Rochelle Riley ended a nearly 20-year career as an award-winning Detroit columnist in 2019 to become the City of Detroit’s Director of Arts and Culture. She guides the city’s investment in its creative workforce and creates opportunities for transformative innovation.
In 2020, when the global pandemic began killing Detroiters by the hundreds, she conceived the United States’ first city-wide memorial to victims of Covid-19: 15 funeral processions that circled the city’s Belle Isle past 924 photo billboards of victims. The installation gained international attention and provided closure for families across the city who could not hold individual funerals. More than 25,000 cars drove past the billboards; millions viewed it online and on television; and it was featured during national coverage of President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
A year later, her office partnered with the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and the Cranbrook Art Museum on The Healing Memorial, a collection of intimate pouches made by thousands of Michiganders honoring their lost loved ones. The pouches were curated into an arts installation that lived on an entire wall of the Huntington Convention Center for a year. The installation will soon move to the Cranbrook Art Museum. The project was inspired by internationally renowned fiber artist Sonya Clark’s Beaded Prayers project.
Rochelle’s office, the Office of Arts, Culture and Entrepreneurship (Detroit ACE), focuses on creating opportunities for new artists to be trained, veteran artists to be honored and neighborhoods across the city to be made more beautiful as part of Mayor Mike Duggan’s Blight To Beauty campaign. Anyone who hasn’t been to Detroit lately hasn’t seen Detroit. ACE is currently transforming nine alleys around the city into artistic gathering spaces and is commissioning more than a hundred murals in the largest arts-training program in the city’s history. Detroit ACE also hosts the annual Detroit ACE Honors that celebrate creatives with more than 25 years of service to Detroit arts. It is modeled after the annual Kennedy Center Honors. Her office also hosts exhibitions, panel discussions and free entrepreneurship training because Rochelle believes that artists deserve the same economic support as other businesses. “Actors are small businesses. Musicians are small businesses. Storytellers are small businesses,” she said. “And we need to make sure they not only survive, but thrive – in Detroit.” Rochelle, a painter and photographer and avid collector of jigsaw puzzles, believes that all art matters. “As my friend, Sam White, founder of Shakespeare in Detroit says, “Business brings people to Detroit. But art makes them stay.”
writer by trade, warrior by necessity
Rochelle is an essayist, keynoter and photographer, who has written for Essence, the root, USA Today, and other publications She is the author of “That They Lived: African Americans Who Changed The World” (2021), a collection of essays featuring photographs of two young children as prominent African Americans. Each essay begins when the future icon was a child and what they overcame or what decision they made that led to greatness.
She is author of “The Burden: African Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery,” in which she wrote: There are thousands and thousands of examples in written history that detail the physical brutality of slavery. But what America must pay more attention to is the emotional brutality that boils down to a single, post-slavery word that has been as much a part of our living history as our flag:
Permission to speak.
Permission to vote.
Permission to work in jobs that allow us to use all of our talents. Permission to drink from community water fountains.
Permission to dine at public lunch counters.
Permission to sit anywhere on public buses that our tax dollars fund.
Permission to provide our children with educations equal to those
of their white peers.
Permission to embrace the freedom the Emancipation Proclamation lied about.
Permission to run for the presidency of the United States of America.
We—African Americans in the United States—have spent a century and a half seeking permission, hiding our lights under bushels, accepting less than we deserve because we’ve been trained to believe we don’t deserve more.
It is time to put that burden down.
2021: Induction into the Michigan Business Women’s Hall of Fame
2020: Daily Tar Heel Distinguished Alumnus award at University of North Carolina
2019: National Headliner Award for best column (previously won in 2004)
2019: Fourth NABJ Salute to Excellence Award for best columns
2017: Eugene C. Pulliam Editorial Fellowship to research the tragic impact of trauma on school-age children
2011: Will Rogers Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists for community service
2009: Her columns were part of the entry that won the Pulitzer Prize for Local News
2007: Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where she studied online communities and film
When the Michigan governor and legislature couldn’t balance the state budget without cutting education funding, Rochelle convened a kitchen cabinet of female financial experts who balanced the budget – in two days – without cutting education.
After Detroit voted to elect city council members by district for the first time in a century, Rochelle worked with a data think tank and the newspaper’s design team to create seven proposed districts. The city council later created seven council districts that looked like the ones she created.
She helped lead the effort to test victims’ rape kits that had been found abandoned in a police storage unit. She helped one women’s group raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars necessary to test the kits. The result: 1,947 cases investigated; 817 serial rapists identified.
Rochelle received the 2017 Eugene C. Pulliam Editorial Fellowship from the Society of Professional Journalists to study how trauma impedes how children learn. Her award-winning series was her final work for the Detroit Free Press and can be read here.
When the famed Joe Louis Arena, home of Detroit’s hockey team, was to be torn down, Rochelle demanded in her column that the city find another way to honor Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, whose boxing victory over a Nazi-supported opponent gained worldwide acclaim. The City agreed to name a massive greenway encircling the entire city for the boxer. Construction of the Joe Louis Greenway is underway and will connect neighborhoods, parks, schools, jobs, historic sites, commercial corridors and public transit. https://detroitgreenways.org/goodbye-inner-circle-greenway-hello-joe-louis-greenway/
Rochelle lives near the banks of the Detroit River. But the world traveler never stays at home long. She has visited 28 countries and 33 states … and counting.