I am a black man and interviewed a former white supremacist. It was a powerful experience.

I'm a black man who just spoke with a former white supremacist. He wasn't quite what I expected.

I have to admit that when my phone rang, I felt an overwhelming sense of anxiety and nervousness that I haven't experienced in years.

Am I really going to conduct this interview? Can a white supremacist truly be reformed? Do I really want to hear his story?


Maybe this would be a complete waste of time, but I took a deep breath and listened to everything because I knew it was possible I could learn something from him.

The first thing I learned: The path to joining a hate group doesn't always pass through a dramatic moment.

Arno Michaelis was born in Milwaukee. He described himself as "an angry, bored teenager with a habit of provoking people." Similar to how some misguided inner-city kids turn to gangs, Arno began to embrace the white power narrative because it made him feel powerful.

"The swastika appealed to me because everyone else was so repulsed by it," he told me. "As a bully who lashed out at other kids rather than face the suffering I felt growing up in an alcoholic household, I distanced myself from my family and familiarized myself with hate and violence. The white power narrative gave it all a heroic context."

Arno as an angry teen. Photo via Arno Michaelis, used with permission.

Arno was introduced to the white power skinhead scene through music; he listened to bands that preached racial hate. He received an adrenaline rush from participating in antisocial behavior and quickly became addicted to the movement and its mission. Not long afterward, it came to define him.

In the world of white supremacy, this man could put his resume up against anybody.

He was a founding member of the Northern Hammerskins, which went on to become part of Hammerskin Nation, "the best organized, most widely dispersed, and most dangerous skinhead group known," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks hate groups. He was also the lead vocalist for a white power metal band called Centurion, a group that sold over 20,000 records in the mid-1990s.

It seemed as if his life would be nothing but a cesspool of hatred and bigotry.

Then one moment changed him: He was thrust into single fatherhood.

Arno's daughter Mija giving hugs to her pet rabbit. Photo via Arno Michaelis, used with permission.

"I was with my daughter's mother for about six months before we decided it was our duty as white people to bring white children into the world," said Arno, who was 21 when his daughter was born. "By the time she was a little over a year old, my relationship with her mother ended," he said. "That's when I made the decision to be a good dad first and foremost. Living a life filled with hate just wasn't possible if I wanted to do that."

"That's when I made the decision to be a good dad first and foremost. Living a life filled with hate just wasn't possible if I wanted to do that."

Shortly thereafter, he felt a strange emotion that he never experienced before.

Empathy.

He became more in-tune with the feelings of his fellow humans. In doing so, he acknowledged that he was causing pain to others due to his own pain.

"I knew what I was doing was wrong all along, but I poured all of my energy into suppressing that knowledge," he said. "At the time, all I was doing was fleeing a fire I lit, leaving a trail of gasoline behind me. It was a soul-exhausting, self-created hell. Raising my daughter helped me come to grips with that."

In addition to the love for his daughter, the immense power of empathy also came to the rescue.

"I realized we are all human beings, entirely capable of engaging each other outside of the construct of race," he said. "Once this connection happens, it becomes contagious. When we see ourselves in others, hate and violence no longer make sense. Understanding and love take over."

"When we see ourselves in others, hate and violence no longer make sense. Understanding and love take over."

The healing process started. He would evolve into a man his daughter would be proud of.

But Arno wasn't done.

A depraved act of hatred moved him to speak out against his old life.

On Aug. 5, 2012, a mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, rocked the community and the country. The shooter, 40-year-old Wade Michael Page, was reportedly a member of the Northern Hammerskins, the skinhead group Arno helped create.

Sikhs mourn the 2012 temple shooting in Wisconsin. Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images.

Feeling inspired to do something positive, Arno contacted Pardeep Kaleka, whose father was the last person murdered in the shooting. They were both members of a network that is against violent extremism, and they decided to meet in person.

Arno said they both experienced some anxiety at first, but it soon dissipated after they found common ground as dads. They both have children and found plenty to talk about. "We sat down for dinner and talked until they kicked us out an hour after the place closed," Arno said.

Although the two men began to build a bond, how could Pardeep forgive the people in the white power movement who were responsible for his father's murder?

It wasn't easy, according to Pardeep.

"It has taken me a while to get to the point where I am today," he said. "Forgiveness is a way for me to take the power back from the ones who tried to take it from me.

He said his Sikh faith helped him cope with the tragedy, including the philosophy known as Chardi Kala, which he translated as "relentless optimism." At the same time, he wants to be proactive about stopping hate. "We'll either create the world that we want, or one will be created for us," he said.

Pardeep now describes Arno as his "friend, brother, psychiatrist, and teacher." With a combined passion to improve the world, this unlikely team runs Serve2Unite.org, an organization that Arno described as "created to defy hate and violence by bringing people of all backgrounds together."

Pardeep and Arno remembering the shooting in August 2012. Photo via Arno Michaelis, used with permission.

Serve2Unite students and educators have created community art projects and block parties, book drives for incarcerated people, and peace-themed PSAs. Regardless of the task at hand, the goal of the organization remains the same: Bring people together by celebrating our similarities.

And the young men and women they lead are completely on board with the mission.

Today, Arno teaches kids to have zero tolerance for intolerance. Photo via Arno Michaelis, used with permission.

What message does a former white supremacist have for other racists (overt, closeted, or otherwise)?

"I've lived as they have," he said. "What they're doing isn't living. Racism sucks. It's a crappy excuse for existence, and completely unnecessary."

As I listened to Arno tell his story, one thing kept coming to mind: Empathy is the key to stopping racism.

Anyone has the capability to feel empathy if they choose to — for everyone from our tactless neighbor to psychopaths and narcissists. But we have to keep it real with ourselves about what the absence of empathy looks like.

A lack of empathy leads people to dismiss Muslims as extremists bent on harming our country when the reality is the overwhelming majority of them are peaceful and loving (and homegrown extremists have caused more deaths in America since 9/11 than any other extremist group).

"We'll either create the world that we want, or one will be created for us."

A lack of empathy leads people to believe that minorities constantly whine about being victimized by society, when the reality is many of us (minorities) feel hopeless and crave understanding.

A lack of empathy leads minorities to believe that white people are clueless, blinded by their white privilege, when the reality is many of them empathize with us and want to end racism, too.

We can use empathy to eliminate the us-versus-them mentality that plagues our society.

If a former white supremacist can teach us anything, it's that we are way more similar than we are different, and it's time to embrace that.

After speaking with Arno, I'm sold that a person with his dark past can be reformed. 100% sold. This man is intelligent and charismatic, and he's now dedicating his life to ending racism and bigotry. He's the kind of man I would want to be friends with.

And that's definitely not what I expected.

This article originally appeared on August 27, 2015

Oh, society! We have such a complicated relationship with relationships.

It starts early, with the movies we are plopped in front of as toddlers.

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This article originally appeared on August 27, 2015

Oh, society! We have such a complicated relationship with relationships.

It starts early, with the movies we are plopped in front of as toddlers.

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."