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Empowering Our Educators

Lessons That Inspired Movement: Erin Gruwell 10 Years Later

Photos: Courtesy of The Freedom Writers Foundation, Joseph Verna

Teacher and author Erin Gruwell was the inspiration behind the film “Freedom Writers,” starring Hillary Swank. As the film, which explores what being a teacher truly means, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, Gruwell discusses the continuation of the movement her students started.

To Gruwell, the story expressed in the film supports a call to action and is a “movement to encourage other teachers to give their students a voice,” she says. “This is what the educational journey can look like when there’s the possibility for change.”  

Inspired by history

For Gruwell, to be a teacher is to be an advocate for young people. Her students named their movement in honor of the 1960s Freedom Riders, and the moniker was meant to encourage action. “Our story has roots in what is often times great pain, when people are marginalized,” says Gruwell. “It takes a passionate teacher to create a safe place.” The hate that Gruwell and her students lived through each day was a firsthand example of the political climate. “I wanted my students to understand: This is what happens when there is systematic hate and when people stand idly by.”

LEAVING AN IMPACT: The Freedom Writers Foundation has exceeded all expectations; what began as a way to simply help students afford supplies has become a way to help them change their lives.

Then and now

The Freedom Writers Foundation began as a project to purchase books for her students, “to take them on field trips, to museums,” she says. “It started really humbly.” Many of the original Freedom Writers went on to pursue higher education and careers, and continue to align themselves with the struggle that many live each day.

The foundation has since grown to cover scholarships, workshops and trainings across 15 countries. And it is continuing to discover those teachers with “that maverick spirit and who stop at nothing to reach their kids,” says Gruwell.

“They believe that every kid can find an opportunity for education,” she says. “Those teachers need to know that they’re not alone. There are other people who believe education is a game changer.”

Zoe Alexander, [email protected]

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