Erin Gruwell explains the power of storytelling to transform lives

For anyone who doubts the power of storytelling to change the world, teacher Erin Gruwell’s personal story of transforming students who were labeled stupid and apathetic into confident, motivated high school graduates will erase that doubt for good.


Gruwell will be the Olin Fellows speaker for the Assembly Series at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 3, in Anheuser-Busch Hall Moot Courtroom, Room 310. Her talk, “Becoming a Catalyst for Change,” is free and open to the public.

When Gruwell walked into class on her first day as an English teacher, she was met by a room full of angry, frustrated teenagers who were determined to hate everything about her, the school, even themselves. She didn’t know how to break through the invisible barrier that kept her students from learning. What she did know is that everyone in the school had written off these teens.

After learning about the hardships in these teens’ lives — an environment full of racism, rejection and the tragedy of seeing no hope for the future — she understood why they saw no point in reading and writing.

Gruwell also understood their need for self-expression, so her students began writing anonymous journal entries about their lives.

After seeing a film about the Freedom Riders, a group of teenagers who showed remarkable bravery during the Civil Rights Movement, the class decided to call themselves the Freedom Writers. In 1999, their entries became a best-selling book called The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them. In 2007, Hilary Swank played Gruwell in the Freedom Writers film.

Today, Gruwell runs The Freedom Writers Foundation, which she started in 1997. The foundation trains educators to use innovative techniques to change the world, one class at a time.

Gruwell earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Irvine, and a master’s degree and teaching credentials from California State University, Long Beach.

For more information on this event and other Assembly Series programs, visit or call 314-935-5297.