In Berkeley this month, a former neo-Nazi will stand up to warn people that that the bigots in the headlines of today are essentially the skinheads of yesterday — with the same message and the same hope for a violent future.
“We need to stop calling it pretty names like the ‘alt-right,’” says Christian Picciolini.
That’s the slant Picciolini will bring to Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas, where the co-founder of Life After Hate will speak about his journey from an unrepentant white supremacist to an author and educator who speaks out on the perils of right-wing extremism.
“Hearing from someone who could change is very powerful,” says Amy Tobin, CEO of the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay.
Picciolini is one of many speakers who will be at the two-day event organized by the online news site Berkeleyside. It’s the fifth year for Uncharted, but it’s the first time it will include programming and input from the JCC East Bay.
“We’ve been talking about how we might work together,” Tobin says.
Part of the new collaboration will take the form of “living room conversations,” in which people will be able to discuss the complex and/or knotty ideas they’ve just heard in an Uncharted presentation.
Sponsored and run by the JCC East Bay, these conversations will follow two talks, that by Picciolini on Oct. 28 and another a day later by Mychal Denzel Smith, known for his writings on what it means to be a young black man in the United States today. Both talks were chosen by the JCC as especially important to its community. Picciolini’s topic, neo-Nazism, is something that deeply concerns many in the Jewish world, but Denzel Smith’s thoughts on race are also very relevant, Tobin says.
“We also have a large community of Jews of color,” she says.
The idea of “living room conversations” is based on methodology developed by Joan Blades, co-founder of MomsRising.org and MoveOn.org, that promotes civility and empathy as a way to talk across differences and find common ground.
“It’s a very lightly facilitated conversation,” Tobin notes.
At Uncharted, it will be a way for people, including those who might be too intimidated to ask a question in a crowded hall, to have a chance to explore the ideas they’ve just heard.
The Jewish community is certainly not monolithic.
“This is really meant to bring it off the stage and down to the ground,” says festival co-curator Helena Brantley.
The conversations will be open to the first 50 attendees that sign up, and registration will open around two weeks before the event. Tobin is hoping that the “living room” format will successfully allow people of different viewpoints to make connections.
“The Jewish community is certainly not monolithic,” she says.
Picciolini, 43, is known as a speaker who is frank about his violent and bigoted past. He is a founder of not only Life After Hate, a nonprofit that educates about far-right extremism, but also of Exit Solutions, which helps people in that movement find a way out. His autobiography, “Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead,” goes into depth about his transition into and out of racism and anti-Semitism.
“I planted a lot of seeds of hate 30 years ago,” he says.
He said that even though the white supremacists of today may wear suits and keep their hair, the new look is merely a conscious strategy to appeal to the mainstream. It’s something that has been in the works for years.
“We knew we didn’t sound and look like the people we wanted to attract,” he says.
Picciolini says the main question he expects to get in Berkeley, as everywhere else, is what can people do — and he has an answer. He said while hate speech and anti-Semitism should be condemned for what they are, no matter how “respectable” the speaker, people should remember that hate comes from a deep, broken place and that empathy is the only way to connect to a person that is so lost.
“That’s what I try to do — I try to be that bridge,” he says.
That kind of thought-provoking proposition is the kind of thing Uncharted tries to bring to the up to 400 festival-goers that typically attend.
“The whole idea is for two days to come and kind of get your mind blown,” Brantley says.
Besides the talks, which cover wide-ranging topics from women in Hollywood to the opioid crisis to the early days of Silicon Valley, there is an opening night party on Oct. 27, with food, music and cocktails, as well as a closing happy hour the next night.
Also on the program is the JCC’s Tobin in conversation with Dr. Jessica Zitter, a palliative care physician at Oakland’s Highland Hospital, a contributor to the New York Times “Well” and opinion sections and the author of “Extreme Measures — Finding a Better Path to the End of Life.” Tobin said breaking the taboo on talking about death and dying is something the JCC Is committed to aiding.
“End-of-life-issues are actually relevant for everybody,” she says.
With topics like that on the table in Berkeley, festival-goers can expect to hear some stark truths. But the weekend isn’t intended to be full of gloom; rather, it’s a basket of ideas that organizers and speakers expect will spark unexpected revelations.
And Picciolini, particularly, sees hope.
“I changed, and so did hundreds of people,” he says.