Erin Gruwell — Inspiration Behind ‘Freedom Writers’ Movie — Gives Virtual Talk at COVE Lounge

Erin Gruwell, founder of the Freedom Writers Foundation and the subject of the 2007 movie “Freedom Writers” starring Hillary Swank, gave a talk via Zoom on Thursday, April 6 to students gathered in The Max A. Shacknai Center for Outreach, Volunteerism, and Education (COVE) lounge at Colgate University. 

Gruwell is also the author of titles such as “Teach With Your Heart” and “The Freedom Writers Diary Teacher’s Guide.” According to her biography on the Freedom Writers Foundation website, Gruwell “foster[s] an educational philosophy that values and promotes diversity.”

During the talk, Gruwell discussed her experience teaching her students — now known as Freedom Writers — in Long Beach, California, during the 1990s. She discussed how the climate and attitudes surrounding race after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles affected her student’s schooling and relationship with her and with one another. 

“My kids were angry, my kids didn’t like school, my kids didn’t like authority and they didn’t like me initially,” Gruwell said. “All of these years later […] the same students I started with are still in my life […] my students have become these authors and activists, and have really traveled the world with me trying to make a difference — not only in education but in boardrooms and in the halls of academia.” 

Gruwell showed clips from the “Freedom Writers” movie followed by commentary from her students about the real-life situations depicted in the film. 

She then pivoted to discussing the work the Freedom Writers Foundation does today. Gruwell, along with some of her students, travel both domestically and internationally to advocate for education and help schools that are experiencing problems within their own community.

“How do we dive in, rip the Band-Aid off and not enable bad behavior — and call out evil where it lies,” Gruwell asked while discussing a visit she and a Freedom Writer did to a school the day before speaking to Colgate students. 

Gruwell also spoke about her and the Freedom Writers Foundation’s new book project, “Dear Freedom Writer: Stories of Hardship and Hope from the Next Generation.”

“During the pandemic, we started this new book project,” Gruwell said. “We had young people […] write to us about something they were going through in the present.” 

The original Freedom Writers then wrote back to these students with advice and empathy. Sophomore and COVE intern, Lucrezia Di Vincenzo spoke about attending the talk. 

“I decided to go to the talk because I had read the book back in high school and it has been on my mind since I read it, so getting the chance to listen to someone who’s almost a celebrity to you is really cool,” Di Vincenzo said. “I am a COVE intern, so learning from her [about] how she touched people’s lives and made them a lot better and almost happier is something that should be brought to the COVE.” 

Di Vincenzo also noted that the talk was mostly focused on Gruwell’s book and the “Freedom Writers” movie, lamenting the fact that Gruwell did not give as much practical advice as she had hoped.

“My overall impression of the talk was overall pretty positive; I was expecting more of a teaching moment about how she was able to do what she did, or maybe how she managed to take that classroom and almost apply the philosophy on a broader scale,” Di Vincenzo said. “In the end, it happened to be more a summary of her book and movie, which was still very interesting, as they are both very powerful stories that need to be shared more. The talk, much like her book, was quite touching, talking about a lot of sensitive topics and having first-hand accounts of them from the teenagers that had all grown up and were now successful adults was extremely exciting and cool to see.”

Sophomore Luz Hernandez found the talk inspiring and enjoyed hearing about Gruwell’s experiences teaching. 

“I have a personal interest in education and try to take jobs and attend events that allow me to explore the educational system hands-on,” Hernandez said. “The fact that Gruwell keeps in touch with her students after all these years made me think about my high school teachers and how much I appreciated their guidance. I have a lot of respect for Gruwell’s dedication to teaching young students and was grateful for her honest and encouraging words.”