Susan Balk: Bright light of awareness used to break cycle of hate

Lisa Mandel
Susan Balk (right) comforts Olive Mukabalisa, a survivor of the Rwandan Genocide, during the 2013 Yom HaShoah ceremony held by the St. Louis Holocaust Museum. File photo: Lisa Mandel 


About four years ago, Lenore Pepper and Susan Balk were at a board meeting for Camp Sabra, a Jewish overnight camp, when Pepper recalls getting “on the subject of things that were hateful.”

“I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, I have got a story, too,’ ” said Pepper, 83, who is involved in a number of Jewish organizations. “I told my story of what happened to me when I was a kid in New Jersey.”  

About a week later, Balk called Pepper and asked whether she would be willing to be share her story in an interview for HateBrakers, a nonprofit organization she started in 2010.

The St. Louis-based group seeks out people who were targets of bullying or other hate crimes — or, in some cases, the perpetrators — and then documents and shares their stories online and at schools in an effort to stop the cycle of hate. 

“It’s not just a case of something bad happened to them and now they are OK,” Balk said. “They are serving as role models for other people because what they did is heroic. They found the moral courage to (fix it) instead of caving to their experience of hate or strutting around bragging about it.”

Balk had experience as a storyteller before she started focusing on hate. She was a literary editor at Playboy and has written for Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine and Vogue. She also co-authored a book, “Vienna’s Conscience: Close-ups and Conversations After Hitler,” with her late husband, Richard Winter, who escaped from Austria in 1938 but went back 50 years later to interview and photograph people in the capital about the war and its legacy. 

Shortly after the book’s publication in 2007, the St. Louis Holocaust Museum & Learning Center staged an exhibit using words and images from the book. At an opening event, Balk overheard one person say to another while looking at a photograph: “Those damn Viennese.”

“And I thought, my work isn’t done because, of course, it’s not just the Viennese. It’s all of us who, when there is something unpleasant in our past, particularly if it’s hate driven, don’t want to look at it,” said Balk, who remarried after her husband’s death and moved to St. Louis in 2004 from San Francisco. 

After hearing that conversation, she started collecting video interviews with people like Ronald Simpson-Bey. 

Simpson-Bey was in prison serving a 50-year sentence for assault with intent to murder — a conviction that was later overturned — when his son was shot and killed. Simpson-Bey, who in prison counseled other inmates and led religious organizations, said in a HateBrakers interview that he “now had to do it to myself, and I forgave the kid”who shot his son, and successfully lobbied the judge to treat the 14-year-old shooter as a juvenile. 

“Who doesn’t deserve a second chance? A child isn’t born with hatred in his heart,” Simpson-Bey says in the video, which HateBrakers aims to sharein programs at schools and community organizations.

Pepper also had to overcome trauma. When she was 6 years old in Newark, N.J., a playmate’s parents held her while their son beat Pepper because she wouldn’t share her toys with him. She was afraid to tell her parents, so she then became “fair game” for the boy and his friends. 

“As I grew up and thought about the issue and what happened, I [realized] that what should be done is to teach people not to hate, to teach them to understand other people,” Pepper said.  “The young man who did that to me — he was a kid. What did he know? He had the consent of his parents to beat somebody up. Now can you imagine that?”

Pepper, who was honored with a HateBraker Hero Award in 2014, said of Balk and HateBrakers: “It’s a wonderful thing that they are doing. They are teaching people not to hate, and when you don’t hate, you don’t kill, you don’t beat up.”

HateBrakers has had plenty of work in the past couple of years given the high level of vitriol during the recent presidential campaign and racial tensions surrounding the police shootings of black men. 

“I’m watching every day to see who the HateBrakers are going to be,” Balk said. Who will be the people who stop the cycle of hate, she wonders. “It’s a really scary time in some ways.”

But she is encouraged by people such as Pepper and Simpson-Bey, and by Sammy Rangel, co-founder and executive director of Life After Hate, a nonprofit that helps people who have been involved with white supremacy groups.

Rangel was a child victim of mental, physical and sexual abuse by his mother and other family members. He became a gang member and served time in prison. Rangel, who shared his story with Balk and in a TEDx Talk, recently visited St. Louis and met with Balk and learned about the February vandalism at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City. 

Rangel said: “Rather than coming from a place of judgment or anger or hate, Susan is interested in trying to dismantle that kind of hate in a way that helps the people [committing the acts] and the people affected by them. I think Susan exhibits high emotional intelligence and genuine compassion and empathy for the community and victims of these hate crimes.”


Age: 75

Family:  She is married to Ken Balk; three stepchildren: Mindy Maloney, Jay Balk and Steven Balk

Occupation: Journalist, president of HateBrakers, nonprofit that aims to stop the cycle of hate.

Home: Creve Coeur

Fun Fact: She plays the banjo.