By Monique Brouillette and Jacqui BanaszynskiCongratulations to Cerise Castle and Carvell Wallace, this year’s recipients of the American Mosaic Journalism Prize. The prize was launched in 2018 by the Heising-Simons Foundation as part of a mission to support journalism as “an essential arm of U.S. democracy.” The award, which is an unrestricted $100,000 cash prize, goes to freelancers who demonstrate excellence in long-form journalism about underrepresented or misrepresented groups in America. Like recipients of the MacArthur Fellows Program, often known as the MacArthur Genius Grant, the winners are nominated anonymously — there’s no application process — and chosen by a panel of esteemed journalists.
The Mosaic mission is stated on its website, but I was curious about the foundation’s particular focus on journalism, and especially freelance journalism. We asked Brian Eule, director of journalism and communications. His response:
Journalism is a crucial for a multicultural democracy. And exceptional journalism has the power to bring about new understanding. It can break down isolation. It can hold the powerful accountable. Furthermore, in today’s journalism, freelancers are both vulnerable and valuable. They are a one-person team of journalist, business manager, administrative assistant, accountant, and lawyer. They often work with limited financial resources. And yet, some of the most important works of journalism come from these individuals who have the freedom to commit long periods of time to their work.
So, in 2018 we launched this prize. The hope was that it could help call attention to the recipients’ great work and promise, and give them the financial freedom to continue their work. And by being the largest dollar amount for a journalism prize in the country, we hoped it would signal the importance of their work—of amplifying the voices and stories of underrepresented and misrepresented communities.
Bravo that. And bravo to the important work that earned Castle and Carvell the support to do more on behalf of a struggling society. Links to specific projects that caught the Mosaic judges’ attention can be found on the website, and more on the two journalists’ individual sites. Nieman Storyboard reached out to both to talk more specifically about their start in and passion for journalism. The conversations have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Cerise Castle is a multi-platform journalist who has written for The Daily Beast, The Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Magazine, and has produced and hosted segments for VICE News Tonight, NPR and the nationally syndicated radio program Marketplace. Her stories explore trends and issues playing out in the neighborhoods and communities of her lifelong home in southern California: COVID-inspired underground party scenes, LGBTQ skateboarding groups and a stoner hangout site formed in the rubble of a long-forgotten landslide.
More recently, her reporting has taken a sober turn with “Tradition of Violence,” an ambitious investigation and 15-part podcast that exposed the culture of criminal gangs inside the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department. Castle discovered a total of 18 gangs inside the department, complete with gang names, initiation rites and a wide array of criminal activities. The investigation won a 2022 American Journalism Online Award for the best use of public records and a 2022 International Women’s Media Foundation Courage in Journalism Award. It also drew harassment, retaliation and physical threats from inside the sheriff’s department.
How did you get into journalism?
In eighth grade, my class visited New York City on a school trip. We stood outside Rockefeller Center where they were shooting the Today Show, holding signs and everything. Co-host Ann Curry came out and spoke to some of the people gathered there. When sheasked me what I wanted to do for my career, I said wasn’t really sure. Then she asked me what I enjoyed in school, and I said English and history. She suggested that I might consider becoming a journalist. I went home, joined the school paper and have been reporting ever since.
What are your guiding principles in your work?
I like to get to the bottom of things, to really figure out what’s going on and present an honest depiction of the situation. I am always thinking about what I consider to be pretty basic tenets of journalism: talking to everyone, asking a lot of questions and keeping a healthy sense of skepticism. I don’t think we talk enough about how you need to be unafraid to be assertive.
Can you give an example of when you had to draw on these principles in your work?
The deputy gangs story is the kind of story that’s hard to report on because the members are so secretive. You really need to have someone on the inside to get to the bottom of it, but it’s difficult to figure out where things stand and what people’s motivations are. It can be hard to discern where the truth is when everyone has an agenda. You’re trying to figure out why this information is being offered and how valid it is. You really need to remember all of those things and keep them at the forefront.
How do you navigate that uncertainty?
One thing I always tell new journalists I mentor is to not be afraid to be assertive. It can be intimidating, certainly, to sit down across from someone who is a power broker and ask very difficult and potentially infuriating questions. I’ve received threats from people in power about stories I’ve published or worked on. And it can be scary to have an official telling you that there will be consequences if you publish a story or to have or to be banned from a public building as a result of publishing something.
But those actions should also remind you how important the story is, and how crucial that kind of work is.
I was highly motivated to get the deputy gang’s story out in a timely manner because the sheriff was running for reelection against some challengers. I wanted people to have a really good understanding of what is going on inside the department, what the culture is like and how much influence these deputy gangs have. I wanted to share that information to help the public cast an informed vote.
How do you define your writing voice?
I think the voice that I use to tell this story is different from other outlets that cover policing because I’m not afraid to call things out, ask the hard questions and question the police narrative. I am relying on those basic tenets and haven’t abandoned them. I was the only reporter that was using the words “deputy gangs” to describe these criminal organizations inside of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Two weeks ago, I saw the Los Angeles Times use the term “deputy gangs;” that’s the first time I’ve seen them use that reference. What we usually see is very couched language like “subgroup fraternity” or “clique,” which lessens what exactly is going on.
How do you think of your audience? Who do you try to reach with projects like this?
I want to reach everyone in Los Angeles County. It is why I’m so passionate about sharing the deputy gangs story in as many mediums as possible. I’ve written a series and done a podcast. I’d like to see this become a television show, a documentary, a movie or perhaps a feature film.
