Susan Bro’s world changed forever on August 12, 2017, when her 32-year-old daughter, Heather Heyer, was killed by a white supremacist who rammed a car into a crowd of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Bro, a former teacher, has used the time since her daughter’s death to turn grief into action by promoting racial reconciliation and social justice.
Through the Heather Heyer Foundation, she works to raise money for scholarships and motivate young people to become active participants in the democratic process.
She also plans to use the foundation to launch Heyer Voices—a program charged with providing young people the tools they need to engage in activism.
Bro recently joined a group of about 100 community leaders, clergy, educators and students on a six-day historical pilgrimage from Charlottesville to Montgomery, Alabama. In a solemn ceremony at the beginning of their journey, they gathered soil from the site of the 1898 lynching of John Henry James in Virginia. When they arrived in Montgomery, they delivered the soil to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum, where it will be displayed.
We caught up with Bro on the last two days of the pilgrimage to talk about activism and her journey from Charlottesville to Montgomery.
Why was it important to participate in the pilgrimage from Charlottesville to Montgomery, and what did you learn from it?
I had a couple of goals. One, there were some pretty serious misconceptions in the community about what I was doing with Heyer Voices and how I was trying to represent Heather. I wanted to fix those. I wanted to get to know people. I wanted to be able to have my voice heard and get the story straight. But the main reason I went was to learn for myself some of the civil rights history. … I needed to know how did the past shape the present. In my mind, you can’t fix an illness until you know the cause of an illness, so let’s go all the way back to the beginning—see if we can figure out how this thread ties together. ... That’s what we’ve been able to do.
What inspired you during the journey from Charlottesville to Montgomery?
You could feel the presence of the ancestors at the lynching site of John Henry James in Albemarle County. As we were talking, a breeze came through the trees. I mean, the hair stood up on our arms. It was a very powerful, emotional ceremony. Then we went back to the community center, [the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center], and had an event with 258 community members about lynching and the history of lynching in America, and particularly the great numbers of lynchings and the importance of what we were doing with the soil and trying to redefine public space to more accurately reflect history, to get at the truth of what happened.
Tell us about Heyer Voices. What is the mission?
[Young people we’ve been working with] indicated that they would like a youth empowerment program where youth come up with a campaign that they’re passionate about and all the adults do is facilitate it and help them go for that campaign. They don’t put their own agendas into it. They wanted to call it Heyer Voices. ... The kids have to develop campaigns that are positive and nonviolent and try to actually establish some meaningful goal. They’re going to have to deal with practical matters like fundraising, applying for grants and how to set up event planning.
Why is this important to you?
To me, I’m a very practical person as an educator. If you don’t give people the practical tools to make their ideas flesh out, it never happens. So I’m empowering and educating them on what it’s like to really be an activist and be involved and how to make that work. ... My hope is in educating the next generation. I’m an educator at heart. That’s my background. That’s my training. That’s my experience. So that’s how I approach this. A scholarship will assist three kids a year, five kids a year, whatever, but with Heyer Voices, we can train large numbers.
You had a tender moment while at the Civil Rights Memorial, where Heather’s picture is displayed. What were you feeling in that space?
I was concerned about the narrative. ... It has often been viewed in the community that I’m pushing Heather forward as if she were the white savior leading the charge. ... It’s been part of my challenge to try to get the press to set the story straight. She was not a leader. She was not a follower, but she was acting in conjunction with her friends, just simply to walk around and say, “We’re here. We care. We are not going to have the Nazis and bring hate to our town.”
Now I say, “Nazis bring hate to our town,” but the truth is hate was already there. There was already strong public sentiment against removing the statues and against Black Lives Matter and against blacks in general. So the hate was already in Charlottesville; it just became a national focal point because one of the local haters decided to call for a rally.
I was concerned that having her picture on that wall was going to look like I was trying to push her forward. So I made a point to stand there and talk to the groups and say this is part of the process. Civil rights doesn’t begin with Heather. It doesn’t end with Heather. What [her death] has done is woken up the white community to look and pay attention, because unfortunately, until something happens to somebody that looks like us, we often don’t pay attention. I’ve been trying to use that attention to redirect back to the cause.
How much do you think activism in Charlottesville has progressed over the past year?
What we have probably accomplished the most positively is to work more at getting at the truth of the matter, getting down to the nitty-gritty so that we can start to solve the problems. We still have gentrification going on, which is pushing out our elderly residents.
People are working on initiatives. Things take time, unfortunately. You want to see quick results, but quick results won’t last. I can say we’re moving in a positive direction, but what that has actually meant is digging deeper into the past in order to move forward. We’re not willing to just pat each other on the back and say, “Well, everything’s fine now” and move on.
Not everything that’s happened in the last year has been wonderful. It’s disheartening work. It’s upsetting work. It’s saddening and angering work sometimes, but it is necessary to the healing process.
What keeps you energized for this work and to want to see it all the way through?
I feel I have a limited amount of time to do this work. I’m 61 going on 62, not in the best of health. I don’t have time to waste. I have a foundation to establish that can continue when I’m gone and not able to manage it. I have a message to get out there as long as I can get people to listen. ... I’m driven to not waste my time, but to make use of the time that’s been given to me. If it was given to me this late in life, then I have to be very careful with that time and not waste it.
Dillard is a staff writer for Teaching Tolerance.