A year ago this August, the country watched in horror as a white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia turned deadly when one of the ralliers drove a car into a group of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring several others.
For Susan Bro, the horror was personal: The woman killed was her daughter, Heather Heyer, who had gone to the protest to oppose white nationalism.
After Heyer was killed, money poured in from well-wishers. With help from her associates, Bro set up a foundation in Heyer’s name. The Heather Heyer Foundation has spent the past year granting scholarships and working with groups like the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, as well as supporting social-justice causes such as the youth-run group Higher Voices, which the foundation helped set up earlier this year.
I spoke with Bro earlier this week about how her life has changed since Heyer’s death, and how she thinks the country has dealt with the resurgence of white-nationalist groups in the past few years.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How has your life changed over the past year?
Well, let me explain just how my life was before, and then I’ll explain how my life is now. So of course these two weeks are kind of distorted because of the intense, intense, intense schedule. But before, I’d had a regular nine-to-five job, and was home for lunch every day—actually eight-to-five, ’cause I had an hour off for lunch. State benefits, state insurance, no weekends, no evenings, and before that I was a schoolteacher. Grandmother of eight, and married five years ago almost. Lived together for the last eight years, and we kind of had a life of routine: We’d see the grandkids once a month and see my parents once a month, and I did knitting and crocheting and gardening, and we’d meet Heather a couple times a month for dinner … and that was my life.
And then on August the 11th was the last day of that, August the 12th she was killed. And since August 13th there is no routine in my life. No two days are ever the same. Some days I can work at home, I might not come into the actual office for a whole week ’cause I’ll be answering emails and writing and doing phone interviews and things in the morning all the way through ’til 10 o’clock at night. Some days I don’t touch anything from the office at all. Sometimes I have meetings until late in the evening. I work a lot of weekends, so I try to take a day or two off during the week, normally.
I don’t see the grandkids very often, just see my parents about once every two months, although I do try to call them every week—although sometimes I forget it’s Monday and I forget to call them. And I don’t go home for lunch very often. Sometimes my husband will drive into Charlottesville for supper or lunch just so he can see me for the day. That’s not been wonderful. But meeting a lot of wonderful people. Speaking up, speaking out, trying to motivate other people to do the same, and … that’s kind of how it goes.
Can you tell me a little bit about what the foundation is doing?
We originally formed the foundation pretty quickly because money was coming in from all sorts of sources—even after we shut the GoFundMe down, money was still pouring in. And we’re talking five, 10, 20 dollars at a time. Sometimes more, but you know, these were just people donating out of their hearts, and so I said to her boss—her former supervisor and friend—we need to do something to provide structure for this money, and some sort of tax situation, because I don’t have any idea how to manage money. But we need to do something good with this money.
And I used to be a teacher, he works for the scholarship program with this fraternity, and he said: “Well, why don’t we do a scholarship program?” And I said, “Well, that sounds awesome to me, let’s do that.” So we’ll do one scholarship for her high school and one scholarship for Charlottesville High School. And we decided we would offer scholarships for people who were already social activists in a positive, nonviolent way who wanted to use their education to continue that.
We’re growing our endowment so we can offer more high-school scholarships, and also offer graduate scholarships as well, and right now we’re only paying $1,000 each., We’d like to raise that if we get more money in. And I have an idea for a few other programs in the future, but one thing at a time. I want to get Higher Voices clearly launched and under way, and run a test program on it for a year or so and see how that goes, and then we’ll launch some other initiatives.
What do you make of Americans’ reactions to the events in Charlottesville last year and Heather’s death—do you think those events changed things, and if so, how?
I think it exposed the infection that’s been there all along. I think it was an opening of an old wound that needs to be cleaned out and needs to be fixed. So a lot of people’s eyes were opened, but that was simply a boiling-over of something that’s been going up for some time. Black women, particularly in Charlottesville, have told me that they’ve been at this battle for years, and of course it’s very frustrating for them to hear everybody center all their focus on Heather, the white girl who died. And it’s not fair. It’s really not fair that all the attention goes to her. I’m trying to redirect it back to the people who have been activists here all along, and who are still fighting the cause—because not a lot’s changed here. The personnel changes and that’s about it.
What do you want Americans in general to take away from Heather’s death and the events in Charlottesville?
