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 now guides the city’s investment in the creative economy and creates opportunities for transformative innovation. Her most recent project was 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 in August 2020 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. The essayist, keynoter and arts advocate is the author of “That They Lived: African Americans Who Changed The World” (2021) and “The Burden: African Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery. Rochelle travels the country hosting conversations about the burden that America still bears by refusing to deal with the aftermath of American enslavement.
In February 2018, sports journalist Jemele Hill issued a challenge for her beloved Detroit to make sure that Detroit kids saw “Black Panther,” one of the most important films of the decade. Rochelle answered the call and enlisted Big Sean and Eminem and the quartet created an experience to remember for 900 Detroit students. Rochelle arranged transportation, the stars provided concessions and gifts and Big Sean showed up in person to greet kids in 10 theatres.
She was just appointed to co-chair Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Black Leadership Advisory Council. She makes frequent television and radio appearances, including on National Public Radio. She worked previously at The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, The Dallas Morning News and The Washington Post. She received the 2017 Ida B. Wells Award from the National Association of Black Journalists “for her outstanding efforts to make newsrooms and news coverage more accurately reflect the diversity of the communities they serve” and the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.
She was a 2016 inductee into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame and a 2019 inductee into the N.C. Media and Journalism Hall of Fame. (Watch her acceptance speech here). And she is a co-founder of Letters to Black Girls, an initiative to give letters of advice and encouragement from women across the country to girls across the country.
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.
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.
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