Lawyers triumphed over police officers in the San Diego Unity Games Saturday 2022, sparking a small friendly competition for the Mountain View community.
The trash started early Saturday morning with Randy Grossman, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California, predicting that his Sandy Grounds team would win the trophy in its sixth year of competition.
“For the first time, we’re really going to win,” Grossman said, and his words proved prophetic as the team defeated the San Diego Police Department in the single-elimination softball tournament. Nonprofit SAY San Diego won the event’s inaugural three-on-three basketball game.
Aside from bragging rights, the purpose of this gathering was not really to win, but rather to see and be seen in a different setting.
As San Diego City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera explained, the idea of the Unity Games is to provide a space where community members and those who serve them can connect around fun in rather than fraught situations.
“This is an opportunity for us to build a community together, to get to know each other in a different way,” said Elo-Rivera.
Saturday’s event took place at the Willie Henderson Sports Complex on 54th Street near Logan Avenue.
The grassy expanse with a recreation center, basketball courts, and baseball diamonds is known as a site of drug trafficking and violence. Willie Henderson has seen three shootings since 2019, the most recent taking place on January 7, 2022.
But it’s been hit and miss for the community that lives around the park to come out and play.
While there was significant participation from a range of organizations, including Bridge Church and nonprofits such as Project AWARE and the National Conflict Resolution Center, there was no team submission representing the neighborhood itself, and few people around came to watch the action unfolds.
Manny Del Toro, chief of the Southeastern Division of the police, said a two-year pandemic hiatus has certainly reversed the event. Giving away a Christmas present at the same venue, he added, had significant participation.
“Everyone is just trying to contribute their strength to make it a better place,” said Del Toro.
Overcoming the location’s reputation, added Sergio Gonzalez, a local resident and member of the DiverCityHeights team, is a tall order. Gonzalez, a member of the community counter-violence team in the area, said he regularly knocks on doors to hear residents’ concerns and notes that he has trepidation about going to Willie Henderson.
“They tell us, ‘We’re afraid to come out, we’re afraid to take our kids to the park,'” Gonzalez said. “They see the drug activities, they see the gangs, they hear gunshots and they are afraid to bring their children here.”
To reverse that perception, he said, it takes more than a few events per year. It will take a lot of positive presence, he said, to change the sense of community.
Reginald Washington, founder and CEO of Project AWARE, an organization that works with young people to find peaceful ways to deal with conflict, agreed with the idea that change won’t happen with a one-time approach. Losing five years of momentum due to the pandemic, he said, was particularly unfortunate, as gaining the trust and participation of the community would always be a years-long endeavor.
“If we think after one or two that everything is going to be copacetic, we’re kidding ourselves,” Washington said. “If we get 10 or 15 kids this time, we might get 20 or 30 next time.
“We have to work on this in the long term.”