The Freedom Writers' Next Chapter
n 1999, The Freedom Writers Diary burst upon the reading and education scene. Since then, the book based on diary entries from English teacher Erin Gruwell and her Long Beach Woodrow Wilson High School students spawned a feature film starring Hilary Swank, a documentary and a nonprofit foundation.
“I have been working with the Freedom Writers since 1993, and we’ve subsequently started the Freedom Writers Foundation,” said Gruwell, who received her M.A. in English literature and teaching credential from CSULB and serves as a visiting professor in the College of Education. She has just published her memoirs, Teach with Your Heart.
In 2002, Gruwell founded the CSULB Freedom Writers Cohort and recruited her former students to pursue their bachelor’s degrees from the university in a variety of fields. Five years later, these individuals remain passionate and committed to the tenets of tolerance, diversity and educational excellence.
Among them is Sonia Pineda, who graduated from CSULB with a B.A. in English in 2005 and is the Freedom Writers Foundation’s director of communications. She often travels with Gruwell across the U.S. and conducts empowering workshops for children. A child of Mexican immigrants, “You realize what an impact one speech can have, you realize what an impact a book can have,” Pineda said. “To go on and see those kids take the Freedom Writers Diary and share it with their friends, I can’t even explain what that feels like.” Pineda hopes to attend law school in 2008.
“I was a kid who avoided math and economic classes,” recalled Megan Kindler, left, who earned a psychology degree in 2004. Now a manager at a Huntington Beach construction firm, she has applied for the CSULB’s Fully Employed MBA program and credits her Freedom Writer background with giving her the courage to pursue her new-found dream. “It’s basically given me a belief that I can pretty much accomplish anything I want if I put my mind to it.”
In addition to working at the Automobile Club headquarters in Costa Mesa, Tiffony Jacobs’ real passion is Hey Baby Jeans Co., a personalized retail clothing store in Long Beach that she started while in college and studying for her marketing minor. “Everything we learned in the books just incorporated perfectly into my business,” said Jacobs, who graduated in last year with a B.S. degree in occupational studies.
Like all of the Freedom Writers, Jacobs is invited to speaking engagements. “Now that the book and the movie have come out, we’re flooded with invitations,” Jacobs said. “I really like speaking to kids. I let them know if you see something you don’t like about your life, you do the exact opposite every time you get the chance and you will be the person that you can be proud to stand up and say, ‘This is who I am.’”
Gruwell added that her students’ and her involvement with CSULB are gifts. “We love talking about it and really paying homage to our roots,” she added. “You can’t find a bigger cheerleader than me.”