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March 5, 2013

Berman speaker to tell story of leaving racism behind

By Eric Czarnik
C & G Staff Writer

WEST BLOOMFIELD — People of all backgrounds are invited March 6 to hear a former white supremacist talk about his journey toward abandoning racism and learning to appreciate diversity at the Berman Center for the Performing Arts in West Bloomfield.

Heidi Budaj, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said her organization is sponsoring the speaking engagement. She said attendees will hear the heartwarming story of Frank Meeink, a man who turned his life around from racism and addiction.

“It’s really incredible, given his background,” she said. “It’s really a very raw story. He’s from south Philadelphia. He’s not a trained speaker — he’s not polished — but he speaks with such passion and heart.”

Meeink, 37, told the Beacon that he was a racist skinhead for five or six years, but he since has been publicly speaking against racism for almost 17 years. He talks about his background and encourages people to have compassion and empathy across racial lines.

He said he grew up in an abusive home in a tough neighborhood in Philadelphia. He also used to fight with fellow students at a mostly black school.

“There was a lot of fighting, a lot of bullying,” he said. “That kind of was getting me to think about race more than I had ever thought about it before.”

Meeink said he went to Lancaster, Penn., one summer and joined a group of skinheads when he was 14. He defined the group as an English working-class movement that is not intrinsically racist — though he said he belonged to a community that was.

“I had tons of friends in the movement,” he said. “We had a very big crew of guys on the East Coast.”

Meeink later moved to Springfield, Ill., and continued to get into fights until an assault on a rival skinhead landed him in prison in the early 1990s.

Although Meeink said he didn’t abandon his racist identity behind bars, he began to enjoy hanging out with black prisoners while playing sports. He explained that he also shared details of his life with them, like receiving letters from relatives.

Upon getting out of prison about a year later, Meeink returned to Philadelphia and started looking for work — though having a swastika tattoo on his neck made that difficult, he said. His fortunes changed, however, when a Jewish owner of an antiques business decided to give him a chance.

Meeink said his perceptions about people further changed during that time.

“He’s this awesome mentor in my life,” Meeink said. “The whole time I’m working with him for eight months ... I’m thinking, ‘This guy is smart.’”

Meeink decided to cut his ties with his racist past and stopped hanging around his racist friends. He said he had completely abandoned the movement by the time the Oklahoma City bombing occurred in 1995.

“That was the day I said I wanted to help fight against this,” he said.

Meeink said his speaking engagements have helped sway young men who are teetering on the edge of becoming racist or those who are thinking about leaving the movement. His mission, he said, is to be that person in their world who can help bring change.

“Any human being can be a good human being,” he said.

Meeink will talk about abandoning racism at 7:30 p.m. March 6 at the Berman Center for the Performing Arts, 6600 W. Maple Road in West Bloomfield. Admission is $11. Find out more at www.theberman.org or by calling (248) 661-1900.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Eric Czarnik at eczarnik@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1058.