"This is all about social justice."
"This" is the work to which Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley has dedicated 20 years. Riley has used her literary voice to champion for causes dear to the hearts of working Americans – like government accountability, race relations, literacy and children. When Riley started her gig in 2000, she says she wanted to connect people from different walks of life to each other with the hope of creating a greater consciousness.
Her latest project, The Burden: African Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery, is a collection of essays edited by Riley, which aim to show that the effects of slavery remain woven into the fabric of this country. "I've wanted to do this for 10 years, because every single time somebody said to me, 'Oh, my God, why don't you get over slavery?' I said, 'Why do you think that's easy?'"
Essay writers include Leonard Pitts, Pulitzer Prize-winning commentator, journalist and novelist; A'Lelia Bundles, journalist and the great-great-granddaughter of civil rights activist Madam C.J. Walker; and the actress Aisha Hinds, seen in True Blood and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Riley says no one was given a specific topic, but each author was able to tell a different story of how the ghosts of past racial injustices continue to haunt.
Riley says now that The Burden has been released, she wants to write a book a year. To be fair, she's written several that she just hasn't tried to publish. "I have plenty of self-esteem in my journalism career and with all those things, but that writer in me is still worried about somebody not liking them," she says.
This coming from the woman whose columns on the Kwame Kilpatrick scandal were part of the coverage that won the Freep the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in local reporting, who won the 2017 National Association of Black Journalists' (NABJ) Ida B. Wells Award and was inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame in 2016. Most recently, in 2017, Riley was awarded the Eugene C. Pulliam Editorial Writing Fellowship – a $75,000 prize.
She'll be using the money and working with the Children's Trauma Assessment Center to study the effects of trauma and a toxic environment on kids' learning, choosing two children from "one of Detroit's most crime-ridden neighborhoods" to assess. Riley says, "My goal is to prove that those things (past traumas) matter and make a difference in how a child learns – and make the state legislature fund urban schools the way they should."
The idea for the project came when Riley spoke to a child, no more than 6 or 7 years old, who was not only able to name various guns with alarming detail but also imitate the sound each weapon makes. She says she wanted to figure out how we can start to rise.
Literacy is paramount, and fighting for it is the work that Riley says makes her most proud. She's worked with Dominican Literacy Center, Mercy Education Project and Bookstock to raise nearly $2 million dollars to help improve literacy.
"I've spent 16 years trying to get people to understand that nearly half of the adults in Detroit have difficulty reading, which explains so much," she says. "And making people understand that it wasn't just a Detroit problem. … Michigan has a problem, America has a problem. But for me, it was important to try and fix Detroit's problem."