Beyond Los Angeles County, this is something everyone needs to know about. We aren’t the only county with criminal gangs in our police forces. I’ve been contacted by police officers across the United States who have begged me to come out to their locale and investigate the gangs they’re seeing within their own forces. I want as many people as possible to know that this is happening so they can make informed decisions about how their policing policies are created, how they are hiring sworn officers and how they are disciplining and dealing with people who are violent and commit crimes.
Carvell Wallace is a journalist, author, podcaster, essayist and memoirist based in Oakland, California. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, GQ, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, Pitchfork, and MTV News, where he writes about race, arts, culture, film and music. His 2019 book “The Sixth Man,” the co-written biography/memoir of Golden States Warrior forward Andre Iguodala, spent four weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.
“Closer Than They Appear,” his 2017 podcast on the Al Jazeera network, examined the divisions in America following the 2016 presidential election; an episode, in which he returned to his hometown to find a childhood friend he hadn’t seen in 27 years, was honored by the Radio Television Digital News Association.
Wallace has an eye for highlighting the humanity in his characters, taking us into the lives of athletes, actors, social justice leaders and everyday people; he explores their struggles and the drive to move past them. Along with profiles of others, he has written about his own childhood trauma and recovery.
How did you get into journalism?
It was a creative thing I could do when I had kids. I trained in theater and I also played music pretty seriously, but both of those things required spending long periods of time away from home. Writing was something that I could do at home after the kids went to bed. That’s part of why I got more serious with it. Then I wrote something on Facebook that went viral. Huffington Post asked to publish my blog and I got a few editors asking me if I’d be willing to write about various things for their publications. For a year or so, I did that sporadically while I worked full time; I would write at night, work during the day and parent my kids in the evening after school. At some point, I ended up getting offered a somewhat full-time job at MTV News.
Do you have a guiding principle for your work?
I try to look at everything through the lens of love. Not romantic love or love as a nice feeling, but the work and action that we undertake in order to grow our humanity, protect our humanity, share and feed our humanity. We live in a world in which there are so many things that ask us to turn our back on our humanity. There’s great suffering, we have to choose between us or them, and when I write I’m always concerned with the question: How do we resist that? How do we resist the draw to abandon our humanity? That’s the lens that I look at everything through.
In “The Sixth Man,” which was the biography of NBA player Andre Iguodala, I didn’t have to tell the story of how this guy played in his youth leagues, what happened in high school and college, when he got drafted and when they went to the championships. Don’t get me wrong, that’s all in there. But the real question is what has this guy tried to do in order to maintain his humanity? And what forces in his life and career work against that? I think that is the main thing that I look for when I approach my work.
You write a lot of profiles. Do those questions guide your approach to them?
Yeah. Profiles are a good vehicle for that. Because the main question of a profile is Why is this person like this? We know who they are, but why are they like that? By the time we profile someone they’re usually already famous and we know some things about them. But the job of the profile writer is to figure out why they’re like they are. Most people are the way they are because they are trying to feed something inside of them — a need they have. Even terrible behavior can be a misguided or perverted way of trying to fill a human need. That leads me to observe things like how they engage with me at the table, how they eat their food, how they interact with the world as we sit in the park.
I tend to think about stories, both fiction and nonfiction, as having three central elements: a person, character or group of characters who really want something; something that stands in the way; and a reason they want the thing. The thing that stands in the way might be the forces of racism, the community, or it might just be life. You want to go to the moon, but we can’t go to the moon. The observed part is all of the listening and paying attention to what the person is saying and what they’re not saying. It’s like knowing how to sit in silence and let a person reveal themself to you.
I think sometimes, as reporters, we want to go in with a list of questions and get the interview done. I rarely have lists of questions anymore. I usually have two or three questions that I’m going to get to, but I have to see how the conversation unfolds. I ask this person how their day was, what they experienced on the way over to this meeting and what that brings up for them. I know that ultimately we will get to the question of why they walked away from the scholarship or whatever the primary driving question of the piece is. I don’t think I can get them to answer that unless we’ve established all the build-up of who they are. So that’s the observation part.
Then the reporting part is knowing how to put what you observe into words that other people can understand and experience. That requires a lot of patience with yourself as a writer. You have to understand your own feelings and emotions and what emotions this person brings up in you.
What issues are most important to you in your work?
I’m really interested in justice and liberation. For justice, I want to know whose story hasn’t been told correctly. Who was underrepresented? Are our systems working fairly to provide a real chance of life for everyone? As I grow older, I think more about liberation, which asks what it takes to be free from the systems that oppress us. These systems that we operate under are actually screwing all of us over. The older I get, the more that’s clear to me.
How do you bring these issues out in your stories?
The first piece I wrote that went viral was about being a single parent of two elementary school kids on the night that we were waiting to hear from the grand jury in the Michael Brown testimony. (Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.) Instead of writing about how Brown shouldn’t have been shot, I wrote about every parenting decision I had to make on that day while I was waiting for the grand jury to announce they were going to indict. I wrote about those mundane parenting decisions — picking up my kids, deciding what to get for dinner, stopping at the grocery store, thinking about homework, braiding my daughter’s hair and my son having a tantrum before bed — so people could feel less alone. This world that we live in, in which we have to focus on horrifying things while also trying to maintain the logistics of our homes and families, that’s a thing that’s happening to all of us. By putting it on a piece of paper you’re giving people a chance to say, “Oh, I’m not trapped here.” We’re actually collectively in this, and there is liberation in understanding our collective goals and struggles, as opposed to keeping our struggles individual.
Monique Brouillette is a freelance journalist based in southern Maine who writes about science, health and tech. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Technology Review, Quanta, Science and several other publications.