By Patrick Riccards, CEO and Executive Director of Life After Hate
Compassion with accountability.
It isn’t every non-profit organization that can put such a statement forward as its mantra. For Life After Hate, though, it is a statement that reflects our commitment, our passion, and our work.
Those who have known Life After Hate since 2011 may have noticed that we have evolved tremendously as an organization over the past two years. Today, our work is built on priorities like transparency, professional standards, codes of ethics, data-driven practices, and outcomes. We have evolved from being the first nonprofit organization in the United States dedicated to facilitating exit from violent far right extremism to now being the national leader in tertiary intervention for violent extremism. We continually recognize our responsibility to society, our clients, the organization, and the greater Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) field.
In writing this new chapter of Life After Hate, I must take responsibility for our history. Doing so requires that our organization must be on a constant path of self examination, acknowledgement of past mistakes and missteps, and commitment to continuous improvement. This commitment is evident in the systematic audit of all facets of the organization and services that allowed Life After Hate to make necessary changes to programs and staffing and to develop a strategic plan committed to continual growth and improvement. We further strengthen our commitment to transparency by sharing the lessons learned and our intentions for the future of Life After Hate.
Commitment to mission
Violent far right extremism (VFRE) includes violence-justifying white supremacist, antisemitic, misogynist, anti-LGBTQ+, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-government beliefs. Life After Hate’s primary mission is to help individuals disengage, deradicalize, and reintegrate into society after involvement in VFRE. We provide services at the individual, family, and local community levels in conjunction with public education initiatives to weaken the growth and impact of violent extremist groups by showing individuals pathways away from hate and ideologically-driven violence. Life After Hate is clear that our priority is the safety and wellbeing of our clients and society at large. This means that the decisions and recommendations made to clients should align with our commitment to the safety of society, the client’s wellbeing, and exit from violent far right extremism.
The tertiary intervention services that Life After Hate is pioneering is but one way that our community can prevent future acts of violent extremism, but it is an essential part of a comprehensive approach to preventing and countering violent extremism. That care requires that the client, and not the organization itself, be the focus. Those committed to the exit process should not be exploited as PR tools to help boost an organization’s public position, and no Former should ever be forced to tell his or her story. The client, their successful exit from violent extremism, and the safety of society must always be our priority. Life After Hate will continue to release our policies and guidance for organizations working with Exiting Individuals and Formers that will demonstrate a commitment to focusing on the client, as we have over the past few months.
It also means a commitment to both privacy and respect. In prioritizing those seeking to exit violent extremism, we must respect the privacy of all of those who seek our services. Clients’ names, identifying information, experiences, and needs must be protected. Identifying and private details should not and cannot be released without the client’s signed consent. Exceptions to confidentiality, such as in cases of medical or psychiatric emergency, mandated reporting conditions, and duty to warn or protect must be clearly communicated to clients at the outset of services. In the last two years, Life After Hate has invested significant time and expense in ongoing training and oversight to ensure client privacy and confidentiality is protected, that information is stored in HIPAA-compliant databases, and access is limited to the direct services team. Despite being CEO, I don’t even have access to that information. And that is the way it should be. If we are going to respect those seeking to leave lives of violent extremism, we need to respect their story, their experiences, and their privacy.
Commitment to multidisciplinary services
When Life After Hate was first established, we were simply a group of former violent extremists looking to offer our own experiences to others. At the time, such support was necessary. However, the founders and original volunteers with Life After Hate came to realize that the people they were mentoring often had complex needs that required the skilled intervention and support of a variety of professionals.Today, we realize that addressing violent extremism in the United States requires far, far more than simply meaning well and trying hard. It demands client services developed and led by licensed professionals, in conjunction with the peer support offered by former extremists.
Last fall, Life After Hate began this shift by sharing our data on the mental health realities of those looking to exit violent far-right extremism. As part of this analysis, we also provided recommendations for the space, specific steps that Life After Hate has committed to, but that have been long absent from the disengagement and deradicalization space. These action items included:
- Licensed mental health professionals and social workers must be part of the Exit process and must be trained both in how to identify and address risks such as suicidal ideation, self harm, and violence ideation across a variety of forms of violence.
- Exit programs must work closely with trained mental health professionals who can provide the specific care and interventions required to address any relevant mental health needs.
- Programs working with Exiting individuals must follow established ethical standards, have clearly defined professional roles, and adhere to all state and federal laws, including confidentiality and mandated reporting. These professional standards exist to simultaneously protect the client and society which is essential with this population.
- The community must work together to identify and expand mental health services available to those who seek to exit VFRE.
- Communities should be made aware of the effort exit from violent extremism takes, with programs being honest about the time required and the complex issues that must be addressed for successful disengagement, deradicalization, and reintegration into society.
- Exiting individuals should be made aware that, though the process of exiting may be difficult, it is worth it.
Each of these recommendations was intentional, and each of these are now present in the DNA of the new Life After Hate.
