“Public school systems are incredibly important,” Ressa said. “Toms River was like exploration. You find your friends. If you’re a nerd you learn it’s OK to be a nerd.” And all of the activities and classes she had at Toms River North prepared her for college.
“It allowed me to enter this different world at Princeton,” Ressa said. At Princeton “I fell into journalism,” and after graduation took a Fulbright fellowship opportunity to return to the Philippines, where the People Power revolt, had thrown Ferdinand Marcos out of power.
From there, the rest has been history. At age 40, she made the decision to stay in the Philippines for good, fighting to hold dictators to account there and in many of the Southeast Asian countries, where Rappler actively reports on the news and frequently runs afoul of authorities.
Ressa said it was public school where she learned to stand her ground.
“The Toms River schools system did that for me,” Ressa said. “You learn how to deal with bullies.”
She also learned that part of the key to holding bullies accountable is “you have to have people who will stand up for you against these bullies.” That is what she sees her role is as a journalist, to stand up for others, she said.
Ressa said she has stepped back from an active reporting role, and now spends much of her time dealing with the legal challenges that the Duterte government throws her way. The day she spoke with Patch, she was preparing for court in a cyber libel case the government had filed against her over reporting she had done eight years earlier on Duterte’s regime and the anti-drug campaign. That campaign has included “death squads,” she said, that executed people on the charge that they are using drugs. Thousands of people were killed, she said.
Rappler’s reporting has led to a probe by the International Criminal Court into the death squads.
“My job is to hold up the sky so my team can keep doing investigative journalism,” she said.
The arrests and the court battles have not deterred her work, however. She has written a book on the experience, “How to Stand Up to a Dictator,” that is due out in July 2022.
“You just keep walking through the bad times to get to the good times,” she said. “We’re not going to back down.”
When she was called by the Nobel committee Friday morning, her response: “I’m speechless!”
“I’m just a journalist who is doing my job,” she said after she was nominated in February.
Hear her reaction to being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize:
While Ressa has made her home permanently in the Philippines, her parents and several family members have remained in the United States. In July 2019, she returned to the U.S. and visited Toms River, including the schools she attended, and participated in a memorial orchestra concert to honor Don Spaulding, the orchestra teacher who arranged the piano lessons.
“Toms River has changed, but it felt the same,” she said. “There are all these little memories, safe memories.”
She reflected at length on her time in the Toms River schools in an essay she wrote for Rappler in 2019 after her visit. You can read it here.