In 1994, as an idealistic English teacher at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California, Erin Gruwell, confronted a room of “unteachable, at risk” students. She and her students, using the treasured books Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo as their guides, undertook a life-changing odyssey against intolerance and misunderstanding.
They learned to see the parallels in these books to their own lives, recording their thoughts and feelings in diaries and dubbing themselves the “Freedom Writers” in homage to the civil rights activists “The Freedom Riders.”
With powerful entries from the students’ own diaries and a narrative text by Erin Gruwell, a little book called The Freedom Writers Diary was produced. The book is an uplifting, unforgettable example of how hard work, courage, and the spirit of determination changed the lives of a teacher and her students.
In November, Avenue Scholars students and advisors had the incredible opportunity to meet the author and her “Freedom Writers” at a screening of Freedom Writers: Stories of An Undeclared War, hosted by Freedom Writers Foundation and the Omaha Freedom Writers Foundation, at the University of Nebraska-Omaha Strauss Performing Arts Center.
“Courtland Olson and I were approached by Laura Geiger of the Omaha Freedom Writers Foundation to partner with Avenue Scholars to let our students attend a special screening of the documentary, to meet Erin Gruwell and four of the original Freedom Writers, and to even get to do a special book signing/meet and greet,” said Emily Christensen, Talent Advisor at Omaha Bryan High School.
“Many of our Avenue Scholars have read the Freedom Writers Diary as part of their high school curriculum throughout the metro districts and almost all have watched the Freedom Writers movie, as it airs on MTV frequently.”
Approximately 85 Avenue Scholars, representing all nine of the Avenue Scholars schools — Omaha Benson, Omaha Bryan, Omaha North, Omaha Northwest, Omaha South, Millard South, Papillion-LaVista, Papillion- LaVista South, and Ralston — attended the event.
Students got to watch the documentary that follows the “after the book/movie” lives of these Freedom Writers. After the screening, the OFWF gave away free books to students so they could have them signed. The four Freedom Writers got on stage and spoke about powerful experiences they’ve had regarding mental health, dealing with urban violence, finding confidence as a young black female, and being the first to graduate and setting the path for others to follow.
“It was truly the most powerful part of the evening, as the students who attended really connected with the stories, experiences, and advice these role models were giving,” Christensen said.
The event had an inspirational impact on students who attended:
Nakiya Whitelaw, Bryan High School senior: “It was a great experience. I loved the documentary they showed and it moved me so much I cried. Also, they complimented my smile and that made me feel good.”
Farhia Mohamed, Bryan High School senior: “It was amazing to see Erin Gruwell because I read the Freedom Writer’s Diary in sixth grade and they’ve been inspiring to me. I’m so happy I got to actually meet them.”
Joseph Conde, Bryan High School junior: “I could relate so much with the problem that happened to the Freedom Writers in the ‘90s because I’m still facing the same ones today. Not just in Long Beach, California but it’s still happening everywhere.”
Rogelio Rodriguez, Bryan High junior: “I really enjoyed their visit and their wise words. They have inspired me to be more than just some kid…They inspired me to be better and the best I can.”
Elias Ahilon Ortiz, Bryan High junior: “The Freedom Writers that spoke to us after the documentary gave me a special motivation to start focusing in school and in my life.”