“I told [Michaels] it’s almost necessary to forgive yourself in order to be as effective as you can be,” ex-Latino gang member Mr. Rangel says. “Even if you feel you’re undeserving. Children are very concrete in their perception of people. If you don’t practice what you preach, they’ll sense it.”
One-time skinhead Arno Michaels helps youths respond with compassion
His Kindness Not Weakness outreach program challenges diverse audiences to show the kind of ‘warrior’ strength needed to practice nonviolence.
By Josh Allen, Correspondent / August 3, 2012
Julie Sanders’s students at Cascade Academy in Beaverton, Ore., have seen violence in their lives. Some have been exposed to crime and gangs. So Ms. Sanders has them read about people who have survived conflict. “That way, no matter how hard their lives are, the kids know that change is possible,” she says.
Twenty-five years ago, Michaels was a racist skinhead. Growing up near Milwaukee, by age 16 he was deep into the punk fringe culture and being radicalized with horrific speed. Crazed with hate for people of any color or sexual orientation except his own white heterosexuality, he found a high in the drunken, brawling skinhead life.
Today the memories of the savage attacks he made on people haunt him like a ghost, he says. But now he is a different man, an open-minded person who admires his diverse colleagues and friends.
He’s also cofounder of Life After Hate (LAH), which publishes an online magazine about “noble human qualities – patience, forgiveness, compassion.”
After Michaels’s visit to Cascade Academy with Mr. Meeink, who had been a skinhead inPennsylvania, Sanders wrote about her students’ reactions on Michaels’s website, lifeafterhate.org. One student said: “I realized that I have a mix of both of your experiences. I’ve been asked to and have done things I’m not proud of. Before you came, I was thinking about going back to my old ways. But you both showed me I can accomplish great things. Thank you for planting this positive seed.”
In his speech, a video of which is available on LAH’s website, Michaels describes the deaths of Emmett Till, an African-American teenager killed in Mississippi in 1955, and Matthew Shepard, a young gay man killed inWyoming in 1998. “The raw material of fear and ignorance that brought [these two events] to pass was the exact same stuff” in both cases, he says.
The room falls quiet. “I attacked a gay man because I was drunk,” he says. “I broke his face. And I laughed about it. That was almost 20 years ago. I’ll never forget that night.
“But I have the power to transform that act of stupidity into something positive, and I can share that with you guys, to hope that you can learn from my mistakes.”
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