Activists begin with a spark that comes from deep inside our hearts. The desire for kindness, compassion, justice and change is what sets it all into motion. Sometimes it shows up in our children, standing up for the oppressed or less fortunate. And sometimes it happens for adults, in moments that turn our heads in unexpected directions. This post, the second in the RDM “Raising a Baby Activist” series, is about both. A child who sought to end injustice, and a mother who continues her plight to make the message louder than her loss.
I recently sat down with Susan Bro to talk about her daughter, Heather, the foundation started in her name, and how we can raise our children to be change makers from an early age.
Heather Heyer was murdered 6 months ago today, on August 12, 2017, which also happens to be my daughter’s second birthday. While my little family was relaxing in Palm Springs, celebrating our precious daughter and her bright future, a fellow mom, Susan Bro, was faced with the unimaginable loss of her 32-year-old daughter. The entire course of the rest of Susan’s life was altered with one phone call from Heather’s friend. Heather was at the hospital, and they were looking for her next of kin.
The Facts About Heather Heyer’s Death
The debate of whether to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, sparked a protest called “Unite the Right” by a large group of white supremacists. They gathered on that fateful August day from around the nation, at the park where the statue stood in Charlottesville, Virginia. Heather was with a group of peaceful counter-demonstrators who supported the removal of the statue due to its oppressive and inherently racist symbolism.
They were on a barricaded section of a road that intersects a pedestrian mall. There was a barricade at both ends, so there should not have been cars there at all. However, the top end of the street only had one sawhorse for a barricade. Three other vehicles had already driven past that sawhorse and were parked at the other barricaded end as the crowd flowed around them. Suddenly, James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car through the crowd, striking and killing Heather.
On that 45-minute drive to find her daughter, Susan spent her time frantically calling hospitals to try and figure out where her daughter was. Every call she made to hospitals resulted in being informed that they didn’t have a patient by that name. When she finally located her at University of Virginia Hospital, she had to make the heartbreaking call to her ex-husband, Heather’s father. Their daughter was gone.
She was killed by a blunt force injury to the abdomen. The last time Susan saw Heather was August 3, when they had dinner together. She could not have imagined that would be the last time she would spend with her.
After an impromptu memorial for Heather, vandals urinated on the objects left behind, and left a note saying, “it’s okay to be white again.” Her burial site must remain a secret, and extended family members must keep their distance for their own safety. For the safety and security of her family, Susan Bro said very little about her feelings towards Donald Trump – though she did express them previously, so she referred me to the interviews which sum up her stance. This interview is one that I remember clearly.
Watching Donald Trump go off script with such inexcusable ambivalence about this tragedy is burned into my memory. “We condemn this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence…on many sides…on many sides”, he said. “You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that.”
Heather’s mom told me about what Heather was like as a child. She describes her daughter as an artistic, athletic, strong-willed. Her mom raised her to be an outspoken and independent little girl & teenager, “Though she wasn’t always easy to raise!”, she said.
She wasn’t much into playing with dolls, but that wasn’t an indication of her lack of a tender heart. She had a kindness and generosity of spirit that made her mom proud.
Susan didn’t know the extent to which her daughter was involved in activism until after her death, but it certainly did not surprise her. As a child, Heather and her brother, Nick, were staunch supporters of biracial siblings, defending them against racism by bullies on the school bus. There were even times that Heather received detention for standing up to a teacher at school, in support of another student. As she got older, her multicultural and LGBTQ friends also received Heather’s innate love and support.
Susan was pleased that Heather was so caring of others. As a teacher, kindness was a fundamental belief that she held dear and worked hard to instill in her children. She admonished any sign of a lack of it & fostered all signs of it.
“The Foundation gives me a reason to get up and feel excited about the things that we are doing.”
On her way to retirement with her husband, Kim, all of Susan Bro’s plans – who she was completely, frankly – changed on the day that Heather was killed. In her grief, she became the voice to carry her daughter’s message far and wide. It certainly reached me at the core of my being. With the money collected in a fund to help the family because of Heather’s death, Susan also began Heather Heyer Foundation. She is a cofounder, and the face of the foundation. The quiet retirement that she and her husband were gearing up for is now on hold indefinitely.
Though donations have tapered off, the Foundation continues and Susan, along with co-founder Alfred A. Wilson – Heather’s employer and friend – work tirelessly to maintain scholarships and develop new youth-empowerment projects. A teacher again, Susan speaks all over the world, to schools, scout troops, and anywhere else she’s invited. Most recently, they teamed up with AIDS Healthcare Foundation for their Stand Against Hate Project and rode in the Rose Bowl Parade.
The Foundation’s newest program called “Heyer Voices”, in development now, gives voice to its youth who develop awareness campaigns and service projects, while the grownups serve as guidance and support. “So often, youth have told us that their voices are drowned out because they have adults talking at them. This program will shift the voice to youth, so their ideas can be heard and put into action.”
Susan & I spoke a lot about being mothers and how challenging it can be. We talked about how to instill a sense of activism from a young age.
- The key, she said, is to instill empathy. “A sense of security and love begins at home. We must provide our children with the feelings and experiences at home so that they will carry that out into the world.”
- Teach children not to succumb to picking on others. “Find that kid who’s left out. Try to hang out with people who lack that sense of belonging and love and include them.”
- “Give them self-worth. Hate groups look for kids with low self-esteem. They are targeting them at a higher rate than ever.”
- “Teach empathy by buying or making gifts for people, making cookies and delivering them to your neighbors, or get involved with service projects like volunteering at your local animal shelter.”
- “Watch for the teachable moments on television and talk about them.”
Heather and her mom talked about the politics of the world a lot. They did not always agree, but they did share the same fundamental beliefs. “Heather was really good at making me look at both sides of an issue, and we usually came out on the same side.”
One important lesson that Susan learned from her child was that it is common to respond to things viscerally, rather than to analyze the facts. The visceral reaction, that often comes from a viral post on social media, is less likely to be true. It’s important to consult several sources and fact check rather than to immediately jump on the bandwagon of upheaval.
The social justice work that Heather gave her life for was not extinguished by her death. It continues, louder than ever. A regular young woman who loved her job and to party with her friends has become an icon for that justice.
On this day, and moving forward, I ask that we all remember Heather’s message, and carry it with us. Be courageous, be informed, speak from your heart. Do not give up making peaceful and positive change in the world. Most importantly, as you ask yourself if you should stand against hate, remember what Heather knew with all her heart: “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention.”
A very special thank you to Susan Bro permitting me to interview her for this article. It is was an honor to speak with a mother who is sharing such a powerful Truth. To learn more about Heather Heyer Foundation, please visit: https://www.heatherheyerfoundation.com/