This time of year can be hard for people who’ve lost friends or relatives, but one Virginia woman is showing the world how to channel grief and make meaning of loss.
61-year-old Susan Bro grew up in Roanoke and even as little girl she was a feminist. “It would snow outside, and they told us that girls couldn’t wear pants to school, " she recalls. I stomped my foot and said, ‘That’s not fair!’”
Her school eventually agreed to let girls wear pants, under their skirts, and Bro has been stamping her foot ever since. She’s also believed in racial equality, a lesson she learned at the age of three during a spat the African-American boy next door.
“We got mad and stuck our tongues out at each other, and we were both so fascinated that our tongues and our teeth were the same color," Bro says. "We just kept looking at each others’ mouths going, ‘Wow! Wow!’ It was my first awareness that we’re all the same, and I think his too,” Bro remembered.
So when her 32-year-old daughter, Heather Heyer, was killed on August 12th when a neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, she was ready to fight. Speaking to more than a thousand people at a memorial service, Bro was succinct. “They tried to kill my child to shut her up, " she told a crowd of more than a thousand people at Heather's memorial service. "Well guess what. You just magnified her!”
Since then she’s been helping to magnify Heather’s message of tolerance, equality and the power of love. In a small office donated by her daughter’s employer she displays things people have sent from around the world. “We have printed on canvas and framed tweets from Bernie Sanders on the day Heather was killed, as well as the Instagram Pink sent out," she says. Heather loved Bernie Sanders and she also loved Pink, as I do.”
The ad hoc museum features a large photo in a hand-carved wooden frame and a portrait of Heather in oil, a banner signed by women who marched Amsterdam, the Muhammed Ali Humanitarian Award and the state flag of Virginia accompanied by a letter from the governor.
Those things inspire her as she answers e-mails and calls, writes speeches and oversees the Heather Heyer Foundation. “Money was pouring in, and that said to me people want a part of whatever Heather stood for,” she explains.
Bro could have used the money herself, but at this point she won’t even take a salary. “I’m certainly not wealthy. I’m still driving my junkyard rehabbed car. I’m still living in a single wide trailer, and that’s fine with me. I’m not big into things, but the amount of money that was pouring in and coming, even when we tried to stop it, said people want to be involved.”
Of course she still contends with grief, missing Heather the most on her birthday and knowing the holidays will be tough: “I kind of lost it in Target the other day, looking at Christmas decorations, walking around and feeling sorry for myself, crying.”
But then she thinks about the foundation. “To me making something good come of the murder – that’s my coping mechanism. In my family you make decisions about how you’re going to respond to stuff. You don’t just let it happen to you. You try to take charge of it.”
So with more than $90,000 in the bank, Bro is planning to offer college scholarships, recognizing that education is one path to peace.
“I’m a teacher, so I thought, ‘Let’s support education,’ because particularly kids trying to go to college or even get paralegal or other forms of certification costs money, and so many kids are going into heavy debt.”
She hopes donations will continue as she travels the state and the nation. She’ll address a fundraiser for Virginia Organizing Saturday at the Paramount Theater, then head to Virginia Beach for another talk before going west to appear in the Rose Bowl parade on a float celebrating social justice and empowering kids.