For Carvell Wallace, it started with a Facebook post. For Cerise Castle, a playground and Ann Curry.
Seven years ago, Wallace was a single father of two, spending the night waiting to hear the grand jury’s decision on whether or not to indict Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown. The dishes in his house needed to be done. His kids needed a snack. “We’ve been here before. As a family,” Wallace wrote. “We are Black people in Oakland. We talk about race a lot.” The post, which became “How to Parent on a Night Like This,” was the first piece of Wallace’s to gain online momentum, he says.
For Castle, her start can be traced back to a childhood spent listening to stories about deputy gangs in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The topic was pervasive: It was talked about on the schoolyard playground, in discussions with her brother and her mother. In eighth grade, Castles Christ Lutheran middle school class in Cosa Mesa took a history field trip to Washington D.C., ending in a surprise extension to watch a taping of Today in New York City.
During a commercial break at 30 Rock, Castle held up a “Hi Mom” sign for the cameras, catching the attention of anchor Ann Curry, who asked her about her favorite subjects in school. English. History. Writing.
Curry told her, “Maybe you should be a journalist.”
The chance encounter triggered an impulse to investigate, to tell stories, which Castle began to do when she joined her high school newspaper. And, later, it drove her to look into those childhood tales of the LASD.
“It always just felt right,” Castle says. “It doesn’t really feel like work. It’s very hard for me to put down my reporting at any point.”
Though both reporters—Wallace in Oakland, Castle in Los Angeles—have their own unique beginnings, they share a distinct honor as recipients of this year’s American Mosaic Journalism Prize. Granted by the Heising-Simons Foundation, the award comes with an unrestricted cash prize of $100,000 in support of freelance journalists who display excellence in long-form narrative or deep reporting about underrepresented and/or misrepresented groups in America. Castle and Wallace were immediate standouts as judges worked to whittle down an impressive cast of nominees to find their winners.
“Some of the beauty of this prize is providing a platform and a megaphone for great work that might not have cut through the noise of the last year,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Wesley Lowery, who has served as a judge for the Mosaic since its inception. When thinking of past winners, as well as Castle and Wallace’s winning work, Lowery notes just how much the lived experience of the reporters imprinted on the way unacknowledged or under-witnessed stories take shape.
“Sometimes we try to create an artificial distinction between these things. And we pretend who we are doesn’t inform what stories we’re most interested in and how we do the work.” Castle and Wallace’s reporting, Lowery says, dissolves this distinction and examines the universal relevance of individual experiences.
Castle’s ability to do this meant revisiting that childhood fascination with an issue it seemed everyone was talking about but no one was writing about. When she was covering a protest in May 2020 and was shot by police with a rubber bullet, she found herself on bed rest but restless, with a deeply felt personal responsibility to explain what was happening in her own voice.
“I didn’t feel comfortable sitting back and not reporting in the time we were in in the moment,” she says. “I wanted to do my part.”
The result was a six-month investigation which led to a 15-part series for Knock LA that exposed 18 Sheriff’s deputy gangs, 19 documented murders (the victims were all people of color), and over $100 million dollars in lawsuits paid for by the people of Los Angeles.
Castle not done covering the issue: “There isn’t really an end to it. It’s very much a living story. Receiving this honor is really going to allow me to continue the work with a lot less stress.”
Brian Eule, Director of Journalism and Communications at the Heising-Simons Foundation, recalls a collective sense of wonder among the judges at Castle’s ability to break the story as if she had the resources of an entire newsroom at her fingertips. She did not. In fact, Castle paid about $5,000 to access records for the series and, next, the accompanying podcast.
“She was relentless in the pursuit of truth and representation of these families and victims who didn’t have anyone telling their stories,” says Eule. According to Lowery, the work also displayed a refreshing sense of outrage that was not devoid of hope but driven by a demand for institutional accountability.
Castle had no idea she was even in the running for the prize, and she just about fell off her chair when she heard the news. Now she plans to use the prize money to further insulate herself from the dangers that come with her brand of crucial investigative work.
“I had to go into hiding after we published the 15 part series,” she says. The money will help her shoulder the cost of security guards for certain assignments and other safety measures, as well as traveling for interviews.
The self-sacrifice involved in telling an important and untold story is something Carvell Wallace also knows well.
“I tend to believe that if you write about the self honestly, it is universal. It is about the reader,” he says. “But in order for that to work, you have to write about the self with a certain amount of vulnerability and observation.”
One piece by Wallace that especially got the judges’ attention was a profile of Justin Williams, one of the nation’s few Black bicycle racers. He’d just turned down a request to write about Ahmaud Arbery because he didn’t feel he could bear the emotional toll of writing about yet another murdered Black person. “Part of doing this job in the body I’m in means you get asked to write about these traumatizing things a lot. Sometimes it’s just too much… Here was an opportunity to write about life.”
And though Wallace turns his journalistic eye both outward and inward, equally known for arresting personal essays about what would have happened if his mother had aborted him, for example, or “Parenting Black Teens Through Protest and Pandemic,” he always comes back to the question of love.
“What do we have to get over in order to be more loving toward our world?” Wallace asks. “Especially in a world that doesn’t always love us back.”
It’s an enduring question Brian Eule marvels at when discussing Wallace. “He takes difficult topics and people and centers rich emotional experiences and reactions that are both extraordinary and universal,” Eule says. It’s hard enough to do this at all, he points out. To do it well is another feat entirely.
When Wallace was approached by the Heising-Simons Foundation, he assumed they wanted his feedback on potential students he’d worked with who might be worthy of nominations. The shock at hearing that he was the prize winner was surreal. Now, however, it will give him the chance to rest. To reach what he calls an interior quietude that will allow him to see what stories he can explore with the luxury of newly afforded time. “Writing is like being a mall cop,” he explains. “Observe and report. Patience allows you to observe.”
The accolade, says Eule, is also a chance to further spotlight work that is “critical to multicultural democracy.” Past winners have been approached to sit as jurors for the Pulitzer Prize, they’ve gotten book deals, they’ve been solicited by National Geographic, The New Yorker and more. The recognition brought to both the reporting and the reporters can also renew urgent questions about how we survive, how we witness, and how we listen.
For Cerise Castle, this means fighting to examine the unexamined, listening to the voices that have fallen through the cracks. And for Carvell Wallace, it may very well come back to the concept of love.
“Sometimes to love means to resist,” he says. “It means to fight. It means to say no. It means to enter into conflict. We do these things because it’s a way of loving our community. And protecting our humanity.”
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