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A talk with a former white supremacist: ‘Fundamental transformation is possible’

Helping families shaken by violence

Mindy Corporon and Jim LaManno, who lost loved ones in the 2014 shooting rampage targeting the Jewish Community Center, visit The Star to promote SevenDays activities and discuss how violence changed their families.
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Mindy Corporon and Jim LaManno, who lost loved ones in the 2014 shooting rampage targeting the Jewish Community Center, visit The Star to promote SevenDays activities and discuss how violence changed their families.

Five years after the murder of her son and father, Mindy Corporon is sitting down with someone who once completely agreed with the neo-Nazi convicted in that hate crime.

Shannon Foley Martinez says she “very easily could have been the person pulling the trigger given the right set of circumstances.”

Yet on Thursday, she, along with another reformed white supremacist, Christian Picciolini, will talk with Corporon for an evening of hope, part of the annual “SevenDays — Make a Ripple, Change the World” event.

Picciolini and Martinez have spent more than two decades creating curriculum and community for those at risk for joining, currently engaged in, or just recently disengaged from far-right extremist groups.

Leading up to the event, The Star spoke with Martinez to learn more about her story of how she became indoctrinated into a far right ideology, the work she and Picciolini do now to prevent others from going down similar paths, why she believes white supremacist views and violence are on the rise in America and what we can do about it.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity).

Q: How did you become involved in the white supremacist movement?

A: I grew up always feeling like the black sheep. I came wired to ask “why” in a family that valued conformity. Then, when I was 11, we moved from Philadelphia to just north of Toledo, Ohio, and as a result, my sense of not belonging expanded from just my own house to the greater world. I began looking at counterculture as a place to find an identity that vibed with me since mainstream culture didn’t seem to be it.

One of my early favorite books was the autobiography of Malcolm X. I loved the power of the ideas and the revolutionary nature. Loved how he presented those ideas and the conviction behind them. Around that time I also was introduced to skateboard culture. I began hanging out more with the punk rock scene and listening to different music. I cut off my hair. I liked that my appearance was shocking and that it created a reaction. I felt powerful.

Then when I was 15, I was raped at a party by two older men. And because my childhood was one where I was frequently reprimanded, I knew I couldn’t tell parents. That trauma triggered me and increased my willingness to take risks. My willingness to use violence as a remedy and to embrace more extreme ideology.

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A young Shannon Foley Martinez tags a swastika and other white supremacist symbols on a tennis court. Foley Martinez says she became indoctrinated into white supremacy at the age of 15 as a means of coping with lingering trauma and feelings of loneliness. Courtesy Shannon Martinez

Q: How did you get out of the extremist movement?

A: Right around when I was 20, I was finally kicked out of my house for good. I had kept coming and going and getting sent back home by the police. I ended up at the home of my boyfriend at the time’s mom. And she just showered me with love. When you’re in these extremist groups, you don’t really think about your future. You just live in the moment. But she challenged me to think past today. To realize that I had an identity. It was her compassion and empathy that helped me to begin to see things differently.

Q: What drew you to speak at SevenDays event ?

Mindy Corporon Photo by Overflow Storytelling (2)
Mindy Corporon Overflow Storytelling

A: For me anywhere that my voice is invited and thought to be helpful or useful, I go. Part of it is an ongoing commitment to making meaningful amends for the harm I caused. Part of it is trying to do as much good as I can with my days on this earth. Also, working with Mindy, and because of the story of tragic loss of her son and father, whenever there’s violence like that, I feel a sense of personal responsibility. The power of forgiveness and the level of empathy and compassion that she is showing is incredibly powerful. My hope is that people will see her courage and maybe be able to deal with that in our own lives.

Q: What steps can America take to be able to move forward?

A: I’ve been thinking about what it means to make meaningful apologies, to get to the point where you can begin to make amends. And America, as a nation we don’t do this. In the South we still talk about the Civil War in terms of state’s rights (laughter). And not explicitly in the terms of it being about slavery. We fail to starkly own up to the mistakes of our past. Like we don’t say, OK we began with a violent revolution, genociding an entire continent, built our nation on the back of human beings that we treated as property and then systemically built a legacy of oppression. We don’t speak starkly in those terms.

So how can we ever get to the point where we get to the next part of the apology if we can’t even own up to the things we’ve done wrong and acknowledge how hurtful those things are?

Q: Has the election of President Donald Trump made your job of combating white nationalists and far-right ideology tougher?

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A young Shannon Foley Martinez wore a shirt adorned with the Celtic cross, an oft-used symbol of white nationalism. Foley Martinez was a member of the white nationalist movement for years before denouncing extremism. Courtesy Shannon Martinez

A: After Obama was elected there was a big spike. Then it waned a little bit. Then as Trump began his campaign, these groups rose. Even if he does not see himself as a white supremacist or a white nationalist or a part of the extreme far right, he utilizes a lot of language that is in lockstep with the language of the white nationalist movement and the far right. They hear that language and feel empowered and feel emboldened. The far right has definitely felt like they have a friend in the White House. Now whether Trump identifies himself as such is its own thing, but white nationalists see an ally in him.

Q: What is America not doing to combat the rise in white supremacist and far-right ideology?

A: After something like the New Zealand shooting happens, or the Pittsburgh murders we look for who can we blame? Is it social media? Is it mainstream media? Is it the leaders of the country? The answer is yes, it’s all of those.

But that doesn’t address the underlying question, the one I think we ought to be asking, which is why are so many people finding resonance with this hate-based ideology? If you look at the core drivers of being radicalized — a sense of belonging, a sense of empowerment, a sense of community — the question we should be asking is are we treating the symptoms? Make sure that we are treating the symptoms in order to get to the root of the sickness.

Q: How do we get to the point of being ready to take that step in the right direction?

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On April 11, Shannon Foley Martinez, a former white supremacist, will be interviewed by Mindy Corporon, whose son and father were both killed by a white nationalist in Overland Park five years ago.

A: By beginning simply with the intention to keep working at it. Even though it sounds idealistic, I think really that it simply takes the intention. The intention to build this robust culture and be willing to just work at it. I believe with all my heart that with one generation we can have a more compassionate and inclusive and just society, but it takes a commitment to be willing to be uncomfortable and to be willing to make mistakes. And when you realize that you’ve made a mistake, to say “I’m sorry” and “Let’s try something else and be willing to learn as we go.” To not just sidestep the places and spaces where we feel uncomfortable and don’t know what to do.

Q: What do you hope people take away from the conversation Thursday night?

A: I hope that they will believe that fundamental transformation is possible. I hope that they will take away that everyone is more than the worst thing that they’ve ever done. And I hope that they will take away the hope that together we can build a better tomorrow.

SevenDays events

The annual SevenDays — Make a Ripple Change the World continues through Monday, April 15. Events open to the public include:

“Is Your Neighbor a White Supremacist”: Mindy Corporon, whose father and son were killed outside the Jewish Community Center five years ago, interviews former white supremacists Christian Picciolini and Shannon Foley Martinez. 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Church of the Resurrection-Foundry, 13720 Roe Ave., Leawood. Free.

Faith Love & Walk. 6:30 p.m. Monday, National World War I Museum and Memorial. $18 participation fee.

For more information see givesevendays.org.

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Christian Picciolini, another former white supremacist, will also be interviewed by Corporon. Jose M. Osorio TNS

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Aaron Randle is the Star’s “Divided City” enterprise reporter, tasked with exploring the cultural intersections that shape — and divide — Kansas City and Kansas Citians.
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