Shannon Foley Martinez does not shy away from talking about her former identity, even though it is repugnant in polite society.
In fact, in an effort to make amends for the hurt she caused others during her teenage years, she now devotes countless hours to sharing her story.
“I was a neo-Nazi skinhead,” began Foley Martinez, speaking by phone from her home in Georgia prior to coming to Pittsburgh to address educators and students at Classrooms Without Borders’ conference on “Antisemitism, Hate and Social Responsibility.” While in town, she also talked to students at J-JEP, J Line, Adat Shalom Synagogue’s religious school, and some public schools around Pittsburgh.
Foley Martinez recounted the roots of her racism, tracing it back to growing up in a family where she “always felt like the black sheep, where I never really felt like I belonged.”
While there was no overt abuse or substance addiction in her family, she said, “it was super-dysfunctional and super steeped in co-dependency. I grew up never really feeling essentially safe.”
Her feelings of being an outsider were compounded when her family moved from outside Philadelphia to just north of Toledo, Ohio when she was 11. She had a hard time fitting in with her new peers, who dressed differently than she did, spoke differently, and listened to different music.
“So, I did what so many teenagers do, trying to figure out who I was in the world and where I belonged: I started looking through the lens of counter-culture, which would eventually land me in the punk movement,” she said.
Things began to go really awry for Foley Martinez after she was raped at a party by two men just weeks before her 15th birthday. She did not report the rape, because she believed if she told her parents, they would “be more upset that I had lied about where I was going and that I had been drinking at this party than they would be upset that I had just been sexually assaulted.”
The “unprocessed trauma” from the rape festered inside her, she said.
“Over about the next six months, I was so filled with self-loathing, I felt like trash, like my body was trash, and this was expressed very largely through rage,” Foley Martinez recalled. “Not just teen angst. I mean I was filled with rage. I just wanted to fight all the time, and I just was so angry in a way that I didn’t understand.”
That’s when she connected with a group of skinheads who were on the periphery of the punk scene.
“I think the rage in me resonated with the rage that they displayed,” Foley Martinez said. “I started spending more and more time hanging out with these dudes, and began consuming white power music and reading white power literature. And I think for multiple reasons that there was a draw to this. I was in a place where I felt so worthless, but all I had to do was show up and participate in fighting and that was enough to be accepted.”
Her “big ineffable rage” and “self-loathing” projected out onto specific groups of people, she said, and over time, the world of white power became her “life echo chamber.”
“I only hung out with other white supremacists and other white nationalists and white power people,” Martinez said. “They would take me all over the country. There was lots of violence, violence projected outward, and that I also participated in. But there was also violence in my interpersonal relationships.”
After being kicked out the house by her family, she was eventually taken in by the mother of a man she was dating, a “white power skinhead” who was in the military.
That’s when her life turned around.
“Instead of seeing me as this hate-filled creature I had become, she chose instead to see me as a struggling young woman who simply needed a place to stay,” said Foley Martinez. “I didn’t have to do anything to earn my place there, she just accepted me as I was. She also provided stability, stability that I didn’t really have.”
She also gave Foley Martinez hope for the future, encouraging her to go to college and helping her to take the steps necessary to make that happen.
Being sheathed in stability led the white power ideology to fall away “pretty quickly, over the course of a matter of months,” said Foley Martinez. “But it would take me a very long time to really understand how I got there, why I got there, and to starkly be able to accept the hurt and the harm that my life choices and belief system had wrought on its victims and targets and to come to understand that I would have lifelong amend-making to do — to do as much as I could to mitigate the harm that I caused.”
Now, 25 years later, Foley Martinez, a mother of seven, works to develop community resource platforms aimed at inoculating individuals against violence-based lifestyles and ideologies. She has worked in at-risk communities teaching and developing resiliency skills, and has worked for school systems, nonprofits and community organizations.
Foley Martinez also has participated in programs with such organizations as the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism, the National Counterterrorism Center, Hedayah, and UNESCO’s Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence.
“I am trying desperately to build better dialogue and skills in terms of prevention, specifically for parents and educators,” she said. “And I help mentor people who are trying to leave the white nationalist, white power movement, and help them as they rebuild their lives, and doing what that woman did for me.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at