The Freedom Writers Foundation emphasizes overcoming adversity – whether it be social, economic and interpersonal – through education and the promotion of an inclusive pedagogy. The foundation began with Erin Gruwell, an English teacher with a steadfast commitment to equality in education. Gruwell spent four years teaching a group of underserved students at Wilson High school, an experience documented in the 2007 movie Freedom Writers. Throughout her career, she has worked to be an agent of change through writing and teaching, and has continuously challenged the education system to fight for racial equality and justice. In order to recreate and expand the success of her pedagogy, Gruwell and her students established the foundation to promote a student-centered educational philosophy. They have appeared on numerous television shows, including Oprah, Prime Time Live with Connie Chung, Barbara Walters’ The View, and Good Morning America. Two out of the 150 original Freedom Writers students, Tony Becerra and Sue Ellen Alpizar, sat down for a conversation with Pearl Magazine’s reporter Khin Oo Thazin to tell their stories.
Freedom Writer Tony Becerra’s life began anew during his Wilson High School years—when he took ownership of his own future and saw something in himself that he didn’t know existed. Having grown up in a two-bedroom house with 11 family members, it was difficult to look around and see anything positive. “My parents worked hard but yet for the longest time in my childhood, I still found myself in this type of soul-draining environment. I didn’t make the connection early on that school could lead to a good life,” he said. Becerra fell into harmful stages of his adolescence and suffered from depressive episodes. “One of the things is that you have to trick yourself into doing little activities and doing simple things like saying ‘alive at midnight.’” Becerra also learned that having really good people in one’s corner and letting go of toxicity can do incredible things. He added, “When you surround yourself with good people, it changes the way we look at each other.” Things started to shift notably when Becerra began connecting with Gruwell and he found a role model in her.
When Sue Ellen Alpizar walked into classroom 203 for Gruwell’s English class, she had no idea that her life would completely change as one of Gruwell’s Freedom Writers. Back in those days, a dysfunctional family upbringing where violence prevailed at home meant that Alpizar could not see any light in her future. “I usually came home and faced violent outbursts from my dad and my domestic environment was just toxic and unhealthy, especially for a kid to grow up in,” Sue said. “My father was an abusive alcoholic who would beat me and make my life pretty much miserable. My parents then finally divorced.” Days like these wrapped Sue’s life in a constant state of fear. “There was a time when child protection services came to our house when things got out of hand… sometimes, I go to church to get free food, survive in any way possible. I was homeless for a while, became suicidal, depressed and unable to do well in school.”
Some of the teachers at Wilson High exacerbated the situation by calling Alpizar, Becerra and their fellow classmates lazy, stupid and undeserving of a quality education. As explained in the film Freedom Writers, several faculty members even barred the students from gaining access to quality textbooks, school supplies and necessary resources for their curriculum – all of which were automatically handed to scholar students. Alpizar and Becerra felt that they were already written off by the education system before they could even begin to change. Naturally, lack of confidence and self-esteem were the least of their concerns.
With personal hardships concerning familial relations and domestic environment, both Tony and Sue had trouble adjusting at first to the demands of both school and domestic pressures. But once they met Gruwell in classroom 203, they knew that she was someone they could trust. “Ms. G was the first person to say that we are amazing, perfect and the weirdest thing is that we believed her,” Becerra said. On a similar note, Alpizar said, “Erin was the first person who believed in me and told me that I could go to college.”
Gruwell used multimodal methods of teaching using pop culture, engaging her students on a personal and intimate level through journal entries and assigning fresh, new literature books using her own budget. Though it was hard at first to break through the invisible barriers among her students, Gruwell understood her students’ need for self-expression. From distributing books about the Holocaust to organizing events with World War II survivors, Gruwell and her students began to feel like a superpower family all revved up to change the world. “We started working really hard, getting guest-speakers and speaking to Holocaust survivors. After doing those kinds of stuff, going to college and getting a job wasn’t a pipe dream anymore,” Becerra said. As for Alpizar, writing in journals and confiding in Erin helped her transform remarkably. “She changed my life but more than anything, she helped me to empower myself in changing my life,” Alpizar said. Ultimately, Alpizar and Becerra both found an agency in themselves to take charge of their own lives and change for the better.
Much has changed since graduating from high school for Alpizar and Becerra – both attended colleges and moved on to working more closely with the Freedom Writers Foundation. “Been doing a little bit of everything since then. From film-making, travelling around the world, speaking all over the country to 50,000 kids in the years I’ve been working with the foundation, and telling our story,” Becerra said.
In his career, Becerra implemented most of what he learned from Gruwell, especially when working with kids. Knowing how children respond to games, he does everything he can to engage with them in a playful, open and meaningful manner. “Getting kids to move around and talk about themselves. I try to do that. I have to remember that these underserved kids do not have role models or get the same attention other kids get. Parents need to just sit down and have a conversation with them.” Relating back to how Gruwell found ways to give her students a voice and space, he asserted that to really make an impact on children, adults have to first understand who those children are. He added, “With Erin, it felt like she really cared about us. She would remember even the little things, because when you talk to her, she actually listens. Likewise, kids will remember the little things that adults would do for them.”
Alpizar also felt that the lessons Gruwell imparted on them proved to be a lifelong mantra. After graduation, Alpizar started to work closely with the Freedom Writers. “I graduated high school, had a new beginning. I went to college, worked full-time when I could and throughout the whole trajectory of post-high school life, she has been guiding us along.” A remarkable transformation ensued when she realized that she had the agency and self-worth to bring herself to where she wanted to be in her life.
Both Alpizar and Becerra shared their insights and perspectives on the future of educational institutions and the system that requires urgent change. According to them, challenges of the existing education system consist of dismantling the inherent structural inequalities that have been far too long perpetuated and disregarded. But before even tackling the system, one needs to take a step back and see what changes can be made on an individual basis. That’s where the Freedom Writers’ mantra comes in – to be change agents through education and advocacy. Becerra said, “Teachers just have to genuinely care about the kids, and that’s a start. It’s not about hitting the numbers; it’s about teaching kids to be critical thinkers.” His mission to connect with young people, especially underserved youths, and cultivating empathy through storytelling, has brought him to where he is now. “Students are becoming their grades, they are not having the opportunities to be heard or know that they matter. Kids need building blocks. We all carry our own baggage so we need to address those issues first,” Alpizar said, continuing: “Teachers need to be a light in a dark room. Do the simple things. You don’t have to do extraordinary things to make an extraordinary impact.” Ending the conversation with a sobering recognition of how much work needs to be done for inclusive pedagogy, both Freedom Writers acknowledged how important it was to be in the room where it happened – where classroom 203 thrived.