The story of Christian Picciolini’s redemption provides hope, but is also difficult to fully fathom. His transition from leader in the hate movement to an award-winning television producer, author and peace advocate provides chilling lessons and powerful insight into the world of extremism.
Picciolini is the featured speaker in Selkirk College’s Winter 2020 Mir Lecture Series that will take place at Castlegar’s Brilliant Cultural Centre on Friday, March 6. Presented by the Mir Centre for Peace and the Selkirk College Students’ Union (SCSU), Picciolini will travel to the West Kootenay from his home south of the border to speak on the topic of “Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism.”
“It’s hard for many to grasp how someone could delve so deep into a hate movement and adopt such hateful beliefs, words and actions,” the 46-year-old Picciolini explains. “It is also difficult to believe that someone can later do such a 180-degree transformation. I share my story to show that redemption is possible. There are others out there who have truly changed like I have. There’s potential to both prevent others from going down the same dark path that I once did and to pull those out who are currently there. I have a responsibility to use my knowledge of why and how people end up in hate so I can continue to guide people out and help stop this cycle.”
A son of Italian immigrants, Picciolini grew up in the Chicago area and by the age of 14 was struggling with loneliness and low self-esteem. At a point in his life where he did not know where he belonged, Picciolini met members of the white power movement who recruited him and seized on his vulnerability. By the age of 16, he was the leader of the Chicago Area Skinheads.
Before he renounced his ties to the American neo-Nazi movement at the age of 22, Picciolini would start a successful white supremacist punk band, commit acts of violence against others, get kicked out of high school six times and open a record store that catered to white power music.
After leaving the movement, he suffered under the weight of his past. Picciolini eventually stopped trying to outrun his previous wicked ways and began speaking about the uncomfortable truths of his past in hopes of making a positive change.
“In these times of increased violent extremism, it is important for people to better understand who hate groups target, how they recruit, what makes people join them, and how it’s possible for people to disengage from hate and take a different path,” he says.
Picciolini started the non-profit and extremist intervention initiative Free Radicals Project which focuses on compassionate and empathetic disengagement practices. He is a regular contributor to national and international media outlets as a subject matter expert and speaks all across the world. His memoirs have been published in a book and his upcoming book Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism will be released onFebruary 25, 2020.
“Turning his back on the white supremacist movement must have taken great courage, so there is integrity and moral fibre there that he tapped into as young man,” says Jennie Barron, Chair of the Selkirk College Mir Centre for Peace.
As a partner in hosting the event, the SCSU hopes that college learners will take the opportunity to hear Picciolini’s harrowing story.
“His complete U-turn is fascinating and he has an insider view that makes us curious,” says SCSU board member Alyssa Taburiaux. “The fact that he’s helped more than 300 people exit hate movements gives me a lot of hope for stopping this trend towards extremism.”
Though many of the most disturbing and frequent examples derive from the United States, Picciolini says nobody should ignore the symptoms and situations that lead vulnerable people down a dark road.
“It’s happening in Canada,” he says. “Maybe it’s not on the same scale that it is here because certain administrations’ words and actions can embolden hate groups and that is happening in my country. But, white supremacy and violent extremism is not exclusive to the United States. It is a transnational movement. Hate groups are connected and the internet has helped facilitate that. It has negative consequences around the globe.”
Tickets for the Christian Picciolini talk at the Brilliant Cultural Centre are available at Selkirk College bookstores on all campuses, by phone at 250-365-1281, Otter Books in Nelson or at the door on the evening of March 6. Tickets are $22 for adults, $17 for seniors and $5 for students (with ID). The event starts at 7 p.m. and you can find more information at: http://www.selkirk.ca/event/breaking-hate-mir-lecture