Erin Gruwell
Founder & President of Freedom Writers Foundation

Catalyst for Change

  • I am just an ordinary person who had an extraordinary experience.
  • The catalyst for this extraordinary experience came when I saw a young man stand up in Tiananmen Square. This man was an example of how one person can give many people a voice.
  • I had never stood up for anything at this point in my life.

Am I am willing to stand up for something?

  • At this point I decided I no longer wanted to be a lawyer, but instead I wanted to be teacher.
  • When I first arrived in L.A. I went in thinking I would change these kids with literature.
  • This community and these kids had been greatly impacted by the LA riots.
  • These students had never read a book from cover to cover.
  • These kids mission in life was to make my life miserable and they did.
Getting Perspective

These kids ask me, “Why did we have to read books by old, dead, white guys wearing tights?”

  • I asked my principal, “Who are these 150 students I have?” He told her that she had lowest 150 kids in the area of 97,000 kids in tough neighborhood.
  • All these kids were below 25 percentile on all their test scores.
  • The principal had giving up on these kids, he was not a leader. He saw no hope for them and used stats to back up his opinions.
Connecting
  • I began thinking of ways to make a connection with these students.
  • One student had ankle bracelet monitor and a probation officer with her when she came into my classroom. She was a 14-year old girl.  She had been in a juvenile home and had a black eye.
  • I gave all the students a journal and asked them to write their stories in them.

All students have an odyssey, a journey they had been on,  a story to tell!

  • I wanted to hear their stories.
  • I set up a game to get students to tell story. I wanted them to stand up and be proud.
  • I drew a line down the middle of the room.
  • I said to the class, “Stand on the line if you are poor.” 150 kids stood on the line.
  • “Stand on the line if you have ever been homeless”
  • I wanted them to stand for something.
  • I wanted their voice to be heard.
  • I followed up with questions about drugs, alcohol, suicide, and murder.
  • Quickly I learned that all these kids had a story to tell.
  • One kid had his first overdose at age 5, while another hated all teachers because one had sent his sister to Child Protective Services after his parents had hit him and his sister.
Giving them a Voice

  • I realized I could not change these kids, but maybe I can give these kids a voice.
  • Maybe the could rewrite their history.
  • Many of these kids felt they were in a war, so I wanted to have them read about other kids who were at war like Anne Frank.
  • The chair of English department said they were all too stupid to read a book.
  • When kids are repeatedly told they are dumb, stupid and worth nothing they begin acting as such.
  • She bought 150 copies of The Diary of Anne Frank and a couple of other books for the kids to read.
  • Could I get these kids to identify with the kids in the book?
  • Well, they did identify with them. Anne states, “Sometimes I feel like a bird in a cage and sometimes I just want to fly away.” The 14-year old in an ankle bracelet could relate to this.

Anne Frank provided these kids an opportunity to rewrite the endings to their stories.


  • The students wrote to authors and we began to ask, “Could we follow in the footsteps of a girl like Anne Frank?”
  • “Could we write our own stories?”
  • Our class began to write our own stories. We sent it to a bunch of publishers who all rejected it, except one.
  • It was published and has become a phenomenon in this country.
  • These 150 kids had written stories of kids everywhere.
  • The title of the book is, “The Freedom Writers Diary.”
Rewriting History
  • It is my hope that we can learn from these kids how to rewrite our own endings.
  • These kids went on to become the first kids in their families to graduate, the first to go to college.
  • Remember the 14-year old with the ankle monitor bracelet, she rewrote her ending. She stood up in front of Congress and spoke up for all who needed a voice. She then told them she would be the first Hispanic female Secretary of Education.
Today I am here as just and ordinary person who had an extraordinary experience with 150 kids. Our job now is that we go out and pay it forward to every student in every community in this country.
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Comments
  1. I found myself crying through most of Erin Gruwell’s Chick-fil-A Leadercast presentation. I really resonated with her organization’s mission. I have lived the life of many of her clients/constituents, and by grace have seen the LORD work in my life and so many others for our joy and His glory. I am so thankful for Erin’s message and I pray it was inspiring to so many others!

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