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Published April 15 2010

Leaving hate behind

For 15 years, Tom “TJ” Leyden was a neo-Nazi white supremacist who advocated and used violence against different races and recruited others – including children – to join the movement.

But for the past 14 years, the Southern California native has been promoting the opposite message: diversity and acceptance.

He brought his presentation, “Turning Away From Hate,” to the Minnesota State University Moorhead campus Wednesday night, speaking before a crowd of more than 350 students, faculty and community members.

Leyden chronicled his experiences of joining and participating in the white supremacy movement and used jarring and vivid details when describing the violence he and other white supremacists inflicted on others often for no reason.

Several students who attended Leyden’s presentation said they appreciated his honest approach to the difficult topic.

“It’s nice to hear something that’s not usually talked about being brought up,” MSUM senior Jena Frenzel said. “It’s not an easy subject to talk about.”

“It was very intense,” said Lauren Taute, also an MSUM senior. “It’s interesting to hear how intense and how overpowering and controlling it is in some areas … how easily influenced the youth are and how easy it is to manipulate them.”

Leyden said it was a series of events – including the births of his children – that made him decide to leave the movement 14 years ago.

“I didn’t want to see my kids become me,” he said. “If I didn’t want my boys to grow up and be me, then what was wrong with my life? It made me inner-reflect.”

Leyden said he also educated himself by talking with people of different races and cultures, in the months before he left the movement.

He encouraged audience members to be active anti-racists and serve as mentors to younger generations in need of leadership.

“People can change,” he said. “And it’s never too late for someone to change their life for the better.”

The message audience members took away emphasized the heart of Leyden’s presentation, which was given as part of MSUM’s Diversity Week.

“Everyone’s equal in life,” North Dakota State University junior Austen Ellenson said. “We all deserve an equal chance at everything.”

“There’s one race, and that’s human,” Frenzel said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541