In 1994, Erin Gruwell begins her journey as an English teacher at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California. During this period, racial tensions are at an all-time high. In 1992, officers from the Los Angeles Police Department were acquitted after brutally beating Rodney King, an unarmed black man, and the court’s decision was soon followed by six days of violent rioting, as members of the African-American community expressed their long-standing frustration with the discrimination and abuse they suffer at the hands of the police. These riots shook the entire region, heightening racial tensions in the area and convincing a young woman, Erin Gruwell, to devote herself to teaching. She hopes to help young people deal with their pent-up anger in non-violent ways and thus chooses to teach at a school known for its ethnic and socio-economic diversity. While the school itself is not in a dangerous neighborhood, many of the students who attend it come from environments marked by gang violence and drug trafficking.
During her first year as a student teacher, Erin attempts to create a color- and ethnicity-blind environment in the classroom. However, she is soon confronted to the reality of racial tensions when one of her students produces a racist caricature of Sharaud, an African-American student, depicting him with large, protruding lips. When Ms. Gruwell intercepts this drawing, she loses her temper, telling her students that such stereotyping leads to horrific events such as the Holocaust. However, she soon discovers that most of her students do not know what the Holocaust is. As a result, she decides to use this incident as a teaching opportunity inspiring her to focus her curriculum on the issue of tolerance.
The next year, she is assigned a new group of students: freshmen who have been labeled “at risk,” “unteachable,” and whom no one else wants. She becomes aware that her primary objective will be to instill self-confidence in these so-called “rejects” who have been abandoned by most of the adults around them, including, often, their very own parents. She also is forced to address the stark ethnic rivalries that divides the classroom, as students form groups according to their appearance, separating into Latinos, Asians, African-Americans, and whites. These divisions reflect the gangs’ separation according to ethnicity and reveal the fact that, for many of these students, the choice to remain within the confines of their own ethnic group is an issue of life and death, aimed at ensuring their survival in the “hood” where racially based violence is a constant threat.
In order to make her students more attuned to the similarities they share as a class and to feel engaged with schoolwork, Ms. Gruwell chooses literary works that reflect the students’ realities. When she begins to teach her class about the history of ethnic violence around the world, focusing on the stories of Anne Frank in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands and Zlata Filipović in contemporary war-torn Bosnia and Herzegovina, her students find themselves identifying with these young girls’ experiences as expressed in their diaries. They become aware that ethnic division can lead to horrible wars and genocides. At the same time, when Ms. Gruwell makes them write their own diaries, they become personally acquainted with the powerful effect that diary-writing can have, as it often allows them to cope with the difficult situations of everyday life.
In their diaries, many students describe lives that are strikingly similar to the violent worlds of Anne Frank and Zlata Filipović. Some students believe that they are more likely to be shot before the age of sixteen than to graduate, as gang violence is ubiquitous in their neighborhoods. Others share harrowing stories of domestic abuse, homelessness, and growing up in environments where one parent (or both) has completely abandoned them. These complex realities leave deep marks on the students’ psyches, often convincing them that they are destined to fail academically and to live the rest of their lives in a world characterized by poverty, violence, and death.
Over the course of the months, however, thanks to Ms. Gruwell’s guidance, they become more academically involved, as they immerse themselves in the study of the Holocaust. Through interactive activities such as collaborative assignments, field trips to museums, and even meeting Holocaust survivors, the students become committed to promoting Anne Frank’s message of ethnic tolerance and peace. Inspired by other people’s stories of struggle, they become convinced violence is not always the solution, and that words can have powerful, life-changing effects both on themselves and on other people. The class atmosphere begins to change, as students realize that, despite their ethnic and racial differences, they share a lot of similar experiences. Slowly, they become a more united group, increasingly trusting in the passion and wisdom that their devoted teacher communicates.
Despite her visible success at improving her students’ social behavior and academic performance, Erin Gruwell still faces the hostility of some professors, who disapprove of her innovative teaching methods. Throughout her four years at Wilson High School, she is forced to fight members of the school staff to prove to them that she should remain with her group of students, as these adolescents desperately need the stability and comfort that her classroom provides in order to flourish as confident students and human beings. Ultimately, she and her allies succeed in ensuring that she can bring her teaching project to fruition with these previously “unteachable” adolescents, and she succeeds in staying with her class To finance the students’ various field trips and new books, she takes on two additional jobs at Nordstrom and the Marriott Hotel.
