One teacher and 150 students got on a plane to the District of Columbia, armed with a bound volume of personal accounts. These accounts were real and gritty, full of harsh realities like gang violence, shootings, molestation and poverty.
These students were the Freedom Writers, a group of high school students from Long Beach, California who were able to express themselves through writing. Many of them have never left Southern California before, let alone been on a plane, but they traveled across the country to share their experiences with politicians who could make real changes. Every one of those children had a story to tell.
“One hundred fifty kids came together, put down the fist, put down the spray cans, put down the gun, picked up a pen and created a legacy,” said Erin Gruwell, the teacher behind the Freedom Writers.
Gruwell brought two of her original students to Chapman to share an advanced screening of the documentary “Freedom Writers: Stories from an Undeclared War,” which is based off their story.
The event was hosted by The National Society of Leadership and Success at Chapman.
“We chose to bring Erin (Gruwell) to speak because she is a one-of-a-kind leader,” Sara Davidian, the president of the society at Chapman, wrote in an email. “We thought it would bring awareness to the difference a leader can make in the lives of others and inspire our members, Chapman students and the community to strive to be better and step up to be a leader in all aspects of their lives.”
The documentary follows the students in room 203 of Woodrow Wilson High School from 1994 through their graduation in 1998.
The Los Angeles riots, a series of riots, arson and looting in 1992 over police brutality of Rodney King, broke out when these students were in middle school. Their lives weren’t any safer at the start of ninth grade. The students and their families dealt with ongoing abuse, drug addiction, incarceration and shootings.
They did not want to deal with a curious young teacher in a polka-dot dress trying to get them to talk about their lives and read literature, Gruwell said, but she found a way to connect these students to their coursework.
“I chose great storytellers who were survivors to inspire my students to take their own stories and write them down,” Gruwell said.
Two of these stories were “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl,” and “Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Wartime Sarajevo.”
The students began to write anonymous diary entries of their own, which they read aloud and edited.
They all had stories to tell, and a desire to make a difference. They coined the name “Freedom Writers” after the Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights movement, Gruwell said.
After enough of the diary entries were compiled, they got the idea to try and publish the work, like Anne Frank and the other young authors they studied in class.
“It was just like, ‘If they could do it, we could do it,’” said Tiffony Jacobs, one of the Freedom Writers.
After many rejections from publishing companies, the book was published in 1999 by Broadway Books of The Crown Publishing Group.
Through this experience Gruwell created The Freedom Writers Foundation, which gives scholarships, creates curriculums, visits schools, universities and juvenile halls through an outreach program, and hosts an annual summer institute for teachers in Long Beach, Gruwell said.
The documentary follows the Freedom Writers from 1994 up to the present day. It puts names and faces to the anonymous writers, going deeper than the 2007 movie “Freedom Writers” was able to do with only two hours, Gruwell said.
“I saw ‘Freedom Writers’ in class and was moved by the story. This was like continuing the story,” said Sarah Romeo, a sophomore business major.
Gruwell believed that seeing the actual people allows for a better human and emotional connection, which was felt by students.
“I have grown up in this area and I know people who can relate to these stories,” said Christian De Anda, a sophomore business major. “I can learn something from these people but spread ideas in my own way.”
Gruwell wanted people everywhere to connect to the story of her students.
“It is really about tapping into universal truth, whether it is about poverty, abuse, violence or finding yourself,” Gruwell said.
Following the screening was a Q-and-A as well as a book signing and photo opportunity.
All proceeds from the book sales and donations went to the The Freedom Writers Foundation’s internship program.
The documentary took 20 years to make, and has been screened at various film festivals. It is expected to be distributed for public broadcast in the fall.
“Now it is time for them to take off the veil, step into the light and claim their story,” Gruwell said.