Rochelle Riley receives $75,000 SPJ Pulliam Fellowship

INDIANAPOLIS — Rochelle Riley, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, has been chosen for the 2017 Pulliam Editorial Fellowship. Riley plans to spend the next year studying the effect of trauma and a toxic environment on children’s learning.

The judges were impressed by Riley’s long-standing commitment to putting a spotlight on problems afflicting the community she serves, and the powerful voice she has brought to the daunting task.

Robert Huschka, former Detroit Free Press executive editor, said Riley is a strong advocate for the state’s children, a crusader for equality and a community leader.

She spent the last year, with the Detroit Free Press, on a Solutions Journalism project that found nearly 14 children per day are victims of crime in Detroit; the average age of the victim is 13; and the most common crime is assault. Riley and her newspaper worked for more than a year trying to understand the children’s experiences.

“She is fearlessness and persistence as she fights to ensure Detroit’s renaissance sticks and its children benefit. She dares anyone to get in the way of ‘the new Detroit’ and the future this city deserves,” Huschka said.

Riley said the Free Press has been writing about the problems and programs to help the symptoms of “toxic stress,” but said in her cover letter she wants to dig deeper and look at how that trauma and a toxic environment affect how children learn and what we should do about it.

“I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what that might feel like and what that means for children in urban schools, whose underachievement is reported every year without enough context or care,” Riley said. “I want to change that.”

“Riley’s passion for exploring the connections between experiencing trauma, living in a toxic environment and a child’s ability to learn stood out among all the entrants,” said Jay Evensen, member of the judging panel and senior editorial columnist at Deseret News. “This is a vital concern that tears at the fabric of communities and families, and she has what it takes to move the needle. While her work will center on Detroit and Wayne County, I have no doubt she will uncover valuable information that will be applicable nationwide.”

Riley, who hosts a radio talk show on 910AM Superstation and is author of “The Burden: African Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery,” plans to work with Western Michigan’s Children’s Trauma Center and a dedicated resource agency to study a classroom at a single school in one of Detroit’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods. She also plans to document what happens when traumatized children try and fail to learn, and then document what happens when they get the help they need to overcome ‘the trauma obstacle.’

“Children are not problems to be solved; the challenges in their environment are,” Riley wrote in her letter. “If we don’t take it seriously, then we risk losing our next generation of leaders, taxpayers, teachers and responsible parents. But solving their circumstances requires not only innovation, but a willingness to expand our horizons to create or find solutions.”

Todd Gillman, chairman of the judging panel and Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News, said Riley’s body of work is impressive.

“Her skills and passion are superior. Her instinct for finding the right stories to tell in order to grab the attention of the public and policymakers is apparent,” Gillman said. “She cares about children, and we’re glad to provide the time and resources to allow a deep dive, and to spur results.”

Tim Swarens and Sonya Ross were also members of the judging panel. Swarens received the award last year.

The award will be presented to Riley by Robert Leger, SDX Foundation National President, on Oct. 23 in the Detroit Free Press newsroom.

The $75,000 fellowship is awarded annually by the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation. Learn more about the award and see a list of previous winners here.

The Sigma Delta Chi Foundation is a public foundation dedicated to ensuring that those who carry on the tradition of a free press are prepared for the challenge. The SDX Foundation supports educational and professional needs of journalists and journalism students. Support excellent journalism and fight for your right to know. Give to the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation

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