Commitment to professional standards and ethical conduct
We recognize that the nascent field of tertiary intervention for violent extremism is evolving rapidly and has not yet established professional standards or a code of ethics. We realize that those working in this space, or those who are serious about improving our civil society, must follow those professional standards in established practices, such as The National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the American Psychological Association (APA), and the American Medical Association (AMA). However, these professional standards are difficult to apply and enforce with a Former with no education, training, or supervised practice experience.
The role of former violent extremists, or Formers, has been central to Life After Hate and its more than a decade of work. At Life After Hate, Formers play an essential role as peer mentors, as no one else brings the experiences they do in understanding both living a life of violent hate and the struggles and benefits that come from ultimately leaving it. LAH’s peer mentors are some of the strongest individuals one will find, each day taking accountability for their past actions and each day making amends through their current work. We realize that not every former extremist is cut out to be a peer mentor, that clear expectations for the role of a peer mentor need to be defined, that mentoring should be embedded in a multidisciplinary team, and that supervision and oversight are key. That is why this month we released our practice framework for how former violent extremists can evolve into successful peer mentors.
This framework is part of our commitment to adhering to professional standards that protect vulnerable populations, like our clients, society, and the Formers working in tertiary intervention. These standards also further our commitment to compassion with accountability. Today, we hold all Life After Hate staff, including Formers, accountable both for past actions and current work. If we expect our clients to take accountability for their actions, then we must do the same for ourselves. And in doing so, it means recognizing that this space, and the very organization I have been entrusted to lead, has not always taken that accountability seriously, if at all.
Commitment to data-informed decision-making
In a space as relatively new as this one, it can be easy to declare victory because a strategic plan was followed with fidelity, whether it was ultimately successful or not. Those operating in this space should employ clear goals and clear metrics to measure whether the goals have been achieved or not. A continuous feedback loop, allowing for the adjustment of goals to match what is being experienced in the field, only further strengthens the lessons learned.
It is not sufficient to just do what we think is best and rely on anecdotal evidence of success. Life After Hate has now embraced a commitment to data-driven program improvement. Through clear metrics and robust data, we are committed to determining what is effective, why it is effective, and how it can be replicated. We should be able to prove what we do works, identify areas for growth, and acknowledge limitations.
Commitment to organizational transparency and accountability
Identifying promising- and best-practices in addressing domestic terrorism and violent extremism is still underway. There is no handbook (yet) on how to best do this work. To ensure constant improvement, we have to be honest regarding what tactics and strategies are working and what are not. We have to be committed to transparency about what we’re doing, what is working, and what is not. Life After Hate is committed to advancing the field through the same transparency and accountability we ask of our clients, but applied to our organization.
It is very easy for nonprofits to say they are accomplishing all sorts of things, particularly as they relate to the deliverables in a grant or a promise to a funder. This process has helped Life After Hate realize that it must do everything it says it will do, demonstrate that it is actually doing it, and adopt a commitment to transparency so all can see what we are doing and why. Without a commitment to these three steps, a commitment LAH now embodies, there is little chance of understanding the promising practices coming out of this important work.
Life After Hate has been focused on how best to guide our work and its impact in the coming years. Later this year, we will share our strategic plan with our supporters, our advocates, and the community at large. As part of this process, our entire staff spent months dissecting our legacy, adopting new best practices for our work and the field, ensuring appropriate professional standards are upheld, and confronting our past shortcomings. This process has led to the identification of a number of non-negotiables that will not only lead Life After Hate efforts moving forward, but that we will continually advocate for in the field.
Twelve years ago, Life After Hate was founded by a number of former violent right-wing extremists who were dedicated to helping others disengage from violent far-right hate groups. Though they were not perfect in their execution, their passion and commitment were never in question. Over the years, Life After Hate has survived because of the importance of its mission and the dedication of its staff, particularly those Formers who have served as peer mentors.
Since then, our core values drive our work and the progress we make in improving society. We focus on compassion, empathy, integrity, redemption, and accountability. These values are embodied in our organizational culture, clients, staff, board, and community at large. Working with violent extremists is not easy work. It is complicated, challenging, high-stakes, and messy. But it is also necessary.
Today, we are the nation’s leader in the violence intervention community. In this position of leadership, we hold a responsibility to embody the highest standards when it comes to professionalism, transparency, ethics, and commitment to the client. While these may not have been responsibilities the organization prioritized in the past, they are now central to who Life After Hate is, what it does, and how it does it.
We can only improve as a society if we engage in honest self-reflection, take responsibility for our past, be accountable for the consequences, and continually work toward improvement and positive change. Life After Hate seeks such accountability, honesty, and transparency from its clients, and we demand it of ourselves. We believe in second chances, taking the opportunity to grow and evolve from past versions of ourselves into people and organizations that make society a safer and more inclusive space for all.
Hate and hate-driven violence still permeates our nation and the actions of far too many in it. As we prepare to write the next chapter of Life After Hate, we do so by committing to demonstrate that there is indeed a life after hate for those willing to take accountability. And we do so by finally embodying the same expectations we place on the community we are serving, by modeling compassion with accountability in all we do.