Rochelle Riley ’81 to speak at 2023 Commencement for UNC Hussman
By Beth Hatcher
Rochelle Riley ’81 still remembers holding the green “Newswriting 101” book in her hand and knowing that she had found her path.
She was a high school student in eastern North Carolina with a love of writing and an interest in people. The new journalism class at the lone high school in Tarboro, North Carolina, tied those talents and interests together and eventually led her to UNC where she studied journalism.
They’ll lead her back this spring, when she gives the keynote speech at UNC Hussman’s departmental spring commencement ceremony at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 13, 2023, in Carmichael Arena.
In a career dotted with honors — including induction to the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame in 2016 and the NC Media & Journalism Hall of Fame in 2019 — serving as commencement speaker at her beloved alma mater is one of the highest for Riley.
“Being asked to give this commencement speech is such a full-circle moment,” said Riley, who now serves as the City of Detroit’s director of arts and culture after ending a nearly 20-year career as an award-winning columnist at the Detroit Free Press. “I began my journey at UNC so what an honor to speak to new graduates as they begin theirs.”
“The biggest message I want to convey when I speak at commencement is what I’ve been telling young people for years: You decide what you want to do,” Riley said. “Don’t let anyone else choose who you are, who you’re going to be or what path you should take.”
Riley’s own path started at the Greensboro Daily News and newspapers in Dallas, Texas, before she landed at The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, where she discovered an affinity and skill for column-writing. Her debut column for the paper helped spur Louisville’s efforts to build the $80 million Muhammad Ali Center on the banks of the Ohio River.
“As a columnist, you get to focus attention on critical issues, big and small, that society needs to address,” Riley said. “I’ve always taken very seriously the role I played and the power I had as a columnist.”
She played the role so well that eventually the Detroit Free Press came calling after noticing her work in Kentucky. Riley answered, and in 2000, Riley joined the Detroit paper where she was a leading voice on government responsibility, education, race and children's issues in the city until 2019.
“There was no place with greater needs for reform and change than Detroit during this time,” said Riley, who watched as the iconic Midwestern city struggled amid the loss of auto industry jobs and a 2013 municipal bankruptcy filing. “Everything needed someone to call attention to it. The city needed people not only to call attention to problems, but to show the city what it could be.”
Riley's work at the Free Press was recognized with a 2011 Will Rogers Humanitarian Award by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, the 2017 Ida B. Wells Award from the National Association of Black Journalists and a National Headliner’s Award in 2019. She was part of the team that won a Local reporting Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for coverage of the fall of then Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.
Besides these accolades, another reward is that Riley, a longtime Detroit resident, gets to see every day what her work helped create. She calls the city “a victory” and now champions its continued revitalization through her current role as the city’s director of arts and culture.
She believes in big projects. Her first major one was the nation’s first citywide memorial to Covid-19 victims: 15 funeral processions passed more than 900 billboards planted around the island the City of Detroit owns east of downtown. The project was featured in news coverage of President Joe Biden’s inauguration a few months later.
And Riley still helps the city see what it can be — through such projects as the creation of arts alleys across the city and a new initiative that will commission 200 murals by young artists around the city.
For Riley, art is as much a foundation for healthy civic life as a robust free press — both create community, she said.
“Art is not just a hobby. Art is an expression of who we are and makes our lives full,” she said. “The best cities, the best ways of life, are full.”
As UNC Hussman graduates start toward their new lives this May, Riley said she hopes to remind them of the fullness of their time at Carolina. For Riley, the “Southern part of heaven” will always be where she honed her voice as a writer, forged decades-long friendships and gained a well-rounded education that has informed her expansive body of work.
It will always be a place that feels like home.
“So much of who you’re going to be as a person, is going to be influenced by your years at Carolina,” she said.