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In 1999, a book came out featuring powerfully compelling diary entries written by inner-city high school students from Los Angeles. These diaries chronicled the effects of an environment that was relegating an entire community of students to a cycle of underachievement, abuse, violence, racism, and a kind of invisibility that kept their abilities and talents hidden within a system that had largely stereotyped them as beyond reach. They were kept from being touched in any meaningful way by institutions, such as schools and social services -- and even family members, whose mission should have been serving and protecting them, as well as creating a path for success in their lives. This book was The Freedom Writers Diary, and its creator was Erin Gruwell, the high school teacher who took a risk and discovered that the key to reaching these students was in drawing out their unique, hidden, profound personal stories and journeys. The book was a national bestseller insipring a film and an entire educational movement. Erin Gruwell had plans to study law early on, but witnessing incidents such as the tragic 1992 Los Angeles Race Riots (incited by the Rodney King incident), led her to become interested in how our children and teens are a key to inspiring change and how schools can be spaces of transformation rather than oppression and failure. She understood that disadvantaged youth will likely be stuck mentally and physically in the context that they grow up in without some intervention to change both their perceptions and that of their parents and authority figures.
This led her to a career in teaching, but her early experiences at Woodrow Wilson High School in the 1990's seriously challenged her ability to rise above simply being another cog in an institution that was going through the motions, not "seeing" its students - even fearing them. Her first book, The Freedom Writers Diary, represents her path to "cracking the code" and putting the ownership of categories, such as identity, gender, nationality, race, family background, in the hands of her students, drawing out their stories of victimization, neglect, but also courage, survival, and perseverance, often against incredible odds. Erin has followed that groundbreaking book with other titles providing further inspiration and curriculum guidance for teachers and parents, such as Teaching Hope: Stories from the Freedom Writers Teachers and Erin Gruwell. In 2022, she published Dear Freedom Writer: Stories of Hardship and Hope from the Next Generation, featuring letters from today's students, but with a global perspective -representing their struggles and challenges - written to the original Freedom Writers students. Each letter is accompanied by a response from one of the original Freedom Writers.