Christian Picciolini is an Emmy Award-winning director and producer, a published author, a TEDx speaker, a global peace advocate and, maybe most importantly, a reformed white supremacist. UConn Hillel and the Leadership Legacy Experience worked together to host Picciolini in the Student Union Theater on Tuesday night where he shared what his experiences have taught him - that empathy and compassion are the best ways to help people realize that, in some ways, we’re all the same.
By sharing his story, Picciolini shared insight into how supremacist groups recruit young people, how he got out of the movement and how he has helped nearly 120 others to do the same.
The most important part of changing somebody’s mind, he said, is not to yell at them or to argue with them, but to listen. As he put it, young people turn to white supremacist groups when they experience “potholes.” And when he listens to people, he listens for these “potholes” and then he tries to fill them in.
Listening is followed by introducing them to the people they hate. According to Picciolini often white supremacists don’t even know the people they condemn, so just introducing them and showing them the similarities between all people will prove that they’ve been wrong more than violence or argument could.
“I thought it was really interesting that he comes at it, not from a passive, but a nonviolent approach,” fourth-semester-political science major Delaney McGovern said.
All of Picciolini’s advice and methods have been developed by his own experiences.
Picciolini grew up in Chicago to Italian immigrant parents whose business kept them away seven days a week. For the first 14 years of his life, Picciolini struggled with trying to fit in somewhere within American culture or within Italian culture, but always felt that he was on the outside.
“I was searching for these really fundamental human needs, identity, community and purpose,” Picciolini said. “I was looking for a group to belong to and I was turned away from everything.”
It was this feeling of being denied community that became Picciolini’s “pothole” and made him susceptible to a white supremacist recruiter. Picciolini recalled in detail how he was smoking a joint out on the street when a skinhead pulled up in a 1968 Firebird, pulled the joint from his mouth and told him, as Picciolini quoted, “That’s what the communists and the Jews want you to do to keep you docile.”
This began a segment of Picciolini’s life in which he slowly learned to blame all of his problems on other people: Jews, blacks, latinos, gays. As part of the Nazi skinhead movement he was taught that his European heritage was a matter of pride and that others would try and take that from him. He became a leader within the movement and began to write music with racist lyrics to inspire others to violent extremism.
“When I shaved my head and when I wore my boots the people who had tormented me would cross the street when they saw me coming,” Picciolini said. “I started to feel this perception of power that I never felt before.”
Eventually seeing how his lyrics could inspire violence and his marriage at 19 years old began to change the way he saw things. To remove himself from the heart of the movement he opened a record store to sell racist music rather than write it. Eventually community pressures required him to expand the music he offered into other genres as well, which put him into contact with many of the people he claimed to hate.
“I began to realize over time that I had more in common with them than with all the people I had surrounded myself with,” Picciolini said. It was this experience of his own that inspires his method of introducing extremists to those they hate as a step towards their own change.
After finally taking the last steps to extricate himself from the supremacist movement, Picciolini found himself at a low: his business had been closed, his wife and children had left him, he wasn’t on good terms with his parents, the only community he’d ever known was gone.
He eventually managed to get a job with IBM installing networks on school computers. His first day on the job put him at one of his old high schools, where he saw a black security guard he had tormented many times. Feeling he wouldn’t be able to continue with his job unless he confronted his past, he approached the security guard and apologized. This job with IBM and this conversation with the security guard is what started getting Picciolini’s life back on track and inspired him to start sharing his story.
“I’ve gone out and tried to repair as much of the damage as I’ve caused,” Picciolini said.
Although Picciolini’s approach applies very specifically to extremists, and can’t address less explicit systemic racism, he shows a side of the conflict that isn’t often explored.
“I think it’s really important that we hear all sides of the story,” second-semester engineering student Emmett Santisi said. “Especially when it’s such a unique perspective. Hearing from someone who has changed for the better can help us to help others change for the better.”
Just as Picciolini was marginalized as a youth and looked to extremism to supply him with community, he now helps others to do the same; According to Picciolini, empathy and compassion towards marginalized youth is the best way to keep them from following in his footsteps.
Alex Houdeshell is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.