The Change Agent
Nearly 25 years after inspiring the Freedom Writers, alumna Erin Gruwell now shares lessons worldwideBy John Westcott
A scrap of paper passed from student to student in a Long Beach high school English class. They chuckled as the caricature of a classmate bounced around the room, scribbled with oversized lips and the words “PASS-ME.” Laughter erupted as it reached Sharaud, the intended victim. His expression melted.
Swiftly intercepting that note was an unpaid, 24-year-old student teacher and recent UCI graduate from Newport Beach, whom her pupils labeled “preppy.” Erin Gruwell ’91 then began a small discussion that grew into a big mutiny against traditional education.
Those familiar with Gruwell know the story (which was made into a major motion picture, with her role played by Hilary Swank). She compared the racist note to Nazi propaganda leading to the Holocaust. None of her students knew what the Holocaust was. Abruptly, she dumped her meticulous lesson plans and made tolerance for other people the new focus of the class.
Woodrow Wilson Classical High School in 1993 was a volatile mix of white students from relatively wealthy neighborhoods and many others bused in from communities beset by poverty, drugs and violence. A year after the Los Angeles riots, anger and mistrust were everywhere.
When Gruwell took her class to see “Schindler’s List,” security officers at a nearby grocery store patted down several students for weapons. It made the newspaper. Some teachers groused that she was making them look bad.
In her second year – her first as a paid employee – Gruwell began imploring administrators to let her retain 150 new students for all four years of high school. They later called themselves the “Freedom Writers,” after the Freedom Riders, civil rights activists who challenged segregated seating on public buses in the South.
Gruwell wanted to make an impact on their lives. She succeeded – but not without constant conflict. “I had to struggle to keep my students every year,” she recalls. “It was a battle to stay with them.”
“Making a commitment to change is a cornerstone of the Freedom Writers.”
Each year, she handed the teens journals and asked them to write anonymous entries about themselves. Gruwell learned that many led lives of desperation, ducking gunfire and losing friends and relatives to drugs and gang warfare.
“It allowed them to tell us what they could not tell anybody,” she says of the journaling.
One girl wrote that she had been sexually assaulted by an uncle near a Christmas tree. After her entry was read to the class, Gruwell recalls, “50 girls said, ‘That’s not my story. But it is my story.’”
One of her students, Sue Ellen Alpizar, joined the Freedom Writers as a junior transfer. “She was incredibly engaging,” Alpizar says of Gruwell. “She saw each student as an individual.” The teacher soon realized that the newcomer was dyslexic and paired her with classmates who could help. “I was a D-average student,” Alpizar says. “I wasn’t on track to graduate. But by my last report card, my semester GPA was a 4.0.”
Gruwell also snagged such guest speakers as Miep Gies, the woman who had helped hide Anne Frank and several other Jews from the Nazis during World War II; and Zlata Filipovic, who as a girl had diarized the horrors of the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War.
“Gies told the Freedom Writers, ‘I simply did what I had to do because it was the right thing to do,’” Gruwell says. “I aspire to follow in her humble footsteps and do the same.”
Today, the 47-year-old educator still fights the good fight. Her life is a whirlwind of teaching and presentations. Her globetrotting has taken her to Palestine, Croatia, Taiwan and many other places where people yearn to hear her story – and any wisdom she can impart. She has written four best-selling books, including Teach With Your Heart. In March, she flew to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, with other finalists winnowed from 20,000 nominations worldwide for the Global Teacher Prize. (The winner was Maggie MacDonnell, who teaches in an Inuit village in the Canadian Arctic accessible only by air.)
Many of the 150 Freedom Writers, all of whom graduated from high school, are now teachers, principals, counselors, veterans, architects and tech employees. Some work for the Freedom Writers Foundation that Gruwell established to cut high school dropout rates through the use of the Freedom Writers method. It has taught the progressive curriculum to more than 500 other instructors.
“Making a commitment to change,” Gruwell says, “is a cornerstone of the Freedom Writers.” Her personal commitment to change occurred while she was a UCI student, watching on television as a young Chinese man faced down a tank in Tiananmen Square. In that moment, she decided to become a teacher “to stand up for kids who felt invisible, who didn’t have a voice, who were on the fringe and the margins.”
Gruwell remains active as an alumna. She serves on the UCI Alumni Association board of directors and has given dozens of presentations on campus. Last year, she was the commencement speaker for the School of Humanities.
“By fostering an educational philosophy that values and promotes diversity, Erin has transformed her students’ lives and those of many others,” said humanities dean Georges Van Den Abbeele at the 2016 event. “She encouraged them to rethink rigid beliefs about themselves and others, reconsider daily decisions and, ultimately, rechart their futures.”
Though Gruwell left Woodrow Wilson High after five years, she has continued to teach at California State University, Long Beach; Long Beach City College; and Massachusetts’ Bay Path University.
The crucial interception of a scrap of paper that started it all happened almost a quarter-century ago. Gruwell’s plans for the future include helping to educate children in Jordan’s refugee camps and becoming a global force in teacher training.
Where did that young teacher, initially typecast by her students, find the courage to blow up the tidy boxes of education?
“I was lucky to find my voice at UCI and was encouraged to follow my passion,” Gruwell says. “I was exposed to unbelievably enlightened people, and now I’m just hungry to keep that light burning.”