Introduction Freedom Writers is a drama based on the book “The freedom writers’ diary” by Erin Gruwell and her students at the Woodrow Wilson Classical High School in California. The book is an agglomeration of the writings of these students, inspired by their teacher, to write about the experiences they had to undergo due to the racial tensions and violence existing in the society. The movie is an enrapturing representation of the way in which a teacher revolutionizes the process of classroom teaching to bring about integration among students divided in terms of colour and race.
The movie also emphasizes the importance of social capital and associational or inter-communal form of civic engagement for harmony and development. The plot The storyline of the movie takes place in the early 1990’s, about two years after the Los Angeles riots which occurred on grounds of racial discrimination. To promote unity and brotherhood, an integration program that puts students from varied races and backgrounds together, was started by the government at the Woodrow Wilson Classical High School. Erin Gruwell, played by Hilary Swank, was entrusted the role of teaching such a class.
It didn’t take long for her enthusiasm to vanish when she witnessed the racial tensions and hatreds existing among the students. The class was fragmented in terms of race. The young students were engaged in racially motivated antisocial activities. There was no respect for the school authority and the attendance went thin day by day. After an imbroglio perpetrated by her students, the school authority was also critical of Erin, citing this as her failure to teach her students even to be disciplined. Erin takes all these challenges head on.
She starts teaching her students about the ill effects of racial discriminations and how it can lead to horrendous consequences such as the Holocaust. She goes out of her way to teach them through some games, biographies and by arranging meetings with victims/witnesses of racial disparity. She also encouraged them to pen down their problems and dreams and to share it with each other. She projected herself as their friend who can understand their feelings. She won their trust and respect by connecting emotionally with them. Gradually she also succeeded in developing a sense of trust among the students.
But, she was so engrossed in these activities that her personal life took a back seat which eventually resulted in her husband divorcing her. The students did well in their studies. With the support from her students, Erin was able to convince the school authority to allow her to stay with her students for their junior and senior classes as well. She compiled the writings of her students and named it “The freedom writers’ diary”. A Directorial beauty Director, Richard LaGravenese, has very well portrayed the decay of American fabric.
The drive by shootings, the gang violence, and the segregation of society on communal and racial lines depict the erosion of social capital. Even schools are not free of such evils. The racial disparity was very well brought out in several scenes in the movie. In one of the scenes, the teacher asks an African-American student to tell him about the “Black perspective” on some topic. The director has done a wonderful job to illustrate the innovative teaching style adopted by Erin Gruwell. One of the powerful ways which Erin uses to convey her message to the students was the Line game.
She drew a line in the classroom and asked her students to come and stand on the line if they had lost one or more of their friends to gang violence. And most of the students actually did. As they stood on the line they realised that it’s not only their race which is suffering, it’s not only they who are in pain. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. This message was very effectively conveyed even without Erin explicitly saying this. The “Toast for change” event was another initiative by Erin to instil a sense of confidence and trust among the students.
She asked her students to make a toast that from this moment on, every voice that told them that they can’t- is silenced; every reason that tells that things will never change disappears and now it’s their turn to live life the way they want. In a classroom full of people from different race and backgrounds, where hatred reigned and a sense of insecurity dominated, prevailed now a sense of trust. This metamorphosis brought about by Erin was best summarised through the touching words of one of her students, “All my fears disappear when I enter this classroom.
I am Home”. An important scene in the movie was the trip to the Simon Wiesenthal Center – Museum of Tolerance. There the students learned about the Holocaust. They were each given a picture of a child who was a victim of this dreadful event. The stories of these unfortunate children and the videos of the sufferings people had to undergo aroused their sentiments. The students also got a chance to interact with some survivors of the Holocaust. They realised that all the discrimination, the hatred, the pain is not worth it.
The trip left a lasting impression on the minds of the students and helped them reform themselves. Key ideas and theories One of the key ideas presented early on in the movie was regarding the important role of government in building the social infrastructure and bring about equity in society. The integration program in the school, which brought students from varied races under one roof, was indeed a commendable step towards this goal. It was evident in the movie that this policy was not successful in meeting its intended goals.
The reason was related to what Economist Glenn Loury has proposed – the attempt to bring about racial equality by providing equal opportunities will fail if racial segregation and differences in community networks and norms are deep rooted in the social fabric. This social fabric can be repaired and rebuilt gradually with time by providing opportunities for civic engagement. Erin Gruwell used her role effectively to provide such opportunities. She facilitated coordination and communication among the students and thus built a sense of trust and security.
Another compelling idea put forth in the movie was the role of schools in society. The practices existing in the Woodrow Wilson Classical High School promoted racial disparity. The different treatment meted out to the students on grounds of their race enhanced their social stigma. Schools and colleges should act as institutions for social reform rather than just means to transfer bookish knowledge. Their performance must not to be just based on their ratings or number of high scoring students, but also by the amount of positive change they bring about in the society.
Social capital based on primordial identities can be source of major conflicts. Although they facilitate economic exchange and provide support in times of crisis, they consolidate existing vices. In such a social capital, group identity is central and above individual identity. The group goals take precedence over individual interests. In the movie, Eva, one of the students, witnessed a person of his race killing a person of some other race. She was asked by people of her race, not to testify against that person because he belonged o their race. The interests of her race were given precedence over her personal interest. The movie convincingly sends across the central message that social capital based on secular identities or Inter-communal form of social networks that cross class and racial lines can be very effective in creating an atmosphere of trust and social engagement. Impact on Society Erin Gruwells works and her motto, “The real fighting should happen here in the classroom”, have had a positive impact on the society.
Several schools have been influenced by Gruwell’s teaching methods. The Booker T. Washington High school in Georgia, the Dunbar Middle school in Texas and the De La Salle Education Centre in Missouri have adopted her methods. Also, some groups such as Students of Unlimited Leadership (SOUL) Program in Chicago and the Waller Scholars in Georgia have been established on similar lines. The Freedom Writers’ Foundation, a non-profit organization was established to help underprivileged students to pick up pens instead of guns.
The innovative methods of teaching by Erin Gruwell are used to reform and develop such students and have made a deep positive impact on the society. The writings and the movie has been successful in promoting and creating an atmosphere of harmony and civic engagement. It has encouraged the formation of inter-communal interest groups and has helped in revitalising the social fabric. My takeaways In addition to the above mentioned philosophies and theories, there were several ideas that really touched me. The commitment that Ms.
Gruwell showed even though she encountered a lot of oppositions at all fronts was really motivating. She sacrificed a lot, suffered a lot but she didn’t lose her confidence and focus to do something good, to add a meaning and purpose to her existence. After we die, people will remember us if we have done something good, if we have brought about a positive change in their lives, if we have in whatever small way made a lasting impression in their minds. Every individual is capable of doing this. “Even an ordinary person can within his/her small way turn on a small light in a dark room”.