My WomanTheory story: Lisa Whittaker on Erin Gruwell

gruwellI’m not really a fan of ‘heros’ but if I had to name someone I look up to in the public eye I would probably say Erin Gruwell. Why? Because she reaffirmed a belief I had as a young women and youth worker that with the right support and opportunities young people can achieve their hopes and dreams. Erin Gruwell is an American teacher known for her unique teaching method, which led to the publication of The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them (1999). The 2007 film Freedom Writers is based on her inspirational story.

Erin Gruwell began teaching in 1994 at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California. She was assigned low-performing students in the school. One student, a boy she referred to as “Sharaud,” seemed determined to make her life miserable. He had transferred to Wilson from a rival high school where he had allegedly threatened his teacher with a gun. However, a few months into the school year one of her other students passed a note depicting Sharaud (an African American) with extremely large lips. Gruwell told the class that that was the type of caricature that the Nazis had used during the Holocaust. When only one of the students knew what the Holocaust was, Gruwell changed the theme of her curriculum to tolerance. Gruwell took the students to see Schindler’s List, bought new books out of her own pocket and invited guest speakers.

dvdGruwell persevered and reached her students by asking them to keep journals and make movies of their lives, and by relating the family feud in Romeo and Juliet to a gang war. She also had the students read books written by and about other teenagers in times of war, such as The Diary of a Young Girl, Zlata’s Diary and Night. Writing journals became a solace for many of the students, and because the journals were shared anonymously, teenagers who once refused to speak to someone of a different race became like a family. The students went on to surprise everyone. All 150 Freedom Writers graduated from high school and many went on to attend college. After watching the Freedom Writers film, I read the book which made me reflect on my own experiences at school and the experiences of the young people I was working with at the time. I always enjoyed school and having a good memory helped when it came to studying and exams. But I was lucky to have a stable home life so attending school was never really an issue and I was rewarded for good grades. However, many of the young people I knew were dealing with so much turbulence, chaos and disadvantage outside of school that school became less of a priority.

FreedomdiarybookcoverI used to mistakenly believe that school gave young people a common denominator and platform to start with. As I know now, experiences outside the school gates vary widely and have a huge impact on young people’s lives and the way they are shaped. Erin tried to understand the young people in her class and their lives outside of school. She took on extra jobs to pay for books that the school refused to provide, assuming the young people would destroy them. Erin wanted her pupils to know they were valued.  She also made her lessons relevant and tried to give the young people something to connect to, not only the subject and texts but each other. Erin taught me that regardless of my role as a youth worker or researcher the important qualities when working with everyone, but especially young people, are respect, understanding and non-judgement.

Negative stereotypes about young people can be so damaging. Erin’s class were written off, she was expected to babysit them until the inevitable happened – they dropped out, or were shot dead. Although less extreme negative stereotypes are still dominant in the UK today, it is often easier to blame young people for their vulnerable, precarious positions than try to change the structures of society and create opportunities for them to realise their aspirations.

Erin’s story always reminds me of the strength and determination of one woman who, at times against fierce opposition, fought for the young people she believed in so strongly. I only hope, as a youth worker and also as a researcher, I treat young people in a similar way.

 By Lisa Whittaker, academic researcher and Community Engagement Manager at Columba 1400, Edinburgh 

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