Free Speech & Peace

Fighting extremism with education

Adam Neufeld, vice president of innovation and strategy for the Anti-Defamation League, discusses the organization’s plans along with the reasons for rising extremism and why addressing cyberhate is one of ADL’s top priorities.

October 6, 2020

In 2017, after a white supremacist killed a peaceful protestor during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a group of diverse organizations — including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Charles Koch Institute (CKI) — partnered for an initiative called Communities Overcoming Extremism (COE): The After Charlottesville Project. The initiative entailed conversations with community leaders across the country, two national summits, and a report released in 2019, which summarized the initial learnings on everything from education efforts to potential collaborations between nonprofits and philanthropic groups.

Partners and participants didn’t agree on everything. That’s one of the distinguishing benefits of the collaboration. All involved came to the table willing to challenge each other as well as their own assumptions. We disagreed on speech rights, the role of federal policy in solving these problems, and to what degree shaming is an effective tool in deterring extremism. Our shared commitment, though, was and remains that violent extremism is unacceptable, and debate, research, and ultimately collaboration around solutions is critically important to preventing such atrocities.

The COE initiative was a starting point. The ADL continues its work — building on the initial findings and working to meet the needs identified among community leaders. Adam Neufeld, vice president of innovation and strategy for the ADL, discusses the organization’s plans along with the reasons for rising extremism and why addressing cyberhate is one of ADL’s top priorities.

Have our divisive politics created obstacles for dealing with extremism and violence?

Yes. There are definitely people who believe that you shouldn’t call out any extremist activity — that it’s an acceptable form of political expression. I think things that we would never have accepted only a decade ago are now harder to condemn without being accused of playing politics. But I also think the vast majority of Americans make a clear distinction between people expressing their political opinion versus resorting to violence.

What most excited you about the COE project?

It was an effort to say that lots of people can make a difference in discouraging extremism. We all have power to make extremism more or less likely in our communities. Tech companies can have a role in thinking about things like how to discourage people from using their platforms in problematic ways. Schools can steer youth towards more productive and constructive paths. Businesses can provide leadership in their communities.

How important were the COE partners in challenging each other’s assumptions?

One of the beautiful things about COE is that the supporters and the participants went across the board politically and ideologically. It’s the sign of a robust democracy for people to be debating ideas in a thoughtful, emotional, constructive way as opposed to blindly blaming the other side.

How do we address what ADL studies find is “a dramatic rise in extremism, intolerance, and political violence.”?

There is no silver bullet. We will need to do dozens of things to address this rise. One area we are increasingly focused on is schools. We’re building toolkits for schools to use when hate or extremist activities occur. If you think about it from the school’s perspective, they may never have dealt with this before. Or they haven’t dealt with it in a long time and they’re confused about how to respond. How do they make sure that it’s a teachable moment that helps the community heal as opposed to magnifying the divisions? That’s a lot to expect of a school. As good as the principal or the educators might be, they don’t have a set course on how to respond to someone scrawling the “N” word on a wall or giving a Hitler salute.

Schools are one of the most common places where these types of incidents happen because of the age of the kids, because of the community nature of it, and because in some cases extremists intentionally target them. White supremacists have targeted propaganda on college campuses in the last few years, and so we’re launching a toolkit that will help guide educators in how to respond to incidents.

What does the toolkit look like?

It will be a website with our overall principles on how to prepare responses and then it will go deeper. For example, we’ve identified ten of the most common types of incidents — things like using the “N” word or a swastika — that are happening in schools, and for each one of them, we will provide education content. It can empower educators not just to help the school heal, but to talk about the specifics and start that education process.

You also work with mayors and law enforcement leaders. What are some of the results?

We make sure that they recognize how dangerous and how scary hatefulness is to our communities. We do hate crime training for law enforcement. We advocate for things like specialty units, for them to reach out more to communities, to build trust. We talk about how mayors can in symbolic ways stand up against hate. And when we see dangerous things happening and threats, we let law enforcement know so that they can investigate. We have been able to avoid violent incidents as a result of that.

What’s your biggest concern right now—what’s the thing that keeps you up at night?

Partisan bias is becoming so incredibly strong. I don’t think anybody can look at the images of protesters and counter-protestors and militia movements and heavily armed folks face to face in the street and feel like that is a good thing. I think we are at a critical moment that’s either the abyss — the low water mark — that we will work our way out of, or it becomes a recurring feature of our society. I worry about a match being thrown into that tinderbox.

And there’s no quick cure for extremism, right?

The causes are complex. Eradicating or massively reducing extremism will take a long time. It’s hard to change people’s hateful beliefs, but you can change their willingness to act on those beliefs. In schools, when you have more influential students acting on behalf of an anti-bullying initiative, you get a lot better behavior by the student body than if you have a random set of kids. Because people look to those more connected kids as a way of signaling what is and what is not acceptable.

What makes you hopeful about countering extremism in America?

Starting with Charlottesville and now over the last couple of months, we have had very visual displays of the risks to American society. And I think that is the only way people will be motivated to address it. People see these images and recognize that our current path is not acceptable.

Learn more about ADL’s work to address extremism here. And learn more about the Charles Koch Institute’s support of their efforts alongside other organizations driving violence prevention and social healing here.