Union-Tribune: Youth-led movement confronts homelessness in San Diego

According to psychologists, the human brain is wired to stereotype, as a way to categorize and process information. Given the inputs bombarding us daily, I understand the desirability. But when we stereotype, what we gain in convenience comes at a cost: We lose the nuance and texture that define each of us, enriching the human experience.

Generational stereotypes lead us to believe that all Boomers (born in 1946-1964) are selfish and stuck in their ways. Generation X (1965-1980) is cynical and disaffected. Millenials (1981-1996) are entitled and lazy. Generation Z (1997-2012) is screen-addicted and void of interpersonal skills.

A group of San Diego high school students is dispelling the Generation Z trope. The Lucky Ducklings are committed to giving back to the San Diego community. If you wonder about our country’s future, you can look to the Ducklings for assurances we’ll be fine. The National Conflict Resolution Center selected the group as this year’s Local Peacemaker Award winner.

When they’re not in school, the Ducklings are working to alleviate homelessness in San Diego. The idea was hatched three years ago, when Lucky Duck Foundation board member Jason Levin imagined a youth contingent connected to their cause.

To the board’s surprise and delight, the idea has turned into a movement. Today, there are 10 Lucky Duckling chapters in high schools across San Diego County, with 150 student volunteers.

Will Shea is the Ducklings’ senior program manager. He says it’s all about engaging the next generation of “difference makers” and instilling the importance of philanthropy. It’s not hard, Shea notes, as “they are so compassionate to start with.”

When you look at the Ducklings’ activity calendar, you wonder how they manage to get their school work done. They serve meals at local shelters; sort and distribute clothing and supplies; and conduct online fundraising campaigns.

When the Ducklings aren’t doing hands-on projects, they are thinking about strategies to address homelessness. They hosted three events last year: an innovation competition, part of their annual symposium on youth homelessness; and two leadership workshops, along with the Lucky Duck Foundation. The featured speaker was Stedman Graham, author of “Identity Leadership.”

One of the workshops was delivered to a group of more than 50 youth who have experienced homelessness, in partnership with the Youth Assistance Coalition. Shea says they appreciated Graham’s message: to lead others, you must first lead yourself.

Heather Lezon is the executive director and founder of YAC and a member of their board. She applauds the Ducklings’ involvement with YAC and is impressed by their talent, commitment and willingness to work hard. Lezon shares my optimism, saying the Ducklings give her hope for the future.

Jack Levin, a junior at La Jolla Country Day School, will be accepting the Local Peacemaker Award on behalf of the Lucky Ducklings. He will be accompanied by Dani Lotzof, a senior at Canyon Crest Academy. The pair are amazed and inspired by the other students who have joined the movement, eager to “share their luck” with their less fortunate neighbors.

With guidance from the Lucky Duck Foundation, the Ducklings are learning about the causes and impacts of homelessness. The reality seems especially harsh when they interact with kids their own age, seeing the effect on their lives and learning how easy it can be to slip into homelessness.

The numbers are significant: According to San Diego Youth Services, more than 2,000 youth experience homelessness in San Diego County. They make up about 20 percent of the county’s unsheltered population.

I asked Jack and Dani what advice they have for San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, who has implemented a comprehensive strategy to address the homelessness crisis here. Jack believes we need a “laser focus” on the mental health of families. He says, “It all begins with how a person grows up. Most people living on the street now once had a home and family.”

To Dani, it’s all about resources: dedicated efforts to create safe space for all, in part by turning empty buildings and warehouses into shelters.

You can call it youthful optimism, but neither student declared the problem insurmountable.

The Ducklings will be accompanied on stage by Will Shea and Drew Moser, executive director of the Lucky Duck Foundation. Board member Dan Shea will join the group; in 2018, NCRC honored him, along with the late Peter Seidler, as peacemakers for their pioneering work to address homelessness in our city.

It will be a full circle moment.

NCRC’s Peacemaker Awards dinner honoring the Lucky Ducklings and other peacemakers will be held on Saturday, April 13, at 5:30 pm. For information, or to register, visit ncrconline.com.

Dinkin is president of the National Conflict Resolution Center, a San Diego-based group working to create solutions to challenging issues, including intolerance and incivility.

The article, by Steven P. Dinkin, can be found on Union-Tribune here.

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