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Difference Maker

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.

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Through LAH's Kindness Not Weakness outreach program, over the past two years Michaels and his LAH colleagues have talked to diverse audiences about nonviolence.

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At a Kindness Not Weakness event, the speakers are humble as they speak to youths half their age. Observers say this humility is one of the campaign's strengths.

Today Michaels is an optimist with a ready laugh. He doesn't think of himself as a teacher, but as a "character development practitioner." (By day, he's an information technology consultant in the Milwaukee area.)

"I think it's important for humans to have challenges to overcome and progress through," Michaels says. "When we were our horrible teenage selves, we really didn't engage with any constructive, healthy challenges. And there's nothing more challenging than responding to aggression with compassion."

Michaels recently spoke at a hip-hop dance competition in Wisconsin. The instructor told him that the kids, mostly teenagers, would often mock each other with homophobic slurs.

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 in Wyoming 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."

Michaels's LAH colleagues include cofounder Christian Picciolini and Meeink. Both have written books about their skinhead pasts.

Sammy Rangel, also with LAH, has been speaking for years about his past life as a Latino gang member. Shortly after meeting Michaels, the two spoke together in 2011 at Walter Reuther Central High School in Kenosha, Wis.

"I think their partnership was very exciting, in part because Michaels came from a comfortable city suburb and Sammy from poverty," says Andy Baumgart, vice principal of Reuther high school. "It was unique for the students to see that it doesn't matter where you're coming from – if you aren't careful about your choices, you can end up in a place of hate."

LAH joined the Summit Against Violent Extremism in Dublin, Ireland, in 2011 and now participates in the Against Violent Extremism network managed by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London.

In meeting former criminals and terrorists, Michaels was struck by the similarities of the paths that led them to join violent movements. His parents showed him love as a boy, he says, but their arguing, and his own taste for thrills, drove him deep into the punk scene.

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