Sophomore year marks a turning point in the students’ lives. When Ms. Gruwell organizes a “Toast for Change” activity, in which each student gives a toast celebrating their commitment to changing and becoming a better person, the class feels deeply motivated by the thought that they are given a clean slate and can take control of their lives. Most of them actively seize this opportunity to modify their behavior and, most importantly, summon the courage necessary to believe in their own selves—proving wrong, in the process, all the people who ever told them they were bound to fail.
When Ms. Gruwell gives her students the assignment to write letters to Zlata Filipović, her class becomes so excited about the prospect of contacting this young girl that Ms. Gruwell soon finds herself actually sending Zlata these letters and inviting her to come to California. When Zlata accepts, the students are finally able to meet this young writer whom they have read and admire so much. They discover that she is a young girl just like them, who has transformed her difficult circumstances into an opportunity for self-growth and education.
After learning from Zlata about the dangers of ethnic hatred, they are later able to meet Miep Gies, another one of their heroes. Miep was Anne Frank’s father’s secretary and played an important role in hiding them during the war, as well as ultimately publishing the young girl’s diary. When one of Ms. Gruwell’s students tells her that she is his hero, Miep replies that they are all heroes, capable of changing the world in their own way and responsible for promoting Anne Frank’s legacy of peace and tolerance. This message impacts Ms. Gruwell’s students. They begin to believe that they, too, can change the world.
The next year, Ms. Gruwell’s class studies the history of racial injustice and civil rights in the United States. They learn about the Freedom Riders, an interracial group of activists—seven black, six white—who rode buses in the American South in the 1960s to protest the segregation of public buses. While the group was attacked by violent Ku Klux Klan mobs on various occasions, they did not hesitate to put their own lives at risk to fight for what they believed in. Inspired by this courageous example of interracial cooperation, Ms. Gruwell’s students decide to call themselves the “Freedom Writers.” They commit to devoting their lives to fighting intolerance and discrimination.
After this decisive moment, Ms. Gruwell’s group of 150 students becomes even more committed to their academic lives and to the nurturing of a positive group atmosphere. They decide to compile their diary entries into a book, in order to share their stories with the world. The millionaire John Tu gives the class thirty-five computers so that they can achieve this goal and regroup their entries in an anonymous manner. This project gains increased significance when the Freedom Writers successfully organize a trip to Washington, D.C., to share their stories with United States Secretary of Education Richard Riley.
During the Freedom Writers’ last year of high school, Ms. Gruwell decides to devote her energy to the group’s future. Her goal is for all of her students to go to college. As a result, she organizes college tours and invites specialists to share information about SAT preparation and financial aid, in order to make the application process seem accessible to her students, many of whom are the first of their family to graduate from high school and attend college. The atmosphere during this year is one of hard work and celebration, as these young adults realize with amazement that their dreams might finally be within reach.
At the same time, during this period, the Freedom Writers become a media phenomenon. The students receive the Spirit of Anne Frank award, which rewards people fighting against discrimination and prejudice in their communities, and are invited to travel to New York to receive this prize. In parallel, a local article about the Freedom Writers is republished in the L.A. Times, and the students suddenly find themselves overwhelmed with personal responses to the article, as well as with offers from corporate firms who offer to sponsor their projects in various ways.
After the students successfully graduate, Erin Gruwell decides to teach educators about her experience with the Freedom Writers at National University, Long Beach. She remains present in the Freedom Writers’ lives as many of them struggle with their new lives, finding the transition to college difficult, or have to deal with new family responsibilities. After these moments of transition, one year after their graduation, the entire group gathers to go on a trip to Europe. There, they visit symbolic, historical sites, and reaffirm their commitment to the promotion of tolerance and peace.
Demonstrating her lifelong commitment with this project, Erin Gruwell creates the Freedom Writers Foundation, a non-profit organization aimed at helping young people benefit from the Freedom Writers teaching methodologies. This new space provides an alternative to the safe space the Freedom Writers created in their classroom and allows educators to learn about the Freedom Writers teaching strategies so that they can apply them in their own schools. As many Freedom Writers themselves become educators and role models for young people, they confirm their deeply rooted desire to give back to their own community. Through their actions, they hope to inspire young people in difficult circumstances to find the strength and self-confidence necessary to fight for their own success and, more generally, for the collective improvement of their communities.