(Photo: Emily Schneider)
“We had no idea how pressing these issues would be when this conversation started,” remarked Dan Justin, the director of the Institute on the Common Good (ICG) at Regis University.
Justin was introducing reformed Neo-Nazi Christian Picciolini to a group of Regis students on Tuesday, Sep. 12 in the chapel. Picciolini described his life story and how he came to be who he is now.
Living in Chicago during 1987 at the age of just 14, Picciolini was recruited by the first white-supremacist skinhead group in America. From there, he rose through the ranks to become the leader of the group at 16 after all the adults in the group were sent to prison for the murder of a woman.
Picciolini explained that growing up he had always been an outsider. He was alone and despondent. He explained that now he recognizes those hateful ideologies as wrong, but at the time, it was not the ideas that drew him in. It was the sense of belonging that he had never experienced before. The skinheads paid attention to him, and trusted him, making him a part of their community.
He coined a term for these feelings of loneliness of inadequacies: potholes. Potholes are anything that takes us off our path or changes our direction. Picciolini says we are all continuously searching to fill the potholes in ourselves or our lives, and that potholes are often reasons people turn towards extremism, in any form.
As he got older, Picciolini fell in love, married, and had two kids. For this reason, he started to take a step back from the Neo-Nazi group by opening a record store. There he sold mainly white power music but also included genres of hip hop, punk rock, and heavy metal.
Selling these genres brought in a more diverse group of people than Picciolini had ever experienced. He describes the people selling this music attracted as those whom he had treated the worst. Picciolini reflects, “I was shown compassion when I least deserved it, and from the people, I least deserved it from.”
The diverse customers acted compassionately toward him - engaging in meaningful conversation. Slowly they became some of his best friends.
Picciolini had found a sense of community with the people he had taught others to hate. He had found community with African Americans, immigrants, people of all religions that treated him with humanity. After years of practicing and preaching hate towards people that were not similar to him, his customers showed him a more positive community that celebrated diversities and engaged in their differences.
Through this realization, Picciolini started on the path towards restoration and change. In 2009, he founded Life After Hate, an organization that seeks to offer community to people who are disengaging from their extremist lifestyle. He explained that the first part of his job was to find their “potholes” and understand why they chose to become part of an extremist group.
“My job is to fill potholes,” he shared. He offers a variety of services, like job support, tattoo removal, and medical assistance. Through connecting lost individuals with these resources, he attempts to fill the holes that led them down a path of hate in the first place.
Picciolini explains that if he tries to throw people into situations with those that they were told to hate right off the bat, it will be an unsuccessful interaction. Instead, he works to help individuals become more stable then slowly allows them to engage with those that are different from themselves. Often, extremists have not even interacted with the people they are so hateful towards.
“We need to find common ground and start with our similarities and then work into our differences,” Picciolini explains. This is the method he uses to introduce people to each other and to bridge the gap built between them. Through his organization, he is uniting people and transforming life after hate, into love.
Picciolini closed with a challenge to students and faculty in attendance: “Find someone you don't think deserves compassion and respect, and give it to them because often, they are the ones that need it the most.”
Catie Cheshire & Marley Weaver-Gabel
Staff Reporter & Editor-In-Chief