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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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Julie Sanders's students at Cascade Academy in Beaverton, Ore., have seen violence in their lives. Some have been exposed to crime and gangs. So Ms. Sanders has them read about people who have survived conflict. "That way, no matter how hard their lives are, the kids know that change is possible," she says.

This spring Sanders invited Arno Michaels to her class. Her students had read his memoir, a confessional book that ends with the author, who is white, thanking Martin Luther King Jr. and Run-DMC.

Mr. Michaels is tall, and when he speaks his hands spread out from long, tattooed arms. His unusually low voice can get rough from overuse. He was joined at Sanders's school by a colleague, Frank Meeink.

They began by describing their childhoods. And before long that meant talking about how they had hurt people.

Twenty-five years ago, Michaels was a racist skinhead. Growing up near Milwaukee, by age 16 he was deep into the punk fringe culture and being radicalized with horrific speed. Crazed with hate for people of any color or sexual orientation except his own white heterosexuality, he found a high in the drunken, brawling skinhead life.

He stayed in the radical white-power movement for seven years. In his self-published book, "My Life After Hate," Michaels recalls jeering at an African-American family as their home burned in a fire.


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