November 08, 2017 10:56 PM
At 14, Christian Picciolini joined a white supremacist group.
He said he came from a good family of hardworking Italian immigrants. But because they worked so hard, he was often alone. And he felt abandoned.
One day, a man with a shaved head and boots approached him in an alley.
"This man, it was as if he was a lifeline for me because he started to promise me acceptance and he gave me this community of people," Picciolini said. "I felt so powerless as a young kid that the moment he offered me any kind of promise of belonging, I grabbed it."
He said his recruitment wasn't entirely random.
"They're very good at spotting young, vulnerable people with what I call potholes - those things that appear on our life's path that invariably will nudge us from the way we're supposed to go," he explained. "And those things can be trauma, they can be abuse, they can be neglect. For me, it was abandonment."
He said it didn't matter what the man was selling, he would have bought it if it meant having friends and being accepted.
"I was willing for eight years to put aside my true feelings and adopt racism and violence because I was angry," Picciolini said.
More than 20 years later, he said he recognizes that he was projecting self-hatred on others. And the decisions he made then haven't been easy to find peace with.
"25 years ago, I wrote racist music that eventually found its way to the Internet and into the hands of a white supremacist who walked into a Charleston church and massacred nine innocent people," he said.
So he's devoted the most recent two decades to helping others reform. He co-founded a nonprofit called Love After Hate. He said he's brought around 100 people out of extreme hate groups.
"I do that not by arguing with them, not by telling them they're wrong, but by listening," Picciolini said. "And I listen for their potholes, and I fill them in."
His work hasn't come without backlash. He said he's received death threats for decades. But he's OK with that because he said he feels he is adding positivity to the world.
"At one point in my life, I was willing to die for a really terrible thing," he said. "If I have to put my life in danger to do something that I believe is right now, I'm OK with that."
He left the audience Wednesday night with some advice.
"Find people that you feel aren't deserving of your compassion, and give it to them," Picciolini said, "because I guarantee you that they're the ones who need it the most."
Updated: November 08, 2017 10:56 PM
Created: November 08, 2017 10:47 PM
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