Professor and music critic Jim DeRogatis honored by Chicago Foundation for Women for R. Kelly abuse coverage

By Olivia Cohen, News Editor

Elias Gonzalez

Whether it be from his own decades-long reporting on the abuses by disgraced R&B singer R. Kelly, or the journalism awards he has yielded as a result, Jim DeRogatis, associate professor of instruction in the English and Creative Writing Department, said he is “not worthy” of his recent award from the Chicago Foundation for Women.

“This story [needed] to be told. I just listened. And all right, I reported it, I stayed on it,” DeRogatis said. “I don’t feel like I made the impact, I feel like those women did.”

DeRogatis was awarded the Beacon Award by CFW in March, a part of their annual “Impact Awards,” which are given out to Chicago-based advocates for women across the city. The Beacon Award specifically honors local leaders whose published work has highlighted issues women and girls are facing in Chicago and who are actively working to have their voices be heard.

DeRogatis’ diligent reporting led to the bombshell stories about Kelly’s abuses in 2000 from an anonymous fax stating that Kelly had “a problem with young girls,” all the way through 2017 when DeRogatis reported Kelly was holding women against their will in a “cult.”

In September 2021, Kelly was found guilty in U.S. District Court in New York on charges including sexual exploitation of a child, bribery, racketeering and sex trafficking, according to NPR. His sentencing is set for June 16 on that conviction and he is scheduled to stand trial in U.S. District Court in Chicago on charges of “conspiring with two associates to rig his 2008 child pornography case in Cook County and hide years of alleged sexual abuse of young girls,” according to the Chicago Tribune.

DeRogatis was nominated for the award by CFW board member Carmin Awadzi, who has been an avid listener of DeRogatis’ Sound Opinions radio show and was struck when he talked about the Kelly investigation in 2013 when the singer was headlining that year’s Pitchfork Music Festival.

Awadzi said while listening to DeRogatis’ show, she had to pull her car over because a quote of his “struck [her] like a lightning bolt.”

“I stopped and put [DeRogatis’] quote in my phone… It was something to the effect: ‘What I learned throughout reporting was that those who are least cared about in this society are young, Black women,’” Awadzi said. “It was heartbreaking for me because I have a daughter, and I am a woman of color.”

Awadzi added that before DeRogatis’ reporting, no one was taking the women who came forward seriously.

“What was really incredible to me was: Here’s Jim, this white male, who doesn’t have a dog in the fight, really … as I started to read more about his reporting and what he went through over the years … It would have been so easy for him to say, ‘You know what, forget it, I’m out,’ … It was just absolutely incredible that someone who has quote-on-quote privilege would go and fight a fight for people he doesn’t really have a stake in,” Awadzi said.

Awadzi said this year is the first time the Beacon Award will be awarded as part of the Impact Awards series, as it is an award that was created with DeRogatis in mind.

“I said [to CFW’s CEO Felicia Davis Blakley], ‘Hey, I would love to find a way we can honor him,” Awadzi said. “We had to do something to honor Jim.”

Davis Blakley agreed.

“This wasn’t Jim’s fight, in the sense that he is a white man who was not a member of these communities where this was happening,” she said. “He was brave … Like pushing a this huge rock up against a hill, he faced a lot of obstacles himself.”

Davis Blakley said she was honored to publicly acknowledge and celebrate DeRogatis’ reporting through the annual Impact Awards.

Following DeRogatis, the Beacon Award will continue to honor storytellers who uplift and support women and women of color’s voices in the region.

In addition to the Beacon Award, DeRogatis previously earned a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from Chicago Headline Club and the “Voice of the Voiceless Award” from Child USA, according to earlier reporting by the Chronicle.

Pegeen Reichert Powell, chair of the English and Creative Writing Department where DeRogatis teaches, said she first heard of him winning the CFW award through the Chronicle’s interview request, rather than from the journalist himself.

“It really speaks to some of his humility,” Reichert Powell said. “We are extremely proud, and I think what Jim brings to Columbia students is clearly award-winning work, but he is also just a really excellent teacher.”

Reichert Powell said when she reached out to congratulate DeRogatis on the award, he thanked her but said he did not want to make it about himself but rather about the women who came forward against Kelly.

“I appreciate the attention from these organizations; It is very kind, but it is the women who did this. It was never me,” DeRogatis said.