UCI Alum Erin Gruwell Returns to Inspire Change with Freedom Writers Documentary

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By Diego Quispe Huaman

UCI’s Student Alumni Association (SAA) hosted a screening of the documentary “Freedom Writers: Stories from an Undeclared War” last Wednesday, followed by a question-and-answer period with UCI alum Erin Gruwell, along with some of the original Freedom Writers, Tony Becerra and Sue Ellen Alpizar.  

In 1994, 150 at-risk Wilson High School students in Long Beach, California living in a racially divided community struggled with constant exposure to drugs, abuse and gang violence. Despite being considered unteachable, Gruwell embraced the challenge and relied on the works of writers such as Anne Frank and Gary Soto to help her students understand they were not alone. Gruwell also encouraged them to write about their personal experiences to help express themselves. They decided to call themselves Freedom Writers.

In 1999, Gruwell published “The Freedom Writers Diary” detailing her experience, which was the basis for a 2007 movie starring Hilary Swank.

From their first day at Wilson High to the present day, the documentary provides an intimate look through the perspective of Gruwell and the Freedom Writers at what happened before, during, and after they first met in Room 203.

Prior to screening the documentary, Gruwell spoke to the crowd, which not only included students and club members but also other UCI alumni and professors.

“When my Freedom Writers entered my world many of them had been transient, many of them didn’t have home movies or photographs,” said Gruwell. “I wanted to have something that was tangible to our time together in Room 203, not knowing it would last more than a semester or a year, and here we are all these years later. We took those home movies and we took those polaroid pictures and we gathered all those mementos of the years in Room 203.”

The documentary explores themes of intolerance, acceptance, and inclusivity as the Freedom Writers study the Holocaust. Johannah Sohn, director of the Hillel of Orange County, a humanitarian organization and co-sponsor of the event, spoke about how his organization works not only with Jewish students on campuses around the globe but with people who want to know more.

During the question-and-answer period, Becerra and Alpizar elaborated on their personal struggles and how being a Freedom Writer has transformed their lives.

Alpizar explained how suppressing her emotions affected her, as well as the importance of having the ability to write and express herself in the classroom setting.

“Growing up, I’ve been through every type of abuse, homelessness, and the loss of a brother. The one consistent thing was the pain I was dealing with and the only way I knew how to survive was suppressing it,” she said. “The more and more I pushed it down, it did more damage to me than the things that were done to me. When I finally had the chance to write about it and talk about it was really the first steps that led to healing for myself. The writing process was not easy for me because you’re taught to not talk about those things but the more and more I was writing, the more I was processing my emotions and that led me to find peace in the end.”

Becerra addressed the importance of setting a positive example for others in his community.

“In my family, if I do something bad, like if I go to jail, I’ll probably see some of my cousins in there. I’m not going to be the first one. But if I do something positive then I’m going to be the first one in my family to do it,” said Becerra. “It’s hard doing good things for yourself, especially when you’re going through a lot, but it’s a lot easier when you’re thinking about other people and being that example for the next generation.”  

Gruwell also gave the audience a “homework assignment” to challenge themselves to have difficult conversations, including those that deal with race and being excluded. She emphasized being intentional and serving as a catalyst to help change the world. Additionally, she asked Alpizar and Becerra to give an assignment of their own.   

Recalling a lesson she learned from a Holocaust survivor, Alpizar said, “I encourage you to bear witness to someone’s story, which can lead you down a path of empathy and connection.”

“Pick somebody to be a good example for,” said Becerra. “When I started trying to change my outlook and my life because people would tell me to do it for myself but I didn’t really like myself. Thinking about my nephew, I knew I always wanted to be a good example for him so even when I didn’t want to do what was right I always had my nephew in mind.”

“We hope that each and every one of you can take the homework assignments and the lessons you learned and do something with that,” said Gruwell to the audience. “Thank you for allowing us to share our story with. Now it’s your turn to go and share your story with someone else.”  

Among the 150 Freedom Writers that graduated from high school, there have been many that have gone on to pursue higher education. Gruwell helped establish the Freedom Writers Foundation in order to help replicate her success and that of the Freedom Writers with the goal of guaranteeing all students receive a quality education. Currently, the program has teachers in every single state in America and in over 20 countries.

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