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2023 NBOA Annual Meeting: Seeing the Unseen: Erin Gruwell

NBOA Breakfast speaker Erin Gruwell shares what she sees changing in classrooms today and how school operations are vital to programmatic goals.

Dec 22, 2022  |  By Cecily Garber, NBOA

From the January/February 2023 Net Assets Magazine.

Erin Gruwell headshot and book covers

Erin Gruwell taught underserved high school students in Long Beach, California, in the mid-1990s, wanting to make a difference in the wake of the Los Angeles riots that followed the Rodney King verdict. To help her students connect with what they were learning and feel grounded in their school, she guided each of them to write diary entries about their personal struggles. In 1999, Gruwell and her students published some of these entries in the book “The Freedom Writers Diary,” which was made into a movie, “Freedom Writers” (2007), and a PBS documentary, “Freedom Writers: Stories from the Heart” (2019). Today she leads the Freedom Writers Foundation, which trains teachers to engage and empower all students to achieve excellence. Her other books include “Teaching Hope,” “Teach with Your Heart,” and the latest, “Dear Freedom Writer: Stories of Hardship and Hope from the Next Generation.”

Net Assets: You’ve been going into classrooms for decades to help students and teachers work through problems and achieve greater connections to their schools and academic commitments. Does anything surprise you in terms what’s new among these issues, or what problems seem entrenched and don’t disappear?

Erin Gruwell: That's a difficult question and also very liberating. I was just in Rochester, New York. And one of the students at East High in Rochester stood up and said, “This is the most segregated school district in America.” Wow. And I looked around his classroom and it was entirely African-American and Latino. When “The Freedom Writers Diary” first came out all those years ago, we had this beautiful opportunity to travel all over the country. And we're really proud of how collectively the Freedom Writers and myself have gone to all 50 states, but very little has changed in some places. To still see segregation in our country in 2022 makes me really sad. That's a phenomenon that some communities have and others don’t. I wish we were more progressive and in a different place today.

What I'm excited about is that there are courageous conversations being had about racial reckonings, about anti-Semitism, about the LGBTQIA+ community, and also about mental health struggles. So I think that kids are more open to having those conversations that weren't part of the dialogue when I was a student or even began teaching. Those things were kind of closeted and often happened behind closed doors. So that part of the conversation is really exciting for me. I just wish the fabric of the schools in which really talented teachers taught had more integration, had more inclusivity, and really could be a model of acceptance.

Net Assets: Folks in the business office work on finance, operations, HR, tech, facilities. They're not teachers. But is there a way that you see these kinds of school staff and leaders impacting areas like mental health not only for students but also faculty and staff?

Gruwell: I think what all educators had to come to terms with during the pandemic is that standing in front of your classroom in person was no longer an option. And so for myself and so many educators, the idea of being in a small box on a screen with technology — that terrified me, that was something that I realized I need help with. Thank goodness for people in school tech, working with kids and teachers on Chromebooks and Wi-Fi issues and the adapting to whatever provider the school used, whether it was Zoom or Google Meet or something else. That learning curve happened really quickly.

What we also realized is that when kids have the opportunity to keep their screen off and to mute and to be invisible, they can go down a rabbit hole. And with that come the feelings of isolation and depression and anxiety and suicide ideation at an all-time high. In our new book, “Dear Freedom Writer,” we wanted to address all of those issues. We just didn't realize how personal it would become for us, because one of our student authors who wrote about her mental health struggles, Diary 39 to be exact, her letter was called “Perpetual Patient” — she recently took her life. It has gutted the Freedom Writer community, myself and the original Freedom Writers who were the respondents to the letters we received, and the teachers we work with.

The loss of Lexi — that's her name — it affected everybody. In schools, loss affects everybody. Whether you are a technician, whether you're signing a check, whether you're keeping the lights on in a building, we want our kids to come to school to be a better version of themselves. 

So we realized there's this urgency of now. How do we see the signs that we didn't see? How do we have courageous conversations that we didn't have? How do we allow every kid who's in a dark place to find a safe space, even if that safe space is in a box on a screen with a Chromebook and spotty Wi-Fi? We've really pivoted this year, and that's become one of our major issues to talk about.

The loss of Lexi — that's her name — it affected everybody. In schools, loss affects everybody. Whether you are a technician, whether you're signing a check, whether you're keeping the lights on in a building, we want our kids to come to school to be a better version of themselves. And when there are natural disasters or a virus and everything is out of our control, how do we still keep our kids safe? How do we still keep them engaged? How do we keep having difficult dialogues that need to be happening in 2023? I'm really excited to address your brethren because it's still raw and it's still fresh and, and I'm still hurting from it, and I think everyone in schools has a role to play.

Net Assets: So are there things you think staff can do in terms of managing space, working through HR, providing more technological bandwidth, for example?

Gruwell: It's even simpler. It's relationships, it's connections. It’s being present and leaning in. I know that sounds so simplistic, but it's anything but. Kids desperately want to be seen. They want to be heard; they need the structure. Kids need to be held accountable and they want us to see them and hold them accountable for being present.

