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Former skinhead to discuss his move from hate to hope

TJ Leyden

After 15 years as a neo-Nazi white supremacist activist and recruiter, Tom "TJ" Leyden experienced a profound change of heart, turned away from hate, and began teaching tolerance.

Leyden, now a consultant to the human rights organization, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, will come to Lehigh’s campus to tell his life story and explain his transformation in a presentation entitled “Turning Away from Hate.” His lecture, which is free and open to the public, will take place on Thursday, Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. in Zoellner Arts Center’s Baker Hall.
Leyden’s Sept. 17 lecture at Lehigh is co-sponsored by the Office of Residence Life, Council for Equity and Community, Community Service Office, Women’s Center, Multicultural Office, LGBTQIA Office, Hillel Center, and Student Activities Office as well as by three student organizations—the Residence Hall Association, the Indian Student Association, and the Global Union.

Leyden was invited to speak at Lehigh by Quiana Daniel from Lehigh’s Office of Residence Life. She learned about Leyden while attending the National Conference of Race and Ethnicity (NCORE) in San Diego, Calif., in late May. The conference is one of the leading and most comprehensive national forums on issues of race and ethnicity in American higher education.

“Our office is committed to creating awareness among our Lehigh student, faculty and staff population,” says Daniel, a residence life coordinator for the McClintic-Marshall (M&M) House and Trembley Park. “It is our hope that this program will create a venue for our students that is safe and inclusive, where they can participate in an open and meaningful dialogue with one another.

“This program is meant to create opportunities where faculty, staff and students can evaluate their individual beliefs and opinion regarding inclusion and diversity. In addition, it is our hope that this program will encourage students, faculty and staff to step outside of their comfort zone, break down barriers, and experience something that is unique and engaging on Lehigh’s campus.”

TJ's incredible transformation

Leyden grew up in a closely-knit Irish-Catholic family in Fontana, Calif. Life began to unravel for him when his parents got divorced, and he began listening to punk rock and venting his rage by slam-dancing and fighting at weekend concerts. His violent behavior attracted the attention of local skinheads, and soon he started his own skinhead group in nearby Redlands, Calif., at the age of only 15.

At 21, Leyden joined the Marines and his role as a leading recruiter, organizer and propagandist for the white supremacist movement increased. In all, he spent more than 15 years as a leader in the neo-Nazi movement, even marrying a woman deeply committed to the movement and raising two young sons in a hate-filled environment.

Today, he has turned away from the hatred that defined his life for so long. He is the one of the few known former skinheads who has left the movement and retained his own name. Leyden, whose skin is emblazoned with 29 neo-Nazi tattoos, has worked for more than five years for the Simon Wiesenthal Center teaching on the culture of hate and the importance in fighting back against it.

He was invited by President Clinton to be a featured speaker at the White House Conference on Hate, and he has trained at the Pentagon, the FBI, military bases, and for numerous law enforcement agencies. He has spoken to more than 650,000 students. He has also testified against individuals on trial for hate crimes. Although he receives regular death threats and must take extraordinary measures to protect himself from his former friends, Leyden is committed to being a fierce advocate for the importance of appreciating the differences in all people.

Keeping the conversation going

In the hours and days after Leyden’s speech, the Lehigh community will continue the all-important conversations on diversity and inclusion. All 12 of Lehigh’s residence halls will have their Gryphons bringing residents to the Leyden presentation and then will lead discussion groups back at the residence halls immediately after the lecture.

“After the presentation, all our residents will come together to debrief their reactions, concerns, thoughts, and opinions in regards to TJ Leyden’s story,” says Daniel. “We will be providing each of our Gryphons with a set of debriefing questions to help assist in starting the conversation, but we hope that our residents will lead the conversation.”

The Advocacy and Equity Offices will host a follow-up brown bag discussion to Leyden’s lecture in the Multicultural Room on Friday, September 18 from noon to 1 p.m. All are welcome to attend.

Then, on Sept. 24 at noon in the Multicultural Room, Seth Goren, director of Lehigh’s Hillel Society, and Lloyd Steffen, professor of religion studies and university chaplain, will host a brown-bag discussion tied to Leyden’s lecture examining such larger issues as repentance and when should a person, like Leyden, be forgiven for his deeds.

Story by Bill Doherty

Posted on Tuesday, September 15, 2009

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