Michael Kent was a White Supremacist and neo-Nazi. Tiffany Whittier was his African American probation officer. But this January, Martin Luther King Jr.'s daughter, Dr. Bernice King, invited them to speak at the King Center for what would have been her father's 90th birthday. We interviewed them one year ago HERE. I got to catch up with them on what has happened since.
Doug Bender: So we are about a year out since we published our first interview with you, what has your life been like since we put out your story.
Michael Kent: It’s been great. We got invited to go to Atlanta, Georgia to speak at the King Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. His daughter, Dr. Bernice, invited us to be a guest speaker. What I didn’t know is it would have been his 90th birthday. It was totally huge.
We’ve impacted so many people’s lives. Changed the way of thinking of so many people. We did our story in Australia, China, Germany, so many places, Italy and Mexico, too. It has brought a lot of people together. When I was down in Atlanta, I actually cried.
Tiffany Whittier: Honestly, it’s been overwhelming to me. I’m just a regular person. Michael is just a regular person. Since our story went national, its amazing to me and to Michael what an impact we have on people. It’s crazy. I did for Michael what came naturally to me. I treat people with respect. I do that with all my clients. I didn’t go in to change him, that wasn’t my intention. It was to make sure he does well on probation. But working with him, I saw an incredible change happen in his life. It’s been amazing to share that story.
DB: Tiffany, you've talked about how love and respect just comes naturally to you. And Michael, I’ve heard you say that love is so much easier than hate. What do you mean by these kinds of statements?
Tiffany: I could have gone out to Michael’s house all those times with an attitude. But I’m one who wants to help people get to know me and not get intimidated. I tell my clients, “This is my job, but I’m here to help you, too.” It is much easier to go this route. You will find probation officers who want to be hard a—'s all the time. But that doesn’t get them very far. They are going to get resistance. But if you use kindness and authority only when it’s needed, you get a better outcome. It’s not always what you say, but how you say it when you talk with people.
Michael: I spent twenty years in hate. Now, I’m going to spend the next twenty, the rest of my life, trying to change the way people think and let them know hate ain’t it. It’s so easy to love. It takes much more energy to hate. Racism is a cancer and it’s spreading throughout this country until we can get together as one and cure it.
The reason people hate is because they don’t understand. Once you talk to someone and understand them, you are going to realize they ain’t no different than you. They walk in the same shoes as you. In order to change this, we are going to have to take more time to listen and less time talking.
What Tiffany did to me was ahead of her time. She could have gotten in trouble for it. But now that’s changing, too. They are even inviting us to go speak in front of the federal parole board.
DB: Tell me more about that. Your story hasn’t just inspired change in individuals, but you are even seeing changes in the way probation officers are trained to interact with their clients.
Tiffany: The other day my chief told me, “Tiffany, you are the face of our department.” I am being asked to speak. Our videos are being showed. But what I was doing with Michael ten years ago was ahead of the game. It wasn’t normal back then. I got a lot of flack from my supervisors. They said I was being too nice to people. But I just have to be nice to people. I can’t always find something wrong. I could throw everyone in jail. There were times I could have arrested Michael. But what’s that going to do? It wouldn’t help whatever the problem was.
Now there is a big push to really work with people, build rapport, and see what really makes them tick. We want to address thinking errors so people are aware why they are committing crimes and why their behavior is what it is. Then we can work to change it.
The numbers don’t lie, if you just throw people in jail, that’s not helping the problem. They get out and then what? There is a big push to help people when they get out. Help people at reentry and help them be successful.
We are going to speak in Minnesota. I had the chief federal probation officer in Minnesota reach out to me for us to share our story about leadership. It’s going to be interesting because this is my playground. We are going to go talk to the Feds. The chief there said, “You story and your leadership can really impact others.”
Michael: I didn’t look for any of this. I wanted to start a new life. But this has touched people from all walks of life. It’s impacted a lot of people. We are going to speak in front of the federal parole board. They want us to educate their officers on how to interact with different individuals. What Tiffany did with me ten years ago was unorthodox. She could have lost her job. But now they are actually teaching officers to do exactly what she did. That’s how much of an impact she has had. They want her to train their officers who work with high risk people.
DB: Let me shift to a more personal angle here. You are not just impacting others with your story from ten years ago, but you yourselves are changing. Even from when we met you last year, you are different.
Michael: You guys opened my eyes. I cried like a little baby. I know that I’m doing God’s work, now. I was too stubborn to believe that I was doing God’s work. I lost faith for many, many years, and now I know after doing this. It woke something inside of me.
I wanted to hate Tiffany so much because she wanted to change me. But little by little, I started accepting that change because she gave me the benefit of the doubt. She never gave up on me. She was always pushing me and making me strive for better. Because of her I have two beautiful children. I got married. I got an awesome job. I turned my whole life around. Nobody else was doing that for me.
We still live a normal life. I’m still a farmer. She’s still a parole officer. We are just passionate about what we do. We see the impact we can have on people. And I now believe that God has a plan for me.
Tiffany: The whole journey this past year has opened my eyes in terms of spirituality. It has grown. Everything that we have been doing goes back to God. Michael wasn’t really a believer before. With all this happening, it has been really cool to see how faith has come into his life and made a big impact on his life this past year.
I feel God has been speaking to me even more, guiding me, opening doors. It’s been a whirlwind meeting people and traveling to talk about acceptance and tolerance. Ministry doesn’t have to be working in a church. It can be at your job. I am God’s advocate in a sense. If I am helping others, It’s God’s work. When I came back from the I Am Second filming, I was just glowing.
I did a thing yesterday by bringing a guy envelopes and some stamps. I wanted to help him mail in his payments on time. He really appreciated it. He told me, “You have helped me more than anyone else.” It was a simple thing but he was very grateful. I love my job. I love what I do. And I feel I need to continue to ride this wave.