Keynote Speaker for OC Honors - Erin Gruwell


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Erin Gruwell started college expecting to become a lawyer; however, following the Rodney King verdict and the subsequent LA Riots, Gruwell realized that her calling was not in a courtroom, but a classroom. Gruwell began her tenure as an English teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, CA. Her students were considered unteachable, and the educational system had all but forgotten about them. Despite school administrators and other staff doubting that these students would ever achieve anything, Gruwell pressed on, believing that any child can succeed.

After intercepting a racist caricature depicting one of her students, Gruwell told her students that it was drawings like that which led to the Holocaust. When one of her students asked her what was ‘the Holocaust?’ She was met by uncomprehending looks -- none of her students had heard of one of the defining moments of the 20th century. So she rebooted her entire curriculum, using treasured books like Anne Frank's diary as her guide to combat intolerance and misunderstanding. Her students began recording their thoughts and feelings in their own diaries, eventually dubbing themselves the “Freedom Writers." Their stories became The Freedom Writers Diary which quickly climbed to the top of the New York Times Bestsellers list.

By fostering an educational philosophy that valued and promoted diversity, she transformed her students’ lives. She encouraged them to re-think rigid beliefs about themselves and others, reconsider their own daily decisions, and ultimately, re-chart their future. With Gruwell’s support, they chose to forego teenage pregnancy, drugs, and violence in order to become aspiring college students, published writers, and citizens for change. 

Erin Gruwell continues to fight for equality in education as a professor of practice with Bay Path University, as a Chapman University fellow, and by sharing her teaching practices with educators from around the world via Freedom Writer Teacher training institutes though the Freedom Writers Foundation. Gruwell and her students’ story became the basis for the 2007 feature film, Freedom Writers, and the documentary, Freedom Writers: Stories from the Heart, which aired nationally on PBS in 2019. In September of 2019, The Freedom Writers Diary was republished with twenty new stories to celebrate the book’s twentieth anniversary.

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