Erin Gruwell. Photo courtesy of the Freedom Writers Foundation. 
3:15pm | Even Hilary Swank couldn’t imitate Erin Gruwell’s exuberance and sheer aura of captivation. And Erin fought for Ms. Swank — vehemently. She met Reese Witherspoon. Greeted Gwenyth Paltrow. But, much to the chagrin of movie executives, insisted on Swank. And while the choice of Swank was rather spot-on, it still doesn’t match Erin herself. 

Perhaps it is her saturation and love for this place, the Long Beach-ness which is Erin that is so difficult to fully replicate, much like the fact that this city isn’t quite Los Angeles and isn’t quite Orange County.

She refuses to go with the sentiment that Long Beach is always up and coming but never ups and never comes. “Really?” she asks incredulously. “The Freedom Writers, we travel all over the world and whenever we come back, it’s home — in all senses of the term. Everywhere else, outside of New York  City, is divisive. There’s this side of the tracks and that side of the tracks. Long Beach is this microcosm of all races and ethnicities and identities. I love Long Beach.”

This upcoming Monday, a screening of her documentary, Stories from an Undeclared War, will screen at the Carpenter Center. It will provide you a glimpse of her doing what she does best while also reminding Long Beach of the magnitude of her work for not only our city, but for the educational model in our country at large. 

Her story, made famous by her book “The Freedom Writers Diary” and the film in which Swank portrayed her, Freedom Writers, is simple. She started at Wilson High and, following her higher education stint at University of California, Irvine, came back to Long Beach to teach herself. 

Long Beach was in tension and plight simultaneously: a rise in gang violence, the Navy removed, Rodney King, and the riots which invaded the streets in our city. Erin was not, by any means, in the Long Beach that exists now. Working with marginalized kids, then-Superintendent Dr. Carl Cohn was attempting to assimilate predominantly black schools with more affluent white students in the Poly High area — a social experiment which Erin described as “the point where we’re gonna take rich, white kids from Virginia Country Club and Belmont Shore, put ’em in Poly, and make it this prestigious PACE Magnet institution where everyone is integrated, where privilege is more spread.”

The problem was that the school remained horrifically segregated, with whites grouped together, attending separate classes, and even having a separate bell system, dividing the class periods between the haves and have-nots. Erin was unaware of this, presuming that — as was stated on paper at least — that Long Beach was this microcosm of diversity and integration.

Upon arrival at Wilson to teach, she realized how horrible this so-called integration program worked. Racism was rampant, with a “Distinguished Scholars” program that heavily dichotomized white and black students to, in the words of Erin, “appease the parents choosing not to send their kids to Poly.” 

One hateful depiction of a fellow student passed around her class altered her perception and approach to teaching, leading to the creation of her book — and Erin began to change things directly herself. The concept of home — what it is to have a place where one can return to — was something she realized was deeply missing amongst many of her unprivileged students. Many were from single-parent homes, many often jumped from roof to roof. So her classroom became their new home, where she encouraged them to take and post Polaroids, film each other (clips of which are included in the documentary), and hang posters to make the classroom their own.

Before her now-altered students were about to graduate, Prime Time Live with Connie Chung was interested in doing a story on Erin, with one particular woman, Tracey Durning, filming them for six months to propose a television documentary.


The book’s success eventually lead her to become a distinguished faculty member at Long Beach State and Erin began her speaking circuit, presenting the ideas and concepts of her pedagogical approach. Her particularly favorite encounter at one these presentations happened in 2001 in Fresno, where an older gentleman sitting in the front row — a conservative farmer and teacher at that — holding her book. “Every page,” she said, her eyes aglow with respect, “was highlighted.”

The pleasure and humbleness that Erin receives from such things make her even more captivating — this man, who was using her book to take a chance in changing the way he taught, became the key approach to where she wanted to take the Freedom Writers, focusing on helping teachers integrate her pedagogical philosophy. 

Soon, groups of teachers were taken — from New Jersey, from Canada, from all over — and were brought together to create a teaching guide. Even better, Erin was able to take two documentarians — “‘I can’t pay you,’ I told them, ‘but I got your airplane ticket” — on a trip with all her writers to visit everywhere from Auschwitz to Sarajevo and then combine it with Tracey’s stock footage — a win-win situation.

Upon arrival back from Europe, a group of heavyweight filmmakers were creating a little movie called “Erin Brockovich,” and following their viewing of the ABC special, were highly interested in Gruwell’s story. They could perfectly tie in the teaching guide, the documentary, and the film into one cohesive Freedom Writers package.

As they started getting closer to the filming of the feature, their was suddenly a backlash against the idea of the documentary simultaneously being released with the feature. Dogtown and Z-Boys, a documentary that was released just before the feature film Dogtown was the key to the backlash: the documentary gained word that it was better than the feature, leading Dogtown to be a box office failure. The producers immediately contacted Gruwell’s team.

Contractually enforcing a three-year hold on the documentary eventually became a strange blessing in disguise, for it altered the story to show what has happened since the more famous aspects of Erin’s adventure have passed. 

The efforts in her adventure are finally coming to fruition, with first draft cut of Stories from an Undeclared War being shown at the Carpenter Center this upcoming Monday, March 12, at 7:00pm. The event is free to the public and will include a Q&A with Erin following the screening. To RSVP, email [email protected]

CORRECTION: Article originally stated “then-Superintendent Paul Cohen;” Dr. Carl Cohn was the Superintendent at the time. “Distinguished Scholars” was the program, not “Distinguished Honors” as originally stated.