RACINE — As a social worker for Racine Vocational Ministry, Sammy Rangel used his training and background as a former gang member to help ex-convicts move beyond their destructive pasts.
These days the Racine resident is working to help reform a much different population of wayward souls — white supremacists — as the executive director of the nonprofit Life After Hate.
The group was started by former neo-Nazis and skinheads looking to help people leave hate groups.
Rangel was involved in the formation of the nonprofit in 2011, but he didn’t become the organization’s director until this past May, when the nonprofit was still hoping it might receive a $400,000 Department of Homeland Security grant it had been awarded by the Obama administration to help counter violent extremism.
When the nonprofit learned in June that the Trump administration would no longer be honoring the grant, that future was put in flux.
Then, on Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Va., a reputed Nazi sympathizer plowed his car into a group of people who were protesting a white nationalist rally in that city. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed, and 34 other people were injured.
Within days, the nonprofit found itself having “to grow faster and further” than it had before, Rangel said.
Donations came pouring in as Americans shocked by the violence learned about the organization’s work. As of last week the organization, one of only a handful working with hate groups, had raised more than $320,000.
Whom they help
Of the group’s founders, Rangel, who is of Mexican and American Indian descent, is the only one who is does not come from a white supremacist background. But these days he is working, along with the other members of the group, to help individuals and communities find ways to cope with hate in their families, their communities, or in their own lives.
Aside from inquiries from the media, which have increased dramatically in the weeks since Charlottesville, the people and organizations reaching out to the group come with different needs, but they all are interested in talking about hate and how best to defuse it.
“There are people in far-right groups looking for a way out, and they want to know if our services are for real,” Rangel said. “There are also a lot of concerned family members — people reaching out about their sons and daughters. We are getting close to four or five of those every day.”
Many of those looking for help are people who latched onto radical groups because they validated some of their beliefs or feelings, but then got scared once they saw the core leaders of those groups move from what they dubbed “activism” to violence, Rangel explained.
“When (the core group members) do the crazy stuff that they do, ripples are created that make the rest of the group question if they really signed on for this type of activity,” he said.
Once a person reaches out to Life After Hate, it can take months or even years for them to free themselves from hate, and from the fear they have of the hate groups they were once a part of, Rangel said.
“It is a very long process for them. A lot of them start to think their groups are omnipresent and omnipotent. They set up fake email accounts, use a phone once and throw it away two weeks later,” he said.
To help them in their process, the organization provides peer counseling, as well as an anonymous online forum where former white supremacists can openly discuss their rehabilitation.
Life After Hate doesn’t just work with individuals.
It also spends a lot of time helping communities find ways to cope when hate visits their doorsteps.
Members of a gated community recently reached out to the organization after an antifascist group began pressuring them to turn in the identities of alleged white supremacists living in their neighborhood.
“So this community is also trying to find the right response to protect the white supremacists,” Rangel said.
Although he hasn’t heard of any vocal hate groups in Racine, he points to the increase in hate speech in the community since the Nov. 8 election of President Donald Trump, including reports of Hispanic students being harassed.
To help keep tensions that might exist under the surface from bubbling over, Rangel suggests holding forums where people can openly discuss racism and its effects.
When encountering someone in the community who you fear might subscribe to a racist or hateful ideology, he stressed the importance of using one’s “own humanity to dismantle hate.”
“You can’t be a in safe environment if you are adopting the values of the people you are concerned about … if you are judging, or rejecting, or aggressive to, or isolating that person, you will only assist them in going deeper in their beliefs,” Rangel said.