Rochelle Riley wins Humanitarian Award

Crusading columnist Rochelle Riley of the Detroit Free Press is the winner of the 2011 Will Rogers Humanitarian Award.  She will receive the prestigious award sponsored by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists at the organization’s annual conference, which is being held in Detroit June 23-26.

Riley, who writes commentary on social, political and cultural issues, will be recognized for her decade-long project for adult literacy as well as many other community service activities.

She was nominated for the award by Ron Dzwonkowski, associate editor of the Free Press.

“Since her arrival at the Free Press in September 2000,” he said, “Rochelle has been a crusader for public engagement to improve the lot of America’s most distressed major city; for the proper care of children in homes, schools or foster care; for helping people of any age learn to read or read better; for efficient, conscientious government; and for celebrating the lives of inspiring people who succeed against the odds.”

Dzwonkowski added: “Rochelle never passes up an opportunity to promote literacy, particularly for the adult population of the Detroit area and Michigan, a state where research shows one in four adults does not read well enough to hold down a 21st Century job that will support a family.

“In 2010, Rochelle’s 10-year campaign paid off in a big way.  After years of asking readers to step up and getting small but vital efforts every year, the Detroit area Rotary Clubs really delivered.  In her May 7 column, Rochelle wrote about six Detroit-area Rotary Clubs pledging 3,000 volunteer tutors to help adults improve their reading … Six weeks later, those six clubs turned into 20.  This year, the number has grown to 50 across southeast Michigan and southern Ontario, Canada.  The Rotary Literacy Initiative … is working toward helping nearly 100,000 people to read.”

Helped Establish Award

The Will Rogers award, named for the humorist and newspaper columnist of the 1920s and 30s who performed many humanitarian acts, is presented annually to a columnist whose work produces tangible benefits for the community served by his or her newspaper.

One of the top African-American journalists in the United States, Rochelle Riley has won many local, state and national honors, including the national Scripps-Howard award for her coverage of literacy.  The Michigan Press Association named her the state’s best local columnist three times.  Her columns for the Free Press were a part of the entry that won the newspaper the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for local news coverage.

Prior to locating in Detroit, Riley had worked for the Washington Post, Dallas Times Herald, Dallas Morning News and the Courier-Journal at Louisville, KY.  Her debut column in the Courier-Journal, which called for a museum honoring Louisville native Muhammad Ali, helped spur an $80 million campaign to build the MuhammadAliCenter, which opened in 2005.

Through her experience in Louisville, Riley has a historical connection to the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award.  In 1999, she assisted retired columnist Bob Hill in hosting the annual NSNC conference.  In the closing session, members approved the creation of the award — on the motion of Rochelle Riley.

“Through her outstanding record of community service, Rochelle has definitely earned this recognition, and it is highly appropriate that after 12 years she is receiving an award she believed in and helped establish,” said Robert Haught, coordinator of the Will Rogers award program.  “It was a pleasure to work with her in making the award idea a reality.”

Also a Blogger

Like many columnists, Riley has expanded her commentaries from the printed page to the Internet.  She describes herself as a “21st Century writer, author, singer and film buff who blogs about everything at and about television at  She is CEO of Church Street Media, a business development and social network consulting company.

Riley, author of three books, makes frequent television and radio appearances, including on National Public Radio. She also speaks to women’s, business and family organizations around the country and has traveled widely in foreign countries.

Dzwonkowski said she is in demand as a speaker at major events and as a moderator for community conversations, and in that role “has established herself as a loud and visible conscience for Detroit and also as a champion for the city, its people and for people anywhere who appear to be getting less than they deserve or are deserving of more credit than they are receiving.”

The editor said Riley uses “her Free Press pulpit to scold, cajole and praise, to complain and explain, to ask the difficult questions and offer the sensible answers.”

“She observes with an unflinching eye, stands toe to toe with power and writes with an unmatched passion, especially on behalf of children and the less fortunate,” he said.  “She brings people together and makes things happen.  In so doing, she makes things better.”

The award presentation is scheduled for the evening of Friday, June 23 during a conference program that also honors movie columnist Roger Ebert as NSNC’s Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award recipient for 2011 at a banquet Saturday, June 24.  Riley also will appear on the program as a member of a panel on political reporting.

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