Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers discuss overcoming challenges and the value of education

Thomas Holguin/HIGHLANDER

On Wednesday, March 6, ASPB hosted an early screening of the “Freedom Writers: Stories from the Heart” documentary and a Q&A with teacher and featured protagonist Erin Gruwell. The event began at 7 p.m. in University Lecture Hall 1000. ASPB hosted this event as a means to bring a demographic of storytellers to campus.

The documentary is about the students who Erin Gruwell taught during her teaching career in the mid-1990s at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach and how she was able to help them succeed despite the poverty, racism and crime they faced daily. To help them cope with their hardships, Gruwell gave her students journals to anonymously write down anything they wanted. By developing a curriculum that would engage her students and allow them an outlet to write express themselves, Gruwell gave her students a comfort and freedom they never had. This allowed all of her students to graduate from high school and further succeed in their lives. In homage to the 1960s civil rights group called the Freedom Riders, Gruwell’s class named themselves the Freedom Writers; in 1999, the students’ journals were published in an anthology, “The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them.”

The audience was filled with over 100 students, educators, administrators and others who were excited to watch the documentary. When given the microphone, Gruwell had the Freedom Writer teachers in the crowd stand up. These were teachers who were taught Ms.Gruwell’s methodology in intensive workshops through the Freedom Writers Foundation which she founded in 1997. After a brief introduction, the film began.

After the screening, ASPB passed the microphone to Gruwell, who directed most of the Q&A. Gruwell began by presenting three of her former Freedom Writer students: Erica, Norma and Tye, using their experiences as a springboard for the Q&A. Gruwell praised her former students’ successes despite their hardships; Norma graduated from UCR in 2014, Tye is a former combat medic and works for the Freedom Writers Foundation and Erica’s story was accepted for publishing by Random House publishing.

Gruwell gave her students the platform to tell parts of their story. Norma was an undocumented immigrant and nearly gave up school multiple times. After receiving her citizenship, she persevered through raising three children with her husband while going to school. Gruwell connected Erica’s adoption of a baby boy to the moment in the documentary when one of her Freedom Writer classmates had constantly moved foster homes and was left without a definite home. Gruwell drew this idea of sparing people from the hardships Erica prevented from happening to her son, who could easily have been a foster child like her former classmate.

Gruwell asked Tye why representation is so important for people as she noted him representing his fallen military brethren and on the representation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Tye commented on his life in Inglewood, surrounded by constant violence and death, and explained that these stories are often lost or ignored. Tye said that a reason he joined the military was due to his desire to stand up for victims of injustice. He remarked that things have improved, but that there is still systemic racism and more work to be done. Tye ended by saying, “It’s very important to express those that were lost and that people did hear about them because their lives did matter.”

Next, Gruwell gave the Freedom Writer teachers the opportunity to ask the first audience questions. They asked questions that would aid them in the current difficulties they have encountered with their own struggling students. Then Gruwell and her Freedom Writers gave these teachers helpful guidance and insight based on their own views and experiences.

Gruwell discussed her Freedom Writers Foundation, which strives to improve education through teaching institutions, speaking engagements, video chats and outreach programs. Today, there are 700 Freedom Writer teachers in every state and 20 countries focusing on improving the education and welfare of their students. When the event concluded, Gruwell and her Freedom Writers signed books and took photos with the crowd. The event was quite successful while ASPB Directors of Films and Lectures Neha Khushalani and Mandy Felix said that many students left inspired.

“Freedom Writers: Stories from the Heart” will be released March 28 at 8 p.m. on PBS.

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