Freedom Writers now: They form part of the Freedom Writers Foundation

In the mid-1990s, an English teacher named Erin Gruwell started a program that would change the lives of 150 teens attending Woodrow Wilson High School. Wilson High was racially diverse, but racism was still prevalent. Furthermore, the school had many at-risk students, including survivors of sexual abuse and gang violence. 

Erin ripped up the rule book and taught English her way. Instead of Shakespeare, students read The Diary of Anne Frank. Gruwell encouraged them to record their personal lives in journals, which excerpts would later form the New York Times Bestseller, The Freedom Writers Diary

Read on to find out what the Freedom Writers are up to now. 

After graduating high school, most of the Freedom Writers formed the Freedom Writers Foundation. Erin created the Foundation to spread the message about issues teenagers face in high school. 

The Freedom Writers visit schools and organizations through an outreach program and train teachers on innovative teaching methods. The Foundation’s about page reads:

“They [Freedom Writers] speak about topics such as homelessness, addiction recovery, bullying, depression and suicide awareness, and how to use storytelling to overcome adversity.”

Erin feels like the teachers trained by the Foundation have far better chances of success than she did because they have help. She told PBS SoCal:

“It’s incredible because these Freedom Writer teachers are doing the exact same thing that I did with my students. They’re doing it better because they’re not alone. I was alone, and I was making stuff up as I went. We deal with everything that a teacher would face with kids including mental health, suicide, addiction, violence and learning disabilities.”

The Freedom Writers Foundation has trained over 700 teachers based in the United States, Canada, and 20 other countries. Despite the hard work, Erin feels like the United States has regressed in the battle against racial inequality. 

“I spend a vast majority of my time visiting juvenile halls, and it is disproportionately young men of color,” Erin said. “Whatever we’re doing in our schools isn’t enough to engage our young voices.”

Nevertheless, Erin and her students won’t stop trying to change things. Gruwell talked to Press-Telegram about the joy of seeing the Freedom Writers blossom into adults:

“Over the years, I have been proud to watch my ‘kids’ become adults. I am still their cheerleader, their mentor, their confidante. I learn from them every day, and, in this way, I have also become their student.”

Sue Ellen Alpizar is the perfect example of a student saved by Erin Gruwell. “By the age of 15, I had experienced the loss of my brother,” Sue told Spectrum News 1. “My father was an alcoholic. My mother was neglectful. She had a mental illness. I had been homeless and I felt so completely lost.”

Ellen also had dyslexia, a fact missed by other teachers but quickly noticed by Erin. After the diagnosis, Sue’s grades and life improved. She’d been told that she wouldn’t make it to college, but Erin restored her self-belief.

“I was told I was not college material and shouldn’t even think about it,” Ellen told Press-Telegram. Ellen’s narrative mirrored the experiences of several other students in Woodrow Wilson High School – students who saw college admission as improbable.

“Against all odds, all 150 of them went on to graduate, became published authors, and started a world-wide movement to change the education system as we know it,” The Freedom Writers Foundation’s website reads.

After graduation, most students attended city colleges or universities. The Freedom Writers working with the Freedom Writers Foundation share their stories to encourage students to open up. The goal is to get students to express their feelings and appreciate education as a means to success. 

“For us, education was that tool for us to achieve our dreams,” Sue told Spectrum News 1. “We want to show them that with the power of education, they can break the cycle of abuse, poverty and of everything that they don’t want to live with anymore.”