Sammy Rangel, co-founder and former executive director of Life After Hate, testified on March 24 before a House subcommittee on Homeland Security. You can read Sammy’s full statement to Congress here.
Chairwoman Roybal-Allard, Ranking Member Fleischmann, and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss how the Department of Homeland Security is supporting our work disrupting the threat of white supremacist violent extremism.
My name is Sammy Rangel, and I am a cofounder and the executive director of Life After Hate, the first nonprofit in the U.S. dedicated to helping men and women leave the violent far-right. Our vision is a world that allows people to change and contribute to a society without violence.
Life After Hate’s story begins in 2011 when a group of formers—that’s the term we use to describe former violent extremists—came together knowing two things: 1. We had each gone through the complicated work of exiting violent extremism without peer or professional support, and 2. We were committed to making sure that any one wanting to exit would never have to do it alone.
Four years later, we launched ExitUSA, the intervention program of Life After Hate. Last year, ExitUSA managed more than 220 new cases, a sharp increase over the previous two years. We expect this trend to continue during the current grant program and beyond.
Life After Hate is built on the belief that anyone taking steps toward accountability for their journey creates the possibility for redemption.
I want to share the story of one of our colleagues, Thomas Engelmann, an example of the potential strength of this program as well as the obstacles formers face.
Thomas overcame great odds to become the person he was. He spent much of his life engaged in violent white supremacy—and it nearly cost him his life at the hands of his own group when he left. Sadly, Thomas passed away unexpectedly in August 2020. He lived the ideals of compassion and he continues to inspire us.
Thomas once said: “I really want to help people. The fact that I survived getting shot in the face is my motivation. I am doing my best to dedicate the rest of my life to becoming the person I should have been all along.”
How the world viewed Thomas after he changed his life was not the same as how Thomas viewed himself. That’s important because when formers attempt to make amends and reintegrate into society they face many obstacles.
In addition to violence, death and incarceration, formers face many emotional obstacles to exiting, including shame, guilt and a loss of identity.
These are the problems our organization was founded to solve, easing the sense of loneliness and mending the disconnection from society.
What we have learned is that individuals are more likely to disengage and begin the process of deradicalization if there is a community waiting for them with support to help them through the process.
We have identified three key areas of focus to achieve our mission and vision: ExitUSA intervention and aftercare services; training and capacity building; and community engagement.
These three areas are supported, in part, by the Department of Homeland Security’s two-year grant.
Our first focus is to expand ExitUSA by hiring additional staff as well as enhancing existing roles.
Second, we recognize that alone we cannot assist every person who wants to exit, every family concerned about a loved one, or every professional struggling to work with formers.
In response, we developed an initiative within ExitUSA to train and support local capacity and develop cultural competency for government and civic organizations.
This grant will allow us to scale that training.
Finally, community engagement is a critical component of exit. Communities that are informed and engaged are more likely to support formers and, in turn, to promote disengagement and exit as a viable option.
This grant will give us the resources we need to optimize existing, and introduce new, outreach strategies to raise awareness and drive more at-risk individuals to ExitUSA.
Many of these men and women will at times experience a flicker of disillusionment when their expectations about the ideology clash with reality.
Some white supremacists cycle out without confronting their involvement. Without guidance, where does that leave them and where do they go from there? If we’re not in the position to offer them the support they need to recover, we’ve missed a critical opportunity.
Through the support of the Department of Homeland Security we are better positioned to scale our mission and contribute to the whole-of-society approach to make our country healthy and safer.
Thomas escaped white supremacy barely clinging to life. He could have stayed away but he came back to help others find a way out. That is the ultimate expression of our ideals, and that is the work we continue today.