Now that the world is opening up again, people want to hug you, they want you in person. When the Freedom Writers present, we give folks options. We can either do a Zoom or we can meet you in person. And, and I would say nine times out of 10, people want to see you in person. I think we're making up for some lost time. And I think that goes for people who are not physically in a classroom as well. So they may not be reciting the lesson, but they're making this school safer.

The other day I was at a school, and we had to do the bad guy drill. That's hard. We had to all huddle in this little corner of a classroom. And that brought up so much anxiety for the kids. It brought up anxiety for the teacher and for me. Whenever you do these bad guy drills, it's really traumatic. I just read this weekend, after the shooting in Colorado Springs, that there have been over 600 mass shootings in 2022 alone, which equates to almost two a day. So I think that for everybody, that's not just the teacher, that becomes all of our responsibility. How do we keep kids safe? How do we make them feel safe?

In Freedom Writer vernacular, we always say that that family is what we choose, and family is what we make, and our classrooms can become our home. And I think in that spirit of home, all of us are part of making it a healthy home, making it a home where kids can be whole and they can heal and ultimately be happy.

What I learned really early on with the Freedom Writers was that it’s very egalitarian. So even though I'm the teacher and you're the student, we're all in this together. And I think that we need to have that same kind of egalitarian approach in our school systems, that we're all in this together. Whether you are a cafeteria worker, a bus driver, a techie, a teacher or an administrator, you we are all there to improve the lives of the children that we humbly serve. And so we have to think of it as all of our responsibility. In Freedom Writer vernacular, we always say that that family is what we choose, and family is what we make, and our classrooms can become our home. And I think in that spirit of home, all of us are part of making it a healthy home, making it a home where kids can be whole and they can heal and ultimately be happy.

Net Assets: So we're talking about some pretty dark stuff, which is also reality. But your book has hope in the subtitle — “stories of hardship and hope from the next generation” — so how can we be hopeful and find hope?

Gruwell: I'm glad you said that because hope does spring eternal. Sometimes people are afraid that if you talk about some of these dark subjects, if you talk about depression, anxiety and suicide ideation, that it will give people ideas. I'm of the school of thought that we have to have those courageous conversations and rip the Band-Aid off. By having those conversations, we can move to a place of healing. We can move to a place of being hopeful. And I think that really is the bedrock of everything that we do. There's this idea that hope does bring eternal, but we can't be naive, and we can't ignore.

In speaking up, we also speak out. And so I think that in that darkness there is light and in a dark tunnel, there is something at the end of that tunnel that is very liberating and very exciting. And so we just don't shy away from those difficult subjects.

The irony is that some of the worst examples of inhumanity force us to be humane. For example, I brought in Holocaust survivors and genocide survivors to the classroom. The young woman who wrote the forward to our first book survived the genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and these amazing Holocaust survivors became our de facto grandparents. And they're the most joyous people on the planet because they flipped the script and said, I don't want to be referred to as a victim; I'm a survivor.

But if we don't learn from history, we are doomed to repeat history. And so that was really my calling card, that we have to learn from the racial reckoning with the Rodney King verdict. We have to learn from the homicides that happened in your community to the number of 126 in a singular year. We have to learn about systematic and systemic racism, but we can also be those that practice inclusivity. We can practice writing a different chapter or different ending to our own story.

In speaking up, we also speak out. And so I think that in that darkness there is light and in a dark tunnel, there is something at the end of that tunnel that is very liberating and very exciting. And so we just don't shy away from those difficult subjects.

I was encouraged of late when after Ye, Kanye West, went on his anti-Semitic diatribe — it wasn't immediate, but there was the ripple effect to say, This is wrong. It took days and a lot of behind the scenes banter but finally people came out and said, We have to do something about this. This can't just be out in the world. So that is hopeful to me, that when people do something wrong, that people bristle and, and people are saying, Not in our town, not in our airwaves, not in our purchases. And so I think that's actually progress.

Net Assets: And so the point is that everyone has a role to play in these conversations and finding hope, is that right?

Gruwell: Yes. When I visit schools, I love to thank the bus driver, the custodian, the people working in the cafeteria. I like to thank everybody who has a behind the scenes role, which are sometimes the most important. I hope that there's a lot of grace and dignity and respect bestowed on your members.

Often times they don't have the long holidays that teachers get around the holidays because they're still working on paychecks and lighting. When kids are not in school, they're fixing things. I don't know if teachers and students realize everything that happens during the summer. I do because I spend a lot of time in schools during the summer doing workshops and commencement speeches. I see everybody working really hard before the kids even sitting at a desk. So I've noticed how important it is, and I want to salute all those that you serve.

It's a calling to work in the educational sphere. We are overworked and we're underpaid. And that is a national phenomenon, state by state. But there is definitely a grace and a humility with people who respond to that calling. I hope that people that are drawn to our profession, the educational profession, because it is a calling. I would love to get that respect and my admiration across because I think it's really important.


Author

Cecily Garber

Cecily Garber, Ph.D.

Associate Vice President, Communications and Member Relations

National Business Officers Association (NBOA)

Alexandria, VA

Cecily Garber is the editor of NBOA's Net Assets magazine, and directs NBOA's publication efforts, which includes books, reports and industry guidance. She also oversees the communications and member relations team, which is responsible for all membership, marketing and communications efforts. 

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