Ex-Skinhead and Hate-Crime Victim Team Up to Teach Compassion
Arno Michaelis has always been obsessed with warriors.
While visiting the Milwaukee County Zoo as a child, this meant drawing Greek mythological heroes riding on top of the tigers. As he grew older, Michaelis thought it meant being a white supremacist skinhead, defending his race. Now, for Michaelis, being a warrior means teaching Wisconsin students about the toxicity of hate, segregation, and racism.
For seven years, starting at the age of 16, Michaelis was involved with the white power movement as a founding member of a racist skinhead organization and the lead singer of a race-metal band. Having started drinking at age 14, gang activity, heavy punk music, and bullying were just another part of the adrenaline rush.
“It really pissed people off, and I wasn’t ignorant as to why,” Michaelis said of his destructive behavior. “It gave me a thrill.”
The thrill ride came to a halt when, on August 5, 2012, a white skinhead follower that Michaelis had recruited killed six and wounded four in a racially motivated attack on a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisc. Soon after the tragedy, Michaelis, who by then had long ago given up his skinhead ways, met Pardeep Kaleka, a former police officer, teacher, and trauma therapist, whose father was killed in the shooting.
The two eventually joined forces in 2013 through Serve 2 Unite, an organization created by Kaleka and other members of his community that uses the arts and human connection to promote oneness and understanding among students. Now, five years later, Serve 2 Unite has worked with over 32 schools and approximately 5,000 students within Wisconsin and another 50 schools and roughly 20,000 students in assemblies around the world.
“Struggle can be a gift, it can make you a better person, it can put you in a position to help other people,” said Michaelis. “[The] idea was to help [students], not only survive, but to thrive.”
‘I Have Something to Do With This’
For Kaleka, the tragedy that occurred in his family’s temple had caused a rush of feelings: feelings of guilt that there was nothing he could do when the gunman opened fire, feelings of relief that his two children were not there, and feelings of frustration toward a society that he feels does not do enough to educate students about the dangers of hate.
When Kaleka speaks about the morning of the shooting, he says he can still visualize it. His family was late leaving for temple. His daughter forgot her notebook at home, which she needed for Sunday school, and they had to turn around to get it. When they got to the church, he found a police officer blocking the intersection.
For months after the shooting, Kaleka hosted family, friends, and community members mourning his father. It was only in October—three months later—that he realized that he had hit his lowest emotional point.
It was then that Kaleka realized that he and his children would never see his father again. His wife was expecting a third child, who would never meet his grandfather. More than anything, Kaleka wanted to know how someone could commit such a violent act, so he reached out to Michaelis through Against Violent Extremism, the organization both belonged to.
The alleged gunman, who also killed himself, was not around to ask. Michaelis had immersed himself in details about the shooting since the day it happened, taking part in interviews and other media coverage in response to the event, so when Kaleka searched for accountability, the former white supremacist felt responsible to answer. Michaelis experienced his change of heart after losing a friend in a street fight and becoming a father. He recounts his story in a 2010 memoir, My Life After Hate.
“I could feel that he had that responsibility. He was raising his hand and saying, ‘I have something to do with this,’” Kaleka said.
‘Yin Yang Thing’
Kaleka’s first encounter with Michaelis was filled with agitation. After all, this was a man who had once actively recruited teenagers in the name of white supremacy, a man who had a swastika tattooed on his middle finger before having it removed in 1996, a man who previously believed that a white genocide was threatening his race, the same set of beliefs held by the man accused of shooting Kaleka’s father.
Still, Kaleka said that his acceptance of Michaelis is grounded in his Sikh faith—a faith that stresses being mindful that “we all have a good and bad in us.” The same faith led to Serve 2 Unite.
Even though some of these principles are a backbone of the organization, Kaleka has never felt like a leader. Just as he does what he can to support his own children, Kaleka tries to act as a father figure to the many students he mentors through Serve 2 Unite.
“I don’t know if I found advocacy work,” Kaleka said. “I think it found me.”
Through their organization, Michaelis and Kaleka lead discussions at schools to share their own stories, as well as hear the stories of students. In some cases, this may be done through a two-hour, one-time presentation; in others, the pair returns weekly for sessions.
“They have that yin-yang thing going, so I think the kids were mesmerized by that,” Emily Schubot, a school support teacher at Lloyd Barbee Montessori School in Milwaukee, said. “I think they bring something special to Serve 2 Unite.”
Through a yearlong partnership with Serve 2 Unite, Schubot’s elementary school, one that serves many low-income students, was paired with Fernwood Montessori, a more affluent school 25 minutes away. The students spoke via Skype calls and met during “peace summits,” which each school hosted.
“It was exciting for them to talk to kids that look different from them, but find out they have these huge things in common,” Schubot said.
In other cases, Serve 2 Unite has focused on the students within a school, providing weekly discussions and projects on topics ranging from sex-trafficking to the Holocaust, and bringing in global mentors who have lived through such experiences. The organization’s stable of mentors also includes a former militant left-wing extremist from Denmark, a former Jihadi supporter, and a survivor of the Rwandan genocide.
Still, not all students are prepared for the discussions that Michaelis and Kaleka bring to the table, while others may be overcoming their own trauma involving the topics covered.
This year, one student in the Serve 2 Unite class at Lloyd Barbee Montessori dropped the class after viewing an introductory documentary about Michaelis and Kaleka. She had experienced racism first-hand and feared Michaelis’ background, despite the work he was doing.
Schubot tried to meet her concerns with understanding, and after hearing her classmates discuss the lessons, the student returned.
According to Schubot, students often want to incorporate Serve 2 Unite’s lessons into larger social justice projects. Some made and flew Black Lives Matter kites, one student curated a “Smile Project,” where she took pictures of people before and after a compliment, and one class is organizing care packages to give to the Milwaukee homeless population at the start of the upcoming school year.
During their larger presentations, Michaelis and Kaleka say they are frequently met with surprise, mainly from teachers and principals. In a recent presentation to a room of about 1,000 high schoolers, over the course of two hours, no students reached for their phones, according to Kaleka. “We’re not talking to their heads, we’re talking to their hearts,” Kaleka said. “And when hearts talk, hearts listen.”
Often, according to Kaleka, young people stay after presentations to tell him and Michaelis about their struggles—including those involving bullying, depression, and sexuality.
Kaleka said his biggest fear is not being there for students after they open up. In a way, he calls himself and Michaelis the “grandparents” of the schools that they serve. They have the privilege of leaving at the end of the day, without always understanding the inner complexities of the schools.
He hopes framing their struggles as global issues helps eliminate feelings of isolation. By allowing a space for discussion, he thinks Serve 2 Unite gives students “power over their stories.”
For students who seem hostile, and are battling with the same issues that he has, Michaelis only hopes that he has planted a seed of kindness and understanding within them.
“We can look at every young person as if they are our child, and, for that split second, have that kind of love for them,” Michaelis said.
At the age of 47, there are parts of the past that will always stick with Michaelis; He is quick to anger; he still spirals into periods of depression; and his years of street fighting and more than 20 concussions have resulted in constant backaches, arthritis, and post-concussion syndrome.
Looking back, Michaelis remembers religiously reading Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, something he now recalls as ironic.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles,” he quotes.
“Reflecting aggression is not bravery. What takes courage is to respond to aggression with compassion,” Michaelis said. “I have to remind myself that no one beat the Nazi out of me.”