What started as an unexpected phone call ended with a surprise for its recipient, Rochelle Riley. She had been chosen for the 2017 Pulliam Fellowship for Editorial Writing, a prestigious honor that comes with a $75,000 cash award.
“I was a little blubbery,” Riley, a former ivoh fellow, admits with a laugh as she recalls the moment. “I cried and was just really, really thrilled.”
Riley, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, was recognized for her commitment to Detroit’s renaissance — and specifically, for her work documenting the effects of trauma on child learning.
It was a former colleague, someone Riley says she hadn’t heard from in “maybe twenty years,” who broke the news to her, in a call that came seemingly “out of the blue.”
Todd Gillman was chairman on the selection committee for this year’s Pulliam Fellowship, and he knew Riley from her days at the Dallas Morning News in the late ’80s and early ’90s. In a news release, he praised the care and passion Riley puts into her work with children.
“Her instinct for finding the right stories to tell in order to grab the attention of the public and policymakers is apparent,” the release quotes him as saying. “We’re glad to provide the time and resources to allow a deep dive, and to spur results.”
A shocking set of statistics led Riley to apply for the Pulliam Fellowship. Last year, as part of an in-depth, solutions-based project, the Detroit Free Press sifted through local police data and found that nearly 14 children per day were the targets of crime. Two out of five of the cases involved violent offenses, like murder, aggravated assault, robbery or sexual assault.
The numbers left Riley shaken, and she resolved herself to act. “You can’t just throw that out there and go, ‘Wow, that’s terrible. Okay, so what else are we doing?'” she said.
With only a couple weeks left before the Pulliam’s application deadline, Riley decided to submit a proposal based on what she and her Free Press colleagues had uncovered. Her application centered on the idea of continuing the investigation, to find out how crime-related trauma might impact childhood learning and development.
“I have not been able to stop thinking about that since the project. It’s almost like this fellowship is an answer to a prayer,” Riley said.
She credits the fellowship with giving her the opportunity and resources to commit to a “deep dive” into childhood trauma, something that otherwise might not be possible in a bustling, big-city newsroom.
“With everything that’s happened in Detroit with our politics,” Riley said, ticking off several scandals, “you can’t just focus on one thing. So the idea of just having a chance to focus on this issue that’s been so near and dear to me for so long, I’m very excited by that.”
In the past, Pulliam Fellows have invested their cash prizes in travel, studies and extra resources to further their reporting. Some fellows pursue book deals based on their work. Others publish their work in the form of a newspaper series. One Pulliam-sponsored project even went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in Commentary.
For her part, Riley isn’t sure yet what form her project will take. A Free Press story published on the heels of her win announced that she would “study a classroom at a single school” to see how trauma affects its students. But Riley says she isn’t quite ready to commit to a single concept.
At this point, she says she intends to do more research before she settles on a final plan. That includes consulting with experts, like those at the Children’s Trauma Assessment Center in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
“We’re going to be working with the assessment center and psychologists to determine what might be best,” Riley said, noting that trauma manifests itself in wildly different ways depending on the child. “I have been in classrooms where I’ve had kids who come up to me to be hugged because they’re not used to being hugged, or the exact opposite, where they’re wary of everyone including teachers.”
The students she hopes to work with have gone through an extraordinary amount of distress, she explained. “Every child has the possibility of losing a grandparent. Some of them even lose a parent. But not every child sees their parent shot down in front of them, or has been shot themselves.”
Kids who are exposed to violent crime in their homes and neighborhoods are often on “high alert all the time,” Riley says. Their day-to-day lives are filled with fear and uncertainty. That can make it difficult for them to perform well in school, compared to students with more stable living conditions.
“That child is not as ready as someone who’s living in a two-parent household, where the biggest thing they have to worry about is whether they run out of milk. You’re not giving them an equal education by saying, ‘Okay, you both come into this classroom. I’m going to treat you exactly the same way, and good luck,'” Riley said.
Riley is quick to point out that she is hardly the first person to explore the issue of childhood trauma. But she says that, despite the studies that have been done, she hasn’t seen much done to accommodate trauma in the classroom.
“The point of the project will be to put a child’s face on a massive challenge that we have refused to face in the past,” she said. “The goal is to make sure that a year from now or five years from now, we’re not having the same conversation about what do we do to help children who have been traumatized.”
Riley has made a career of exploring weighty topics like childhood trauma and crime. Over the 17 years she spent at the Detroit Free Press, she has covered issues ranging from the city’s historic bankruptcy to the Flint water crisis, where toxic lead was found in the drinking water.
Her commitment to Detroit and its communities has garnered her a loyal following. Former governor Jennifer Granholm went so far as to dub Riley “Detroit’s conscience.”
“When I live some place, I really live there. I want to know everything about it. I want to be a part of it. I want to be integral in its growth and progress and success,” Riley said. “The greatest compliment I get is people thinking I’m a Detroit native.”
That dedication has earned Riley numerous accolades, including the 2017 Ida B. Wells Award, in recognition of the “positive change” her columns spark. She was also one of five recipients of ivoh’s first-ever Restorative Narrative Fellowship back in 2015.
But the irony is, Riley never set out to be a columnist. In fact, earlier in her career, she was on a management track, with prospects of becoming a publisher or an editor-in-chief one day.
It was her own child who inspired her to switch career paths, back when Riley was a deputy managing editor in Louisville, Kentucky. One night, Riley was in Virginia for a training seminar, and she called home to wish her young daughter a good night and sing her a song before bedtime.
The seminar schedule forced Riley to call a little earlier than she might have otherwise, and she ended up catching her daughter in the middle of dinnertime. The nanny taking care of her daughter had prepared burgers and fries for them to eat — a meal that her daughter was surprised to learn could be prepared at home.
“I decided then that I needed to quit,” Riley said. When she approached her editor about her decision, he offered her an alternative. She could work as an associate editor and columnist instead, a combination that would allow her to set her own hours and spend more time with her child.
Eventually, her columns caught the attention of editors at the Detroit Free Press, and she was offered a columnist job on their staff. “By changing my job and my life, I became a better mom. And then of course, I wound up having the better job — actually, the best job I’ve ever had,” Riley said.
Having more job flexibility also allowed her to visit her daughter’s classes more often. What she observed gave her insight not only as a parent, but also as a journalist. She doesn’t believe in the type of columnists and editorial writers who “sit in ivory towers and pass judgment.” Her philosophy is to be active in the community — to be “the voice of the community.”
“I really did fall in love with this strong, stark, powerful, hard, gotta-love-it city,” Riley said of Detroit. And it’s with Detroit’s future in mind that she hopes her columns can inspire more equitable access to education, especially for the children scarred by crime.
Riley is set to formally receive the Pulliam Fellowship on October 23, in a ceremony in the Detroit Free Press newsroom.