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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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Michaels and a friend, often drunk and decked out in swastikas, studied ideology and paramilitary skills with a hate group in North Carolina. They decided they needed to prepare for an imminent war between races.

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Michaels's change began with the birth of his daughter in 1992, which brought with it the hope of a different life for her. "My world had been narrowed. The only people I could interact with were other racist white people," he recalls. "Exhaustion was becoming a factor [too]. It was getting more and more difficult to deny the humanity of the people I was supposed to hate."

By the mid-1990s, he had dropped out of the skinhead scene. He began building his career in information technology. By 2009 he was sober. To deal with his past, he used meditation and began writing his book. "I do have times where I think about the people I hurt," Michaels concedes. "I have kind of a waking nightmare."

Not everyone is a fan of Michaels's efforts toward reform. Skeptics in Milwaukee still have doubts about his transformation. And hate groups enraged by his new message might seek revenge on him, he says.

"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."

Later this summer Michaels will speak to a violence-prevention group, which is expected to draw a crowd of about a thousand people, many of them kids from Milwaukee's inner city. "I just want to be an asset to the world around me," he says, "and to get others to do the same."

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