Friday, April 8, 2016

Manhattan Beach's parks and rec experience lead him to becoming an American diplomat

Alana Garrigues,

Image from article, with caption [excerpt]: Michael Brooke with his family Ecuador, where he is a foreign service agent [sic]

From the South Bay surf to the Southern African safari, Michael Brooke and his family have made the world their playground. As a foreign service officer for the past six years, they’ve amassed quite a family photo album collection, living in Zimbabwe, Ecuador and Nicaragua.

His firstborn was three weeks old when his invitation to join the foreign service arrived. Soon after, they moved from El Segundo to Zimbabwe. The second was born in Zimbabwe and the third in Ecuador. The children’s world is bilingual and multicultural, filled with trips to interesting parks, remote villages and big foreign cities.
But when it comes time to visit family and friends, they always fly back to Southern California for a stop in Manhattan Beach and El Segundo. 
“It’s a great place to come home to as a vacation spot,” said Brooke. “Every time we come home, we’re reminded, I feel like I’ve seen a lot of amazing places, but I don’t think there’s a more perfect place in the world than the South Bay. I just love it.”
Brooke was first bit by the travel bug when he was 16 years old. He traveled to Malawi with a friend whose nonprofit work involved building wells. It was the first time he’d been out of the country, and it sparked a love for foreign travel. But he never expected to be able to return to the region as a diplomat.
He imagined entering the world of foreign diplomacy involved Ivy League degrees and secret handshakes. He had graduated from UCLA, but started off at El Camino to get his grades up after a less-than-stellar high school career.
And then, at age 28, he discovered (through perusing his wife’s friend’s photo album) that almost anyone could apply to be a foreign service officer. His work experience alternating between parks and recreation and real estate investment had prepared him with a special set of skills to bring people from different backgrounds, with different opinions, to the table to work together.
“The mission statement (of Manhattan Beach Parks and Recreation) was, ‘We create community and quality of life through people, parks and programs,” said Brooke. “I take that mantra with me every mission I go to when I’m doing programs, which is we are going to create stronger bilateral relationships through people, interaction and programs.”
The hiring process is intense—only about two percent of applicants enter the service—but it is open to most. It involves a written exam, an oral assessment and a security investigation. Once accepted, the State Department trains officers in language and job function.
Brooke was hired as a foreign service officer tasked with focusing on public diplomacy. It was the perfect assignment for a former Manhattan Beach Parks and Rec employee. His job would be to weave American values such as democracy and free speech into discussions with foreign nationals through shared experiences such as music, art, sports and education.
So many of the skills he had learned in city government transferred seamlessly to the life of a diplomat.
“The idea of having a place where people can come together, where community can gather and laugh and share and create and explore and play and do all of these things makes your community stronger,” said Brooke. “You share experiences and you have a mutual understanding of the people around you. It makes your community better. That simple idea translates to foreign diplomacy.”
During his interview, Brooke shared the story of starting up the great pumpkin races down Manhattan Beach Boulevard. He could recall the interviewers’ surprise when he told them that 10,000 people showed up to watch a few pumpkins roll down a hill.
All he could say was that the city’s parks program had served residents’ needs. Through the parks and classes for residents and visitors from the young to the elderly, the city helped people forge connections and show up for major public activities.
And so, he took that same approach to Zimbabwe. Through play and fun, Brooke opened up the doors for strong dialogue.
“We do so much in the State Department through sports diplomacy,” said Brooke. “It’s a huge aspect of what we try to do. We bring in athletes and bring in innovators in sport and use sports to develop communities.”
One highlight in Zimbabwe was when the State Department invited a leader in U.S. soccer and the American paralympic soccer team to Zimbabwe to talk about equality.
“Just through soccer and sport, we were able to touch on all of those things, go into the communities and talk about empowering women and girls,” said Brooke. “We were able to talk about promoting disability rights, and we did it all through play. Through getting on an open pitch and playing soccer.”
Brooke was part of starting a book club while in Zimbabwe too. Each participant received a Kindle loaded with 12 titles from the Chautauqua Institution’s book club list.
“The idea was, we were going to get people together on both political sides, from civil society, from academia, from religious communities; we’d get all these people together from different backgrounds and perspectives and just have a book club,” said Brooke. “It was fantastic, the dialogues that we had.”
Conversations ranged from human trafficking to the role of democracy, often lasting late into the night. He recalled a major discussion after reading “Hellhound on His Trail.”
“One of the points that the book makes clear is that despite J. Edgar Hoover’s feelings for Martin Luther King, despite the animosity that he may have felt towards Martin Luther King, he put everything the FBI had toward finding (James Earl Ray),” said Brooke. “In Zimbabwe, that was just earth-shattering that a government agency would put everything it had toward finding someone, despite personal feelings.”
Each location has brought a new assignment, a new culture, new opportunities to make an impact on the world around them. Brooke revels in the being a part of the conversation and sharing American values with the world.
“It’s hugely rewarding work,” said Brooke. “It’s great to pick up the newspaper and see a story and be like, ‘You know what? I, in some minor way, I got to play a part in that.’”
And it’s been good for his family, building memories in places few Americans will ever see. Brooke’s wife Erica, a Pilates instructor, has been able to stay home with the children, but has the opportunity to work when she wants. The State Department helps spouses secure employment through the embassy or on the local job market.
Brooke said he encourages anyone curious in the State Department to apply for the exam and give it a try.
“Diplomacy is a thing, and being a diplomat is a real thing and it is so much more within your reach than you think it is,” said Brooke.
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