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Letting go of hate - how a former white nationalist is now working to promote acceptance

(NBC15)
Published: Aug. 4, 2019 at 1:32 PM CDT
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A former white nationalist is now spreading a message of acceptance and unity after a near-death experience changed his life.

Derek Barsaleau sat down with Laura Alwin with Project Unity in Fort Atkinson, and Masood Akhtar, an Muslim community leader born in India who founded the group We Are Many - United Against Hate, to discuss their plans to spread messages of unity and acceptance.

Barsaleau said he has undergone a "transformation" in his life. He was once a white nationalist, and now he is a self described activist against hate.

Barsaleau, Alwin, and Akhtar plan on working together, both groups aiming to organize speaking events for Barsaleau to share his story of change.

"I'm actually completely humbled and honored to be sitting here right now," Barsaleau said.

Barsaleau said he became a white nationalist after a move in middle school left him bullied and isolated. Barsaleau said that in his new surroundings, it was white nationalists who accepted him.

Barsaleau said that during the following years, he would go on to recruit for white nationalist groups. After Sept. 11, Barsaleau joined the army, and served overseas.

"It was a very very very hard time in my life when was in the military," he said. "It's been very recent break through for me to even kind of bring it up. I do still get a little shaky about it."

It was his service overseas that created a turning point in Barsaleau's life, a moment Barsaleau describes as a "seed" towards change being planted, and a move away from being a white nationalist.

"I would definitely say that seed was planted in a desert after being ambushed," Barsaleau said. "I was seconds away from losing my life before a battle buddy, who was black, pulled the trigger first and saved mine. The fact that he knew what my ideals were, and what I was preaching to other people and he still, in that moment - that's not what mattered. We were both Americans, we were both humans. That was the seed."

Barsaleau said after he was saved by an African American soldier, his hatred began fading, and the seed of understanding and acceptance continued to grow.

"I immediately started to settle it down, I wasn't preaching or recruiting anymore. And then I kind of got sick of it," he said. "There's so much hate and I was so tired."

Fatherhood was another tipping point in changing Barsaleau's life.

"Then I had my first kid and that's pretty much when I just had to really start letting things go, because I refused to let her have any of the hate that I was feeling," he said.

Barsaleau also credits his wife with continuing to help him grow.

"We just fell in love and she's been teaching me things day in and day out, telling me to keep my eyes open, keep my mind open," he said. "I've just surrounded myself with the right people, finally."

Now, Barsaleau is working with Alwin and Akhtar to tell others about his story.

"People can learn from some of these things to say we are all in this together," said Akhtar.

"It's all about human connection, you have to make that human connection," said Barsaleau, who says he plans on speaking to students and going into high schools to promote an anti-hate message.

"Hate has no place at all, this is a very unique country, and the beauty of this country is America promotes unity, not uniformity," said Akhtar.