Freedom Writers’ Erin Gruwell: Online, On Film, In Person!

freedom1.jpg“When a racial incident occurred in her classroom, 23-year-old English teacher Erin Gruwell spun it into an ongoing dialogue that ultimately changed the lives of 150 inner-city students…”

With new media, social web connectivity, and video posts, she’s no doubt reached millions more!

True stories like the Freedom Writers don’t make it onto film often enough, but when they do, they can rock your world, taking you to places in your soul you’ve never been before.

It’s meaningful media that’s gritty, real, and profound. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a book and movie must. This ‘against all odds’ movie (starring Hilary Swank now on dvd) confronts hatred through the written word as Erin Gruwell inspires teens to use writing to change themselves and the world around them; teaching with her heart.

Knowing these people really exist in the world can “pay it forward” far beyond the triumph of self-expression over violence, racism, and despair. Connecting with the REAL faces behind the actors jolt you into renewed energy that heroic perseverance CAN prevail in reality, as well as Hollywood.

Next Friday, June 1st, I get to see “Ms. G” for myself, when teacher Erin Gruwell speaks at Bayside Performing Arts Center in San Mateo. ($15 tickets here) I’m so excited to hear her speak, (and hopefully, snag an interview for Shaping Youth later) that I can hardly contain the power of my pen. (details at the end)

As a writer with a vision, THIS is what can happen when worthy content ignites a media conversation…passion turns into promise with scalability en masse.

From her book to the screen, to the internet, and now her foundation and teaching institute, media’s positive potential can create a groundswell of possibility far beyond any classroom.

When media gets involved in storytelling, the vast power can change the channel for an entire generation of youth…

Just as the Freedom Writers’ journals proved cathartic for the students, kids of all colors and ages now post their reactions to a shared media experience.

Youth turn to online hubs for self-expression, erasing the boundaries of cultures and countries, creating a sense of ‘family’ much like the classroom of Room 203.

As I listen to the hip-hop soundtrack and music video (there’s lots of powerful MLK vibrancy coming through loud and clear) I realize this is part of MY ‘dream’ at Shaping Youth…opening mass, global dialogue toward better understanding, to “use the power of media for positive change.”

This film succeeds brilliantly in doing just that.

Focusing on common threads instead of unraveling differences, is a prelude to sustainable change…

We’re not talking about a virtual ‘group hug’ here…These forums where teens can be heard, and tell their story are opportunities to unite and inspire through education and understanding.

On the BeHeard video/blog forum at YouTube, topics are all over the board from guns to God.

Some kids hangout and listen within the social network communities, while other teens actively blog, post poetry, lyrics, experiences of loneliness, and share the movie’s impact.

“To feel hopeless at 16 is such a tragedy. And so many kids do,” said book author and teacher Erin Gruwell.

Agree. You sure don’t have to be dodging bullets or enmeshed in gang warfare to “get it” or “relate,” or be a part of the emotional conversation.

My suburban blonde tween was moved beyond words by this film, while some of the urban kids I work with that have lived this life firsthand and seen the movie ten times or more.

On the YouTube forum, mini-clips tell stories in themselves, like this “dream fulfilled” video of Darien, (an original Freedom Writer) meeting Will.i.am and Common, sharing their musical bond through hip-hop.

Hunter Parrish, one of the actors offers a white kid suburban perspective of “what makes me feel free.”

The “persistence of Ms. G” is captured in this :30 clip with Jason Finn, who played the outcast son. Erin Gruwell talks about her first year of teaching here, and discusses how the kids bonded learning violence is color-blind.

My point with these samples is that when Erin said, “Everyone has their own story, we’re going to write in these journals…” she spoke to the voice within us ALL crying out to be heard for who we are, not just where we came from, or what we look like or what we possess.

