If you want to change the world, you must first change yourself.
Two nonprofit organizations dedicated to promoting social justice and community unity are joining forces to help area high school juniors and seniors to learn about themselves and use that knowledge to create nonviolent direct-action efforts to help society.
The Heather Heyer Foundation and The Sum will combine their efforts to help youth make a difference in the new Heyer Voices program. The project was announced Wednesday.
Heyer, 32, was killed when Alex James Fields Jr. rammed his car into a crowd marching in downtown Charlottesville after the white supremacist Aug. 12, 2017, Unite the Right rally broke up after a declaration of an illegal assembly.
Fields, who marched with a white supremacist group in the rally, was convicted in December of first-degree murder in Charlottesville Circuit Court in Heyer’s death. He also pleaded guilty in federal court in June to a hate crime resulting in her death and 28 other federal hate crimes for persons injured in his attack.
He was sentenced to life in prison by both courts.
Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother, formed the Heather Heyer Foundation after her daughter’s death with the goal of honoring Heyer by providing financial assistance to individuals passionate about social change.
Heyer Voices is designed to help high school students first understand themselves and make changes personally and then work in the community to foster change.
Bro said the program has been 18 months in the making. It came from conversations Bro had with winners of a 2017 essay contest for students about standing up against hate.
“A lot of us are great at sitting around and developing ideas and talking about what we believe, but if you want to make the world a better place, tell me what you’re going to do,” Bro said. “Heyer Voices came from kids wanting to develop their own campaigns. They wanted adults to provide advice and guidance, but not take it over.”
Bro said the students are free to create their own projects, but they must be nonviolent.
“Nonviolence is an absolute tenet of everything we stand for. We’re not going to be name-calling. We’re not going to be throwing rotten eggs or screaming, ‘F-you, Nazis. Go home.’ That’s not going to change people,” she said.
The youth program is slated to accept a dozen high school students from the area into a two-day workshop on Aug 16 and 17. The workshop will conclude with students developing nonviolent direct-action projects.
The projects will be implemented over the fall semester through monthly Saturday meetings with a final day of learning, celebration and looking to the future scheduled for December.
“We thought about trying to bring the work to a global audience, but we wanted to start small and support local youth,” said Elliott Cisneros, executive director of The Sum, a Charlottesville nonprofit. “We want to help people do the internal work, to see themselves and their actions clearly, and then interpret and leverage that work in the community.”
Cisneros said helping students look at themselves and their own beliefs and mindsets and make changes in their own lives is the first step to changing society at large.
“We’re starting with the only change that really makes sense, and that is with yourself,” he said. “If I tell you I’m going to change you, that you need to change, what’s your reaction? The world doesn’t want to be changed. If I say the problem is in you, then I don’t have to take responsibility to make the changes deep within myself.”
Cisneros said an individual working to change themselves will have an impact on those with whom they come in contact.
“When we’ve made changes in ourselves, it allows us to take steps toward others,” he said.
Heyer Voices would start students with cultivating self-awareness so they can learn to change the world from “the inside out.” It would also provide support for students to develop nonviolent direct-action programs in the community.
“If you look, it’s always the young people who effect change,” Bro said. “Parents and adults have mortgages to worry about and bills to pay and employers who may let you go if they disagree with your views. We have responsibilities we need to think about. The young people don’t have those issues and they can focus on change.”
The program will hold parent and applicant informational meetings from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Aug. 1 and from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Aug. 3. Parents and applicants are asked to RSVP that they will attend.
Applications to the program are due by Aug. 6.
Meetings and workshops will be at the combined offices of the Heather Heyer Foundation and The Sum at 914 E. Jefferson St., Suite G4. Applications may be submitted at heyervoices.org or at an information meeting.