We need to acknowledge that black lives have never seemed to matter in this country, starting with slavery and continuing on through. As a country in general, obviously there’s more than one situation where that’s not true, there have been a few gains. As Americans, there’s no place for hate in our society. We need to find ways to work things out where everyone is treated fairly. As far as I’m concerned, if the hate groups are so worried about whites becoming a minority, then I think maybe they need to rethink their strategy of how they treat minorities, because statistically, yes, we are on our way to becoming a minority in this country—we are already a minority in the rest of the world—so we really need to get our act together on how we treat minorities if we’re worried about becoming a minority.
Do you think the country is doing a better job at dealing with white nationalism, with the tendencies you just described?
No. I think more people are becoming aware, but we’ve got a long way to go in dealing with this, a lot of this. For example, I was not aware myself, even, how much the West Coast has already been dealing with this before it happened in Charlottesville. I hadn’t heard much about it. And I was watching Documenting Hate, which I was actually part of the documentary, last night, and I was shocked at how much it has been going on in California before they ever got to Charlottesville. We’re not paying attention.
Heather had a phrase that she adopted, which was: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” There’s so much to pay attention to, it’s hard to get it all. But yeah, people are not well informed and not paying attention, because we’re a bit overwhelmed with our daily lives—but we’re also a bit overwhelmed with the massive amounts of information and things that are happening.
Last year you said you want to make your loss count. How have you tried to do that?
With the foundation, but also in my speeches, talking to people one-on-one, talking to small groups, talking on panels, giving a call to action for everyone to stand up and be counted, pay attention, get focused, get energized.
Last year you told a reporter for The Daily Beast that you felt the president had put forth a “hateful agenda.” Looking back over the past year, do you still feel that way?
I can tell you definitely David Duke has said that the president has given them a boost, Richard Spencer has said that the president has given them hope and courage. Matthew Heimbach, I believe, also said that, as well as Jason Kessler. They have all said that Trump’s administration has given them courage and hope, and that he’s giving them a wink and a nod. That’s their words.
If you could dictate how the president handled the anniversary of the events in Charlottesville, how would you want him to handle it?
I don’t want him involved.
We’re small potatoes to him. We don’t mean a thing to him.
A year ago you told reporters that you’ve had to hide Heather’s grave from Nazis so it doesn’t get defaced. Are you still hiding it?
Yeah, I’ll always hide it, but it’s not just from Nazis. The cemetery and I agreed they don’t want anyone there. They don’t want other graves trampled from well-wishers or otherwise. Viola Liuzzo and Emmett Till’s markers were both frequently vandalized. This kind of stuff still happens long after people have passed away, so why put it in that situation? Fourth Street is a public memorial where people are welcome to go and leave messages or whatever. There’s always a box of chalk there available for whoever wants to write on the building.
Is there anything that’s happened in the last year, in terms of the response to what happened in Charlottesville, that has given you hope in terms of things getting better?
Yeah, there are small gains with people I meet. In Charlottesville itself, not so much, except maybe more people are paying attention. Outside of Charlottesville, there are definitely a lot more people being socially aware and active. I met with the U.S. commissioner of civil rights to talk, I’ve met with a lawyer’s group that is working to develop policies along with police officers across the country to do a better job of dealing with issues, and those were all panels of people, so there was a variety of groups—religions and genders and cross-genders—represented on those, and that was encouraging. I’m seeing a lot more conversations, difficult conversations. People trying to learn to do better. We’ve just got so far to come. And it’s not an easy process, let’s put it that way—nor is it a quick process. If it were quick, then we would be back where we were, still having a problem underneath, and not having really dealt with the core of the issue.
You mentioned that things haven’t changed very much in Charlottesville. What did you mean by that?
Still a lack of affordable housing, city-council meetings are still yelling matches. People are still being overpoliced heavily, and I witnessed some of that today in fact. As soon as I walked up and there were cameras nearby and recordings nearby, it immediately de-escalated. I went over just to say “We got your back” to the girl. And as soon as I went over to her, she broke into heaving sobs because she had been so terrified. And the officer just walked away, pretty much, when he realized we had cameras and things.
I don’t know what would have happened. I just know that it was a loud, heated argument when we got there, and we had seen other vehicles do the exact same thing she had done, and nobody said anything. Nobody even approached them. And I’ve seen vehicles park in that same spot where she was getting in trouble for and nobody does anything to them, ever. She was there to deliver food—I mean, she couldn’t have been there even five minutes. So it’s just frustrating. We’ve just got such a ways to go.