Today was far from an ordinary school day. Instead of spending the first two hours of my day at classes, I was invited to attend an Anti-Defamation League breakfast. A group of us students were surrounded by politicians, educators, authorities, and other leaders, as we listened to Christian Picciolini speak.
Christian Picciolini is a former Neo-Nazi.
Many people in the audience, myself included, were Jews. Other people in the audience were people of color or a part of a different minority group that Picciolini had spent almost a decade of his life despising.
At first, I was scared to be in the same room as someone who, about 20 years ago, would've been happy to see me dead because of my religion. But then, I heard his story.
Christian Picciolini is the child of two immigrants, and he grew up in Illinois. His father owned a hair salon, and his mother owned a restaurant, so Christian was left alone for much of his childhood. Christian felt abandoned and out of place, so he started to act up to take out his anger.
When Christian was 14 he was in an alley, when Clark Martell, the former leader of the Chicago Area Skinheads, approached him. Christian was just a vulnerable, angry child, and Martell took advantage of that. Martell promised Christian the one thing he craved the most; to belong. In the alley that day, Martell told Christian how he should be proud to be an Italian man, and how certain groups were trying to take that away from him. Martell instilled fear in Christian, and today, Christian strongly believes that it's fear that draws people to the white supremacist movement, not ideology.
Music was a very important part of Christian's life, as he was a part of one band called White American Youth, and a second band called The Final Solution. Christian also owned a record store, and this ended up changing his life. Christian originally focused on selling white-power music, but he realized in order to make a living he would have to sell other kinds of music.
This drew in a diverse group of customers, including people who were Jewish, African-American, or gay. Every customer knew who he was and what he was doing, but they still came in, and they showed him compassion. For the first time, Christian was having meaningful conversations with people who he had never even considered as human. Christian realized he had things in common with these people, and, slowly, he re-learned love.
Since then, Christian has been able to use his experiences to relate to white supremacists and get over 100 of them to disengage from the movement.
I was left speechless. I never thought that I would leave the morning feeling so inspired by someone who I would once think of as a monster. There is a road from hate to love, and it can be a difficult one for many to chose to take… but it's there, and it's possible to take. We cannot be blinded by the hate in our world, but instead, hold onto that hope that love overcomes all.