasure to talk to you.
Capture Queue is a one woman team, so it's always greatly appreciated if readers feel inclined to bring my attention to any typos or corrections.