The final first: Heather Heyer’s mother channels her grief

The death of her daughter has galvanized Susan Bro to take up the fight for social justice, but she had to get past that first anniversary of August 12.

Eze Amos The death of her daughter has galvanized Susan Bro to take up the fight for social justice, but she had to get past that first anniversary of August 12. Eze Amos

The first anniversary of a loved one’s death is always difficult. On August 12, Susan Bro took flowers to Fourth Street, where her daughter was murdered. “It’s tough,” she says. “This is the last of the firsts. After this, it’s all a repeat.”

A year ago at Heather Heyer’s funeral, Bro said, “They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well guess what? You just magnified her.”

In the “surreal” year after Heyer was killed at the Unite the Right rally, magnifying her daughter’s voice has become Bro’s mission.

“The first six months, I was driven by anger and a desire to get the foundation up,” says Bro at the Heather Heyer Foundation, which is headquartered in an office donated by the Miller Group law firm where Heyer worked. “The next month, I allowed myself to grieve.”

She shows a reporter photos of Heyer, with a long braid, taken just moments before she died. Heyer went that day to support her friends and former co-workers Marissa Blair and Courtney Commander, says Bro.

“She wasn’t a leader. She was way back in the pack,” says Bro. “Marissa said they were relaxed and happy and going to get food.”

Heyer was wearing all black because she was heading to her restaurant job after the rally, says Bro. “Antifa has tried to claim her.” And to the question of whether Heyer was antifa, Bro is adamant. “Hell no. She was opposed to violence.”

Bro went on last month’s civil rights pilgrimage, and she says it took that to wrap her head around why Heyer’s death was such a big deal: “the sanctity of white womanhood. What if it had been someone black? Would we be having this?”

From the journey to Montgomery, Alabama, to commemorate Albemarle lynching victim John Henry James, she learned, “For a lot of us white people that went, the realization not only the depths of degradation imposed on the black community, but the sheer volume of it.”

On the civil rights pilgrimage, Susan Bro sees her daughter’s image at Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, where Heather Heyer has joined the list of victims of racial terror. Photo Eze Amos

The Heather Heyer Foundation offers scholarships to those passionate about social change. Bro describes it as a call to action because “hate is on the rise again.” She expects the foundation will point back to the “marginalized community of people of color,” where “black lives never mattered,” says Bro. “That’s what Heather was there for.”

And while Heyer was outspoken about social justice one-on-one or with her friends, “she couldn’t do it in front of crowds,” says her mother, who appears to have no such problem.

As a former teacher, Bro believes that talking to youth “always has an impact.” She told 5,000 of them at the B’Nai Brith Youth Organization three days after the deadly February 14 Parkland school massacre, “If you say hi to me, you have to tell me what you’ve done to make a difference,” recounts Bro.

And when one kid said he was going to be a lawyer, “I said, ‘No, no, no. What are you going to do next week when you get home?’”

She’s working to expand the foundation’s endowment, which she estimates is around $150,000, and she wants to roll out Heyer Voices, a youth empowerment organization to help young people develop their own “positive, nonviolent social justice campaign,” whether it’s letter writing, getting a permit, or dealing with logistics.

Says Bro, “We’re not encouraging marches. Been there, done that.”

She knows it’s kids who are going to make a difference, and Bro admits her ulterior motive: “I’m looking to train the next generation of Heathers.”

One thing she wants to make clear: “I don’t take a dime from the foundation.”

She shows a photo of her home to a reporter. “No, honey, that’s a single-wide trailer,” she says. It has two leaks and “my husband and I do the work ourselves.”

The past year, they’ve lived on money from the GoFundMe campaign, which raised $226,000, and in October, Bro will start to write and speak for money. She’s working on a children’s book and has a couple of book proposals on accountability and activism. “I’m almost 62,” she says. “No one’s going to hire me.”

She counts more than two dozen speaking engagements she’s done the past year. As for media interviews—there are way too many to count. The week leading up to August 12, Bro seemed to be everywhere on both local and national media.

“It’s a juggling act,” she says. “I’m used to government pay and a steady, stable life. My new normal is managing chaos.”

But after the anniversary weekend, Bro says, “I can get down to brass tacks. I have a better feeling of what needs to be done. I feel like I’m on the verge of something.”

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