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A former white supremacist describes the time he changed his mind and 'life after hate.'

He helped build the modern white supremacist movement. Now he's trying to tear it down.

A former white supremacist describes the time he changed his mind and 'life after hate.'

Peace activist and founder of Life After Hate Christian Picciolini has a surprising past: He used to be a neo-Nazi.

After getting kicked out of four high schools, Picciolini became involved with Chicago Area Skinheads, the first neo-Nazi skinhead organization in the U.S., during his teens.

By the time he turned 16, Picciolini had already taken on a leadership role within the organization, helping shape the modern white supremacist movement in the U.S.

"They promised me paradise," he says. "They promised me that the bullies would go away, that my life would get better, that I’d have a family that I was looking for, and that I would have a sense of purpose."


GIFs by Upworthy.

So what made Picciolini change his mind and turn his back on the neo-Nazi movement?

His journey from extremist to activist for peace began with conversation. In the mid-1990s, Picciolini ran Chaos Records, a Chicago record store known for its collection of white power music. It was there that he first began to have meaningful interactions with some of the same people he'd spent years of his life hating. The more he spoke with them, the harder it was to justify his hateful beliefs. Soon after, he abandoned the white supremacist movement and began making amends.

Now Picciolini spends his days trying to help others leave the movement he helped create.

Through his work with Life After Hate, a group he co-founded, Picciolini helps others leave extremist movements and leave behind lives of violence and hate. For him, it's all part of an effort to right the wrongs he's committed and to make up for the harmful ideology he helped craft.

But even decades removed from his contributions to the neo-Nazi movement, some of his influence can't be undone.

Despite his efforts, Picciolini's past beliefs live on in a number of forms, including the "alt-right" movement.

The name may change, but the ideology of white supremacy remains largely the same. Even worse, these ideas that were once seen only in fringe elements of society are creeping into the cultural mainstream. That's by design, and no one understands this better than Picciolini, who says that the "alt-right" movement has a plan to bring its ideology into the mainstream. And — horrifyingly — it's working.

"Don’t get tattooed, don’t shave your head, stop wearing a Klan hood, don’t wave a swastika flag," Picciolini says of the alt-right's strategy for creating a more palatable white supremacy movement. "Wear a suit and tie, go to college, blend in and mainstream the ideology. And in fact, that’s what we’re seeing now."

That's why it's important that we collectively continue to push back against hatred in all its forms.

It's important to remember that no one is truly beyond help. Picciolini's story of ongoing redemption can teach us all a lot about what it means to own up to the mistakes of your past and to help build a better world. Hatred might live on in America, but Picciolini's story should give us hope that it can be defeated.

To learn more about Picciolini's work, you can check out Life After Hate or read his 2015 book "Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead."

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If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Upworthy and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Upworthy-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.