I re-watched the movie The Freedom Writers today for my social justice movie. I had the opportunity two years ago to hear Erin Gruwell speak when she came to Richmond. I then bought the book, and watched the film. It was great to re-watch the movie and to reflect on her experience and that of the students she taught.
When I think about leadership for social change, Erin was not in a position as a principal, a superintendent, or any other “title” other than teacher. Yet she elevated that role through her ability to set aside fear. In the film, they pit her against the department chair who is far more traditional. We might say that teacher, despite her years of experience, wasn’t using leadership for change. She used what leadership she had to do what was comfortable and easy for her to do. Gruwell, on the other hand, took some chances. She faced opposition from her dad, some from her husband, and eventually, it cost her her marriage.
All the drama makes for a good movie, but in the end, how did she make it work? How did she take kids who, by in large were destined to drop out or get killed to graduate? Even seeing this a second time, there are parts of the film that make me uncomfortable. I have serious doubts I could be as courageous as Erin. Her methods not withstanding, what she was able to do was to show those kids she believed in them. She had perseverance. And thankfully, she knew enough about was she was doing to succeed.
What’s also important I think is that Erin stepped outside the bounds of what her school wanted, or what her district supported. She took a lot of personal risks, including extra jobs. What can we do to make Erin’s efforts easier for other teachers? For each of us? What needs to change at the head of the school, head of the district, the state, or national level, to make those extraordinary measures she took unnecessary? I applaud Gruwell for amplifying her work through speaking, the book, the movie, and her foundation. Even if we don’t have her talents, she sets an excellent example for us as leaders.