The Pittsburgh Foundation

Helen Ubiñas named first Sally Kalson Courage in Journalism awardee

PITTSBURGH, June 25, 2020 – A two-year-old shot and killed in her mother’s arms when shots were fired into their home; a mother who, four years after her son’s death, brings a thermos of coffee with sugar and milk regularly to her son’s grave; and identical twin brothers, born moments apart, both shot within minutes of one another. Their stories and dozens of others are the subject of Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Helen Ubiñas, whose work reveals the awful toll of gun violence on those injured and killed while also honoring the resilience of survivors and their families.

As a result of these columns, Ubiñas is the first winner of the Sally Kalson Courage in Journalism Award. The award, which includes a $5,000 prize, was established at The Pittsburgh Foundation by Kalson’s family and friends last year. Kalson had a 30-year career in journalism speaking truth to power. She died of complications from ovarian cancer in 2014. The Kalson Award will be given each year to a Pennsylvania broadcast, print or online journalist whose work demonstrates fearlessness, fortitude and excellence in taking on issues of our time. Images of Ubiñas are available for media use here.

"No one writes about the tragedy of gun violence with more compassion and feeling than Helen Ubiñas. Her columns on the young, innocent victims of gunfire are heartbreaking and left us grieving with the families whose lives were forever shattered by these random, senseless acts of violence," said Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and best-selling author James Steele, who served on the Kalson Award committee.

Ubiñas has written for the Inquirer since 2012 and was nominated for the award by her editor Cathy Rubin, assistant managing editor for features at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Criteria for the award include shining a light on an under-reported and/or controversial issue, demonstrating compassion, raising the public’s consciousness and leading to action, and showing a commitment to justice for those who are least supported economically, politically and socially.

Few issues are as polarizing as gun violence, which exacts a disproportionately higher toll on Black and Brown people. Ubiñas believes that the stories of those injured or killed are too often told as one-dimensional tales about who lived and who died, without context or compassion that captures the full humanity of those who have been harmed.

“I stopped using the term ‘we give voice to the voiceless’ years ago because no one is voiceless. The question is whose voices will those in power decide to listen to and amplify,” said Ubiñas, who describes herself as a woman, a journalist of color, a Puerto Rican and a first-generation college graduate. “I know what a privilege it is to have this column. Until there are other people who look like me and have similar platforms to amplify these stories, it will be very hard for me to move on from writing my column and telling these stories.”

Since 2016, Ubiñas has organized the annual Fill the Steps event, where hundreds of people impacted by gun violence and the public at large gather on the iconic steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to stand together against gun violence, support one another and demand reform. The event has been catalytic for participants. At the event, a survivor of gun violence lamented to Ubiñas that no support group existed for people like him who had been paralyzed by their injuries. She helped him organize a support group that met monthly in person before the coronavirus and now meets weekly online.

Ubiñas first began reporting on gun violence 21 years ago as a new staff reporter at the Hartford Courant, which won a 1999 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of a mass shooting at the Connecticut lottery office, where four people and the gunman were killed. In 2000, she became the Courant’s first Latinx woman columnist. In 2007, she was one of 12 U.S. journalists awarded the prestigious John S. Knight journalism fellowship at Stanford University. She joined the staff of the Philadelphia Daily News in 2012, which later merged with the Philadelphia Inquirer. Ubiñas received several awards for her columns including a 2014 Keystone Press Award and a 2017 National Society of Newspaper Columnists award.

As a reporter new to Philadelphia in 2012, she focused on building relationships. She made it a point to show up at as many events as possible. “I didn’t pretend I knew the city and asked my readers to help me learn about the city. I would speak to anyone and go anywhere that people would talk to me,” said Ubiñas.

One of those readers is Maureen Boland, who teaches ninth-grade English in the School District of Philadelphia’s Parkway Center City Middle College. Sixty percent of her students report losing a blood relative to gun violence. In 2018, shortly after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, Boland invited Ubiñas to come in and hear her students—71% of whom are African American, 13% Latinx and 9% Asian—read personal essays about their experiences with gun violence. That experience was transformative. Ubiñas asked Boland’s students to lead the procession to Fill the Steps that year. They recruited other students from across the city to take part and participation tripled from 2017. Some of those students helped found a districtwide online newspaper, The Bullhorn. Others, Boland says, presented the Philly Talents for Peace online talent show on June 5 to raise money for Moms Bonded by Grief, a group founded in 2017 by women who have lost family members to gun violence.

Ubiñas’s column inspired these efforts.

“She’s created this amazing network of community groups. When she writes about people, she somehow makes you feel like you have work to do. She activates people and has created this through-line that’s helped them find and use their voice,” said Boland. 

Travon Houston, now 17, was a freshman at Parkway Center City Middle College when Ubiñas came to speak to his ninth-grade English class.

“She was really passionate, and you could tell she was really willing to talk to us and get our feedback and she helped me personally to want to speak out,” Houston said. “When I first started high school, I was really shy about public speaking and now anytime I get the opportunity, I am ready to and willing.”

Houston says that Fill the Steps catapulted him to activism. He is now involved with two organizations fighting gun violence, March for Our Lives Philadelphia, where he’s a community relations leader, and the Parkway Peace and Social Justice Club.

“Two years ago, I asked these students to lead the march to these steps. When I first met them, they were trying to figure out what to do with this issue. To see what they’ve become and how they’ve used their voices and how they’ve become advocates and activists. It’s just amazing. At my proudest moment, I hope that I’ve helped awaken their spirits,” said Ubiñas. “I’m in people’s neighborhoods and living rooms, telling stories of their best days and often their worst days. I don’t know if that’s courage, but it is what I’m most proud of, those moments when these stories get through.”