This teen’s MySpace comment (an all caps shout out) made me smile, as it’s bursting with boldness and youthful enthusiasm…

“EVRYONE SHOULD COME AND CHECK OUT MY PAGE SO YOU CAN SEE THE FREEDOM WRITTER THAT IS IN ME!!!!”

Then there are those all too familiar with the movie’s lifestyle, like this one I just pulled from the Freedom Writers MySpace site a minute ago,

“WELL WEN I SAW DIS MOVIE I UNDERSTOND WAT U PPL WERE TALKIN ABOUT BECUZ OF DA FACT DAT U ARENT DA ONLY PPL DAT GO THOUGH THINGZ LIKE DAT..ME N MA FRIENDZ BE CHILLIN OUTSIDE WITH OUT NOE WEN OR WEN DERE ISNT GANNA BE A DRAVE BY..WITH OUT NOEIN IF WE GANNA BE HANGIN OUT 2GETHER 2MORROW WITH OUT NOEIN IF IMA WAKE UP TO MA MOM DA NEXT MORNING TO TELL HER I LUV HER!!..WONDERIN IF DIS IS EVER GANNA END!!..THATZ WAT MAKEZ USE GET IN A GANG..CUZ DEY R DERE 4 USE TO MAKE SURE DAT WE R SAFE N ALIVE..THATZ OUR PERTECTION..THATZ THE REASON Y U SEE LIL 10 YEAR OLDZ WALKIN AROUND SUMTIMES WITH A GUN OR SUMTHIN TO MAKE SURE DEY GOT SUMTHING TO PERTECT DEM SELFZ..ITZ SAD THOUGH..HOW DEREZ LIL 5 N 8 YEAR OLDZ DAT DIE BE CUZ OF USE..CUZ OF THE GANG WARZ N STUFF BUT I MEAN DERE NUTTIN WE CAN DO..BUT TRY TO SERVIVE

From the ‘all caps,’ this gent clearly wants to be heard!

As for youth mentors? The message is clearly “Teach with your heart.”

Educators share tips, lesson plans, success stories and incorporate film elements like the “line game” (adaptable for other common threads with kids, not just the impact of violence).

Gruwell’s entire foundation site is devoted to methods that inspire young, underprivileged students to pick up pens instead of guns. Here are the FAQs on how they work, who they are, and ways to get involved.

Their site says, “Much of the educational community and the public at large believes that “at-risk” kids can not learn until society fixes the problems that make kids at-risk in the first place (i.e. broken families, poverty, gang violence, etc.). Erin’s method teaches that the answers to society’s problems are in educating the kids. Until we do this, the problems cannot be fixed. This simple difference is what offers the most hope to this nation to improve the lives of millions.”

Change agents of ANY age can use the “toast to change” (which works just as well for topics ranging from environmental causes to dating, diet, or drugs). And the ‘ripple effect’ of the Freedom Writers story is self-evident:

“Instead of judging others by their economic standing, the color of their skin, or their learning abilities — students learn from each other and find common threads in their lives.”

Bravo, Erin Gruwell. Encore, media producers. Play it again, Sam.

San Mateo Event Details:

Erin Gruwell June 1st, Bayside Performing Arts Center

FREEDOM WRITERS TEACHER COMING TO SAN MATEO

Erin Gruwell, the teacher whose story was featured in the movie Freedom Writers, will be speaking at the Bayside Performing Arts Center on Friday, June 1, 2007 at 7:30pm.

Ms. Gruwell changed the lives of 150 students in the Long Beach area after the 1993 riots by inspiring these failing students to discover hope for their futures by writing the stories of their pasts. (Movie, rated PG-13, is out on dvd.) Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students, and are on sale now through www.brownpapertickets.com or 1(800)838-3006.

Thank you Mills-Peninsula Health Services, Bay Area Parent, and Bay Meadows Land Co.– the major sponsors for this event. If you have any questions, please contact Geri Sullivan: gerisullivan@comcast.net.

Shaping Youth note: Geri Sullivan (above) and publisher of Bay Area Parent, Cindy Byrne (event sponsor) serve on our Regional Advisory Board for Shaping Youth. Any support you can give them by attending the Freedom Writers’ Erin Gruwell event would be grand; See you there! -Amy

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Comments

  1. Great blog, Aim… Proud of you!!!! xoxoxoxo

  2. John Weeks from our mutual Stop Cyberbullying social media site blogs from Cambodia & has an interesting view on this post here:
    http://jinja.apsara.org/index.php/2007/08/21/all-cliches-are-true/
    (just found him on Beth Kanter’s blog, ironically, here: http://beth.typepad.com/beths_blog/2007/09/a-few-expat-blo.html

    Anyway, John rightfully brings up the cliche factor, and ‘why aren’t Cambodians’ in the film more since that was the reality, etc. so clearly the usual ‘Hollywoodization’ of the literary genre trying to maintain its integrity in translation to film is a condundrum. Still, I think seeing and hearing Erin herself, and researching the book and curriculum & online resources (most recent newsltr. from them involves Erin’s interactive training to teacher’s re: the darkest parts of WW2/Holocaust museum, etc. Video from NBC on the training here: http://video.knbc.com/player/?id=140109&tr=y&auid=2928169 ) reinforces to ME anyway, that even though the film may have some cliche genre elements, the message coming out is still being heard, loud & clear. Looking around the audience that night, there was ‘pay it forward’ written all over the faces of youth, teachers, parents, and then some. Inspiring.

    p.s. know Carmen at Racialicious in our series on race/gender/media had similar cliche thoughts on this book to film translation too…she mentioned it in our interview, in fact…

  3. A Holloway says:

    “WELL WEN I SAW DIS MOVIE I UNDERSTOND WAT U PPL WERE TALKIN ABOUT BECUZ OF DA FACT DAT U ARENT DA ONLY PPL DAT GO THOUGH THINGZ LIKE DAT..ME N MA FRIENDZ BE CHILLIN OUTSIDE WITH OUT NOE WEN OR WEN DERE ISNT GANNA BE A DRAVE BY..WITH OUT NOEIN IF WE GANNA BE HANGIN OUT 2GETHER 2MORROW WITH OUT NOEIN IF IMA WAKE UP TO MA MOM DA NEXT MORNING TO TELL HER I LUV HER!!..WONDERIN IF DIS IS EVER GANNA END!!..THATZ WAT MAKEZ USE GET IN A GANG..CUZ DEY R DERE 4 USE TO MAKE SURE DAT WE R SAFE N ALIVE..THATZ OUR PERTECTION..THATZ THE REASON Y U SEE LIL 10 YEAR OLDZ WALKIN AROUND SUMTIMES WITH A GUN OR SUMTHIN TO MAKE SURE DEY GOT SUMTHING TO PERTECT DEM SELFZ..ITZ SAD THOUGH..HOW DEREZ LIL 5 N 8 YEAR OLDZ DAT DIE BE CUZ OF USE..CUZ OF THE GANG WARZ N STUFF BUT I MEAN DERE NUTTIN WE CAN DO..BUT TRY TO SERVIVE

    This is what passes for education?

  4. I hear you, and that’s another story in itself…I cited that specifically for the rawness of it…in the gang world when people are getting shot for looking at someone the wrong way, or using random rituals like ‘flick the lights’ and you’re a dead man (at a car driving sans beams) that IS the level of education and machismo antics that kids are faced with in the meanest of the streets attempting to survive.

    When you can get shot just lying in your own bed with a stray bullet from a drive-by gang shooting, as was the case today in Oakland with a 22 year old girl, that’s indeed the guerilla warfare that Freedom Writers is trying to halt through the power of education and reform over despair and hopelessness.

    Worth a shot…so to speak. sigh. We need many, many more Erin Gruwells out there in the world to combat the numbness, and cyclic violence of hate. Education, at any level is worth the effort…

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