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Hear the ‘Freedom Writer’

Erin Gruwell signs a copy of “The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them.” (Photo courtesy of / 2
Erin Gruwell, the inspiration behind Hilary Swank’s character in “Freedom Writers,” will come to Red Wing Aug. 28 to speak to teachers and the community about her experiences in the education world. (Photo courtesy of / 2

The teacher who inspired her students at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California, to become the Freedom Writers didn’t grow up with the dream of being a teacher.

When Erin Gruwell left for college she was intent on becoming a lawyer, but two events had a profound impact on the way she saw the world.

The first, she said, were Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Gruwell said she remembers feeling fascinated by someone who put themselves in harm’s way for a bigger cause. It was then she started to think there might be greater plans for her.

The second were the Los Angeles riots. Gruwell made the decision to switch to education and she said she’s never looked back.

“Sometimes it’s too late when you’re standing in front of a judge and jury to make a difference,” she said.

Gruwell and her students published a book, “The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them,” and a movie telling their story, titled “Freedom Writers,” released in 2007.

This fall marks the 20th anniversary of Gruwell’s first day on the job in Long Beach and she now sits on the board of directors of the Freedom Writers Foundation, a non-profit organization with the goal of empowering educators and students to impact their own lives as well as the world around them in positive ways.

On Thursday Aug. 28, Gruwell will be in Red Wing to share her message to both teachers and the community.

Charley Nelson, executive director of Every Hand Joined, met Gruwell during his time as president of the Jostens Foundation.

“Erin’s story was so compelling,” Nelson said.

Nelson said Gruwell’s message of making a difference in the lives of students falls right in line with the goals of Every Hand Joined.

Demographics in Red Wing are changing, Nelson said, and he hopes her message of acceptance starts a larger conversation about how to best serve students.

Students want to be seen, Gruwell said, and they want to be heard.

She said it’s important not to minimize students’ stories and that her own story transcends just one teacher and 150 students in an urban situation.

She will give a keynote address to teachers in the morning and will give a presentation at the Sheldon Theatre at 7 p.m.

Nelson said hearing Gruwell’s presentation is a great opportunity for the community. The event at the Sheldon Theatre is free and anyone wishing to attend should email Nelson at to reserve a spot.

John R. Russett

John Russett is a regional reporter for RiverTown Multimedia, covering a variety of issues facing RiverTown communities. Previously, he worked at the Red Wing Republican Eagle, where he reported on education as well as crime and courts. 

You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnRyanRussett


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