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MAKING A DIFFERENCE
San Diegan seeks change through dialogue, sports



Sean Sheppard, founder of Game Changer, brings groups to bond over the Aztecs at Viejas Arena after hosting frank focus-group discussions about thorny topics such as law enforcement and the judicial system. (Hayne Palmour IV U-T)
 

KARLA PETERSON
Sean Sheppard was sitting outside his neighborhood Starbucks when he saw it. Someone had scratched a swastika on surface of the metal cafe table where he was enjoying the sun and talking about his latest venture. And as the community advocate usually does when something disturbs him, Sheppard looked at an outrage and saw an opportunity.

“Whoever drew that, I would beg them to come to a Game Changer event,” the 48-year-old Clairemont resident said, pointing at the crudely carved symbol lurking amidst the coffee-cup rings. “When I step out of my home, I give people the benefit of the doubt that they are decent human beings despite our history and despite what you see on social media. Game Changer is about proactively bringing about our best American selves, or at least taking steps to do it.”



Formed in response to the fear and anger Sheppard felt after the 2015 rash of fatal shootings of unarmed black men by white police officers, Game Changer brings members of law enforcement and the judicial system together with elected officials and community members for frank focus-group discussions about such thorny issues as racism, stop-and-frisk, misconceptions about the police and people of color.

And when the stories have been shared, the issues have been aired and the pre- and post-discussion survey forms have been filled out, all of the attendees leave the KPBS meeting room and head off to Viejas Arena for an Aztecs men’s basketball game. Which is where some of the biggest changes can happen.

“I know that my world view was shaped by the fact that I have been around white, black, Latino, Asian and gay people all my life, and I knew that I had to create an environment for that type of phenomenon to take place. And I knew that sports was something that did that,” said Sheppard, who was the director of strength and conditioning for Olympic sports at Ohio State University.

“With Game Changer, you see people who may have been at odds an hour before, and now they’re watching the game and laughing and talking about their kids or how they like the same kind of bourbon. That’s what breaks down barriers. That’s what changes perceptions and that’s what changes behaviors. It’s hard to mistreat someone you like.”

Raised in South Brunswick, N.J., Sheppard did his undergraduate work at Georgetown University and got his graduate degree in physical education with an emphasis in sports psychology at San Diego State. He had some problems with drinking and smoking pot along the way, but after finding spiritual and psychological redemption by volunteering with the Salvation Army, Sheppard founded Embrace in 2003.

With Embrace, Sheppard helped rally thousands of college students to feed and clothe the homeless, collect food and water for survivors of natural disasters and repair homes for low-income and disabled veterans. The “Embrace the Streets” feeding-the-homeless program ended last summer, but the “Healing Our Heroes’ Homes” house-rehabilitation program just finished its 12th project. Embrace is holding a “Stretch 4 Vets” yoga fundraising event aboard the Battleship USS Iowa Museum in Los Angeles on April 8.

His years with Embrace made Sheppard an expert in the power of teamwork and unity. It also showed him the importance of knowing the right people in the right places. When it came time to take Game Changer from concept to reality, Sheppard knew he needed to get the San Diego Police Department on board. Fortunately, he was already on great terms with the person who could make it happen.

Sheppard met San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman a few years ago at a dinner honoring the Rev. Henry Rodriguez Jr., the San Diego Police Department chaplain and longtime St. Jude Shrine of the West pastor who died last August. Zimmerman is an Ohio State alumna and a rabid Buckeyes fan, so when she discovered that Sheppard was a strength trainer at her alma mater, a friendship was born.

The two kept in touch, and Zimmerman was his first booster. She got the San Diego Police Officers Association on board, Sheppard rounded up partners — including Uber, San Diego State and the Kappa Sigma Fraternity — and Game Changer was ready to play.

“The first time I met Sean, we talked about how sports was such a great equalizer,” Zimmerman said. “So a couple of years go by, and we go to lunch and he starts telling me about bringing the community and the police together and using sports to break down those barriers, and I said, ‘I love it.’

“Even if you don’t have anything else in common, if you have a love of sports, you can bond as fans. And then you start learning that you have a lot in common once you have an everyday conversation. Sports do bring people together.”

When the first Game Changer gathering was held last December, Sheppard did not know how his grand experiment would go. Would the 20 participants — 10 police officers and 10 community members — be willing to speak their minds? Would the resulting conversations be helpful? And could people put their differences aside long enough to listen?

The answer to all of the above was, “Yes.” And now that Sheppard has wrapped up his fourth Game Changer meeting — one where community members talked about frightening encounters with police officers, police officers talked about the life-and-death pressures of the job, and people from both sides bonded over their love of Hawaii — he is sure there will be more progress to come.

His goals include expanding the Game Changer program to include other sporting events and maybe some concerts. He would love to bring it to other cities. And once the data from the participants’ pre- and post-meeting surveys are collected and processed by Cal State Fullerton, Sheppard hopes that personal revelations can lead to public change.

“They say all politics is local, but I say it is also individual. Town halls have their purposes, but they don’t provide an opportunity for everybody to speak and be listened to. When we have regular interactions with each other and start seeing one another as people, that is how we see changes in society across the board. Exposure cannot help but bring about change.”

karla.peterson@sduniontribune.com


 

 
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