Amid our new reality of shelter in place, our family enjoys watching thought provoking movies and documentaries. Just this past evening, we discovered “Freedom Writers” starring Hilary Swank while perusing Netflix - an easy decision given our admiration for the actress. “Freedom Writers” tells the story of how an inexperienced teacher motivated and inspired at-risk students, who were struggling with issues such drugs, gang violence, poverty, and homelessness, in a racially divided community in Long Beach, CA. Wanting to make sure that this story was not another Hollywood’s fairy tale, I did some research into the real Erin Gruwell. What I found was that her real-life story was even more incredible than the version portrayed by Swank.
Erin Gruwell believed that her students deserved better. She knew that for her teachings to resonate, she first needed to find a way to relate and to connect with her students. Only then, can real human connection and empathy can be transformative. Gruwell had hoped that racial segregation in schools ceased to exist forty years after the Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown v. Board of Education, but the reality at Wilson High School was far from it. Yet instead of giving up on her school’s broken system, she had the courage and confidence to take action into her own hands.
During one class, her students passed around a racist caricature of one of their classmates. Visibly upset, Gruwell reprimanded her class, calling out that the imagery was akin to Nazi propaganda. However, she quickly discovered that her students, though having lived through gun violence themselves, had never heard of the Holocaust. Gruwell changed her curriculum, making tolerance the core of her teaching. Her students read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Zlata’s Diary.” Guest speakers such as Miep Gies, the Dutch woman who hid Anne Frank and her family, were invited to speak. Gruwell took her students on field trips to museums and dinners with special guests. It’s significant to note that though she had no budget from the school for such extracurricular excursions, she moonlighted as a concierge and sold lingerie to fund these experiences herself, bringing the world outside of their racially divided school to her class. Her students find their own voice and learned empathy, forming a bridge to one another despite their differences and friendships where there was once animosity.
In 1999, Gruwell’s and her students’ work were compiled and published as “The Freedom Writers Diary.” The title pays homage to 1960s civil rights group, The Freedom Riders. The book was a New York Times bestseller, and the proceeds from book sales funded college scholarships for many of the original Freedom Writers.
The unforgettable lesson I learned from Erin Gruwell and Elizabeth Freeman (the star of our last blog post) is that fighting for change is only the first step. History has shown that changing laws does not change beliefs. We must not only hold ourselves accountable for the present, but to push our society forward for the future.
These women have inspired me to follow in their footsteps. Teaching our younger generations can be the movement for exponential growth and positive change for our future. And that, is what I hope to do through Jezuba.
Co-founder and Director, Jezuba
credit: The Freedom